As the nineties began, George Strait was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, a title noted on the belt buckle he wore on the cover of Livin’ it Up.
Around this time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio stations in real time, revealing just how often songs were really being played. So while all of his eighties #1 singles spent only a week at the top, all four of the #1 singles listed here spent multiple weeks in the penthouse, including two five-week runs at the top.
One of Strait’s most enduring hits, “Love Without End, Amen” foreshadowed the understated religiousness of future hits like “I Saw God Today.” A classic three act story song, it makes its point subtly and endearingly.
A minor hit for Cal Smith in 1968, Strait continues his tradition of reviving the country songs that inspired his style. It’s easy to see how this flew over the heads of many listeners when Smith first released it, but Strait’s smooth delivery helped get it some wider exposure 22 years later.
Nervy, nervous and a little unnerving, there’s a tension present here that is a bit jarring from the genre’s Sinatra. Sometimes bitter is just better, making this one of Strait’s most compelling singles to date.
Ever imagine what K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” would’ve sounded like if it had the same theme with a traditional song structure? Here’s your answer. It still sounds great today, though a bit more punch in the production would’ve helped a bit.
Western swing and wily wit, Strait shines on this comedic number. He plays it just straight enough to keep it on the right side of the line between good humor and silliness, never losing the self-awareness necessary to make it work.
As exciting as the prospect of George Strait singing a Gretchen Peters song might seem, she was definitely still honing her craft on this single that was co-written by Green Daniel. The concept is solid, and the imagery is vivid, but the parallels between the changing of the seasons and the impending changing of lovers aren’t drawn sharply enough.
Strait previewed his eighth studio album, If You Ain't Lovin' You Ain't Livin', with a cover of a minor hit by Dean Dillon from 1983.
It's a solid song, but Strait's performance is oddly distant, and he sings it in a register that's slightly too low. He may have hemmed to closely to Dean's original recording, which is ultimately more successful as a record than Strait's chart-topping version.
More than thirty years into his legendary career, George Strait has released the most compelling single of his career with “Drinkin' Man.”
An alcoholic examines his past and present with clear eyes, looking into the mirror while still holding on to the bottle. With sad resignation, he remembers the parents who worried about him, the friends that tried to save him, and the woman who loved him in spite of his affliction.
Strait isn't known for dealing with such challenging subject matter, but his experience as a singer and remarkable growth as a songwriter have resulted in the genre's best drinking song in recent memory. It's something that Merle Haggard or George Jones would have produced at their peak.
I don't know if radio can handle something this substantive from an artist that they tend to love most when he's frivolous these days. But whether or not it receives wide airplay, this is the finest single that George Strait has ever released.
Written by Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait, and George Strait
Subtly clever, yet deceptively simple, with a strong undercurrent of heartache. In other words… classic Strait.
In an excellent lyric co-written by Dean Dillon, Royce Porter, and Hank “I Fall to Pieces” Cochran, the narrator tells his soon-to-be-ex-lover that he won’t miss her when she’s gone, won’t ever take her back, and won’t be haunted by her memory. He then reveals the sheer untruth of his claims by saying “Now if you’ll buy that… I got some ocean front property in Arizona…. If you’ll buy that I’ll throw the Golden Gate in for free.” He thus likens the impossibility of his moving on to that of obtaining ocean front property in a landlocked state.
Strait’s vocal interpretation is just straightforward enough to keep the song’s left-of-center metaphor from coming across as campy, keeping the undertone of sadness fully intact A simple steel-laden arrangement has helped the song age with dignity, making for yet another memorable classic Strait record that retains its appeal a full quarter century after its release.
Written by Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran, and Royce Porter
It’s rare that the melody of a song’s verses is just about as memorable and catchy as its chorus, but such is the case with George Strait’s “It Ain’t Cool to be Crazy About You.” Just hearing the first strains of the simple piano intro makes it almost impossible to get the tune out of your head once it’s there. What’s more, words like “suave” and “debonair” make it nearly irresistible to sing along with.
However, There’s more to this established earworm than a memorable tune. Strait adeptly portrays the imbalance of a relationship where he is much more invested than the woman happens to be. While he knows he’s being jerked around by her, he can’t help but be crazy about her anyway.
While it almost seems like just a catchy ditty on the surface, Strait’s delivery of a mix of sadness and regret, with a hint of frustration, turns this song into something substantive with a relatable scenario.
Dean Dillon and George Strait are one of the finest songwriter and singer matches that country music has ever seen.
Why do they work so well together? I think it’s because George Strait has that everyman quality, a pure crooner that is as mainstream as it gets. Dillon, on the other hand, is so quirky and offbeat that his material can seem a little out there.
Strait is able to close the gap, which makes songs that would sound odd in another singer’s hands sound a bit surprising but still completely natural in Strait’s. Perhaps that’s why he pulls off Jim Lauderdale so well, too.
This is a standard country weeper with a mouthful of a title. Dillon took it to #25 in 1980, but Strait took it all the way to #1.
