Honky Tonk Time Machine
George Strait’s 30th studio album is appropriately titled, as its fiddle and steel saturation does sadly feel like something from a long gone time and place.
It’s to his credit as an artist that Strait has remained so consistent in his determination to remain feet planted in traditional country, regardless of the trends going on around him. It’s also to his credit that he’s done so without stagnating creatively, pushing himself into singer-songwriter territory in the late stages of his career. Perhaps this is because he’s restless, or perhaps it is because the kind of songs he likes to sing just aren’t being written anymore.
Regardless, Strait is on his strongest footing when exploring love found and lost, as well as when wrestling with his legacy and even his own mortality. “Some Nights” is an awesomely bitter breakup tune (“Some days are mothers, I’m not even gonna lie…and don’t get me started on some nights.”) “Two More Wishes” has that kookiness that co-writer Jim Lauderdale is a master at, using wry humor to liven up what could’ve been a saccharine declaration of love. As could be expected, the album also shines when Strait plants his flag as a loud and proud country music singer and aficionado, most especially on the winning title track.
The album reaches its emotional peak with his Johnny Paycheck cover “Old Violin,” as Strait compares himself to an instrument that has made music for many years, but is about to be put on a shelf and never played again. It’s a stunning, vulnerable track that has all the wisdom that made “Troubadour” a highlight, but with added layers of melancholy as Strait realizes that even his historic longevity will soon come to an end.
Strait is so effective with the previously discussed subject matter that it’s disappointing that he continues to attempt themes that are frustratingly shallow and one note in his hands. His attempts at both spiritual and social commentary ring hollow, as they lack the tension necessary for such matters to be compelling on record. “What Comes Up” joins “The Breath You Take” in the Strait catalog of nominally religious songs that are glorified internet memes. And the absolute low point is “The Weight of the Badge,” which fails at its attempt to restore glory on the beleaguered police office profession because it portrays one as a faceless saint that only exists to serve and protect others, without any independent thoughts and fears of his own.
Those missteps aside, Strait’s latest album is a welcome return of both an artist and a sound that strengthen country music with their presence. We don’t know how many albums more that we will get from this “Old Violin,” so let’s enjoy them while we still can.