It’s the best word to describe the continuing development of George Strait, who’s written a personal history so unique he’s creating new, record-breaking plateaus that have simply never been reached before.
He already owns the all-time record for the most No. 1 singles in any genre. He has more career nominations than any other artist in both the Nashville-based Country Music Association awards and the California-bred Academy of Country Music honors. He has more gold and platinum albums than any other country artist.
His last album, It Just Comes Natural, was so solid that it brought him the CMA honor for Album of the Year, an award he’s won four different times and in three different decades.
And the “King of Country Music” joined the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, making him the only performer who’s earned a plaque in the hallowed halls while still consistently racking up hits. With Troubadour, Strait’s 35th album, he continues to raise the standard. From a numerical view, the album’s first single, “I Saw God Today,” already set a personal mark when it debuted at No. 19 on the country radio charts—higher than any other song he’s released in his career.
From a creative vantage point, the album as a whole is, again, remarkable. Strait explores new musical turf with the calypso R&B in “River Of Love”; opens up to meaningful—and rare—guest appearances by Patty Loveless, Vince Gill and songwriter pal Dean Dillon; and delivers the 12-song set with a voice that continues an extremely graceful evolution.
“He’s always good,” co-producer Tony Brown says, “but he sang really good on this album.”
“His vocal tone has progressed very, very nicely in the last five or six years,” observes Dillon, who should know: One of Strait’s golfing and fishing compadres, he’s written 13 of Strait’s hits, dating back to the first, 1981’s “Unwound.”
“He’s got a real mellow thing goin’ with his voice right now.”
Troubadour benefits from Strait’s uncanny ability to balance organization and spontaneity. He and Brown, who has overseen Strait projects since the Pure Country soundtrack in 1992, spend much of the year amassing potential songs, and as one of the genre’s pre-eminent artists, Strait has the opportunity to select from the very best.
Still, the albums aren’t mapped out precisely. He and Brown literally determine which titles they intend to work on the morning of a given session, following the day’s creative muse.
That was even easier on Troubadour as Strait recorded, for the second time, at Jimmy Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound in Key West. A beat-up shack on the waterfront that used to be a shrimp storage cooler where boats would deposit the day’s catch, the studio is so small that they pulled a Ryder truck up to the back door to provide an isolation booth for the electric guitarist’s amplifier.
Strait first recorded there when he sang on Buffett’s award-nominated event “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and he fell in love with the place. Removed from the day-to-day concerns in Nashville—the home for most of the session players, who Strait affectionately refers to as “the Crittersԗthere’s a free quality about the studio and its setting that appeals to the singer.
“We were all havin’ fun, which I think shows in the tracks,” Brown says of the sessions. “In the beginning, we went to Shrimpboat on a whim. This time we went back because the last album turned out so awesome. I have a funny feelin’ we’ll be goin’ back again.”
As always, Troubadour is a mix of the playful and the profound. The breezy energies get tapped in the restless, workin’-man tribute “Brothers Of The Highway”; the romantic vacation piece “When You’re In Love”; the slightly funky “River Of Love”; and the snappy honky-tonker “Make Her Fall In Love With Me Song.”
Strait also unleashes his deeper nature in the career-reflective title track, featuring backing vocals by label-mate Vince Gill; “House With No Doors,” a clever-but-wise reminder to the control freak in everyone; a pair of spiritually themed tracks, the eye-opening “I Saw God Today” and the subdued “Give Me More Time”; and “If Heartaches Were Horses,” a cinematic conclusion to the album.
“That West Texas Town” has a surprising twist by making the song a duet with Dillon, it also provides a nod to a songwriter who’s had a steady role in Strait’s career, turning out such familiar titles as “Ocean Front Property,” “I’ve Come To Expect It From You,” “The Chair” and “She Let Herself Go.”
“House Of Cash,” featuring Loveless’ powerful harmonic blend, puts a mountain-bred harmonic stamp on the passing of Johnny Cash and June Carter, using the tragic destruction of their Middle Tennessee home in a 2007 blaze and the name of Cash’s former recording studio to pay tribute to the Man In Black’s historic impact.
That Strait continues to fold subtle new wrinkles into an already-unparalleled career as a hit-maker is a testament to his still-burning passion for his art.
Born and raised in Texas, he grew up on a ranch and earned an agricultural degree at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. He fronted a band during a tenure with the Army, then found his voice in 1975 when he teamed up with a honky-tonk ensemble, the germination of what has become his Ace In The Hole touring band.
Even after he was heralded as a flag-bearing figure for traditional country music, Strait eschewed traditional career paths: He refused to move to Nashville, and—instead of sacrificing big chunks of his personal life to pursue his job—he works his touring and recording schedule around his time at home with Norma, to whom he’s been married since 1971, and around his hobbies, including hunting and rodeos. In addition, Strait hosts his own team-roping competition every spring.
That smart a
ttention to priorities has kept him fresh and focused on the creative process and given him an almost Elvis-like mystique.
But where Presley remained an enigma through much of his career, Strait rather slyly reveals himself in small bites through his music. He’s rarely recorded anything with a specifically autobiographical storyline, yet he maintains a strict integrity about his songs