From early on, it was announced that Pickler’s third album would more closely reflect the sound of the traditional country music that is closest to her heart, with Pickler claiming to have made the album “as country as I was allowed to make it.” The bouncy steel guitars chords of opening track “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and opening lyrics “While I’m torn between killin’ him and lovin’ him/ He stays torn between neon lights and home” quickly announce that Pickler is not kidding.
Does that mean that the album is a retro effort? Not necessarily. Rather, Pickler and her producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten effectively craft a sound that gives a respectful nod to country music’s past while simultaneously making tasteful use of modern sounds. Thus, the album carries a strong traditionalist bent, but sounds vintage without sounding dated, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to create a fresh and modern contemporary country album while still maintaining a strong connection to the traditions of the past.
Ultimately, what really makes the album work is the fact that Pickler sounds at home and in her element throughout. Though her technical vocal abilities are rather limited, the song selections and stylings of this album serve her well, highlighting her strengths as an interpretive singer. Pickler herself takes writing credits on six tracks, collaborating with songwriting talents such as Dean Dillon and Leslie Satcher. While she opts for softly wistful vocal takes on ballads such as “Long As I Never See You Again” and “Turn On the Radio and Dance,” she throws herself into the groove of “Unlock That Honky Tonk” with a loose, infectious energy. “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)” is just a simple charming delight of a song, with a lightly catchy melody that lingers in the head long after the song has ended. Pickler longlingly sings “Don’t stop rockin’ with me, baby” while soft, airy fiddles lend the song a pleasant breezy feel.
While “Where’s Tammy Wynette” is unfortunately tainted by association with the ill-advised name-dropping craze, it’s actually a surprisingly decent song in which a wronged housewife looks to the honky tonk heartbreak queens of the past for advice and inspiration. Like the 2008 Heidi Newfield hit “Johnny and June,” Pickler’s “Tammy Wynette” manages to reference a legend in a way that feels genuinly reverent and fleshed-out instead of superficial. Even better is the straight-to-the-point “Stop Cheatin’ On Me” which has lyrics that sound thematically reminiscient of Loretta Lynn’s “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me)” The female narrator counteracts her man’s philandering ways by threatening to repay in kind, while the song is backed by a steel-laden arrangement steeped in country tradition, the likes of which are rarely heard on country radio these days.
There are moments when the formula hits weak points. Lead single “Tough” was written by Leslie Satcher, and was written for and about Pickler, supposedly inspired by her troubled childhood – an approach that is reflected in the song’s accompanying music video. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too obvious that the song was written, not by Pickler herself, but by a co-writer (Leslie Satcher) who did not have Pickler’s firsthand experience, as the lyrics ring hollow for want of detail. To her credit, Pickler sings it with gusto, and her producers dress it up with plenty of fiddle and banjo, making for a song that is sonically engaging but lyrically uninspiring. Similarly, the production and vocal elevate the not-particularly-interesting road song “Little House On the Highway” to a degree, though it still ranks as one of the album’s more forgettable cuts. The only instance in which production becomes an issue is in the overdramatic bridge on the title track, which culminates in an intrusive guitar solo.
Pickler shines brightest when she gets personal. Drawing on her troubled childhood, she addresses both of her parents in songs with the tracks “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy).” The former, written by Pickler with husband Kyle Jacobs, connects solidly by isolating a specific childhood experience that many listeners can relate to – buying a Mother’s Day card, having a photo taken with one’s mother – with Pickler expressing how she wishes she could have experienced such things for herself. Though both songs mourn the heartaches of the past, they also cast a hopeful eye toward the future. “Mother’s Day” finds Pickler vowing to be the mother she never had, should she ever have a child of her own, while “The Letter” concludes with Pickler determining to “make up for lost time” with her estranged father. Best of all, both tracks utilize sparse acoustic production, allowing Pickler to connect deeply with some of her most beatifully restrained and compelling vocal performances to date.
All in all, there is much that 100 Proof gets right. By placing Pickler in the musical environment that suits her best, and giving her a strong batch of song material, 100 Proof demonstrates that Pickler’s potential is significantly greater than her previous efforts suggested. Without a doubt, 100 Proof is Pickler’s strongest album to date, and likely one of the better mainstream releases we’ll hear this year.
Ask them to sing “The Chair.” There isn’t a hat act out there who could measure up to Strait’s delivery of this song.
It may not have the emotional heft of George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home,” but Strait’s delivery shares an important commonality with those classics. The song remains fresh and interesting even after you know the twist at the end.
“Marina Del Rey” was an early attempt by George Strait at recording a pensive and thoughtful ballad.
He wasn’t quite ready for it, yet. The lyrics are appropriately longing and sentimental for times gone by, but Strait hasn’t yet developed enough as a vocalist to pull off the mature performance required.
It’s basically the inverse of the problem at country radio today, where veteran artists are recording songs that they’re too mature for. Back in the early eighties, you actually had younger artists trying to sound older so they’d fit in.