December 3, 2008
A paragon of consistency, George Strait debuted in 1981, just as the Urban Cowboy fad was fading. But Strait, a true-to-life Texas buckaroo, is no fad, and judging by his newest album, Troubadour, he’s surely not fading. Strait has rarely left the comforts of traditional stylings, and his blend of honky-tonk uptempos and lovestruck lullabies has become a time-honored tradition that continues to thrive despite mainstream trends. As Strait eases through his 50s, he’s found new creases in his voice and gleans new meaning within each lyric. Troubadour manages to balance self-reflection with a sense of humor to form a worthy addition to his estimable catalog.
Now more than ever, Strait wrestles with the idea of mortality, both his own and the future prospects of the traditional music in which he trades. He duets with traditionalist Patty Loveless on “House of Cash,” a moving ode that, in vivid detail, describes the blaze that leveled the Cash home just last year. It’s a loving memoir to the famous estate, but also acknowledges the end of a brilliant chapter in country history. Vince Gill provides harmony vocal on the title track, as Strait sings about his youth with nostalgia, while recognizing that his stubborn nature will remain until his dying day. And “Give Me More Time” describes the demise of a farmer’s fortunes, a romantic relationship and a young man’s health in three minutes of hillbilly misery.
But Troubadour counters its more serious impulses with songs of uplift. Buoyed by the steel solo of virtuoso Paul Franklin, the album’s lead single, “I Saw God Today,” finds a grateful man welcoming a daughter into the world and acknowledges his spiritual revival. Strait’s need for a boot-scootin’ good time is also alive and well. Strait has always excelled in Western-style settings, from “Amarillo by Morning” to “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” and he draws water from that deep well again on Troubadour. He exhibits his cool swagger on “Make Her Fall In Love With Me Song,” a honky tonk shuffle that leads nicely into the neat swing of “West Texas Town,” his duet with Dean Dillon.
But instead of forging on in this direction, Strait strays from his bread-and-butter template, and the results are underwhelming. “River of Love” is an awkward sojourn into the Caribbean rhythms that are now a Music Row staple, and the silly concept of the song conspires to make it a throwaway ditty. The complacent “Brothers of the Highway” rehashes old road-warrior anthems, and “When You’re In Love” is another of the interchangeable romantic ballads that have dotted his career.
The best song on Troubadour is a flesh-and-blood profession of romance gone awry. “House With No Doors,” penned by Kacey Coppola, Kate Coppola, and Jamey Johnson, explores, and eventually denies, the possibility that a man can build an enclosed castle to keep a woman from going astray. The sound of its lonesome fiddle, when matched with Strait’s laconic drawl, is a bittersweet siren. Strait sings with assurance as he warns a stranger that a restless heart can’t be taught or tamed, and it’s this conversational style, calm, comforting and sympathetic, that elevates Strait into a class of his own.
The album closes with “If Heartaches Were Horses,” where Strait imagines a time when he’ll “ride home at sunset, sitting tall in the saddle.” It comes as welcome relief to traditionalists that the time isn’t now. Strait’s unhurried sense of purpose builds interest with every drop of his Texas twang, and with Troubadour, Strait maintains his status as a country music immortal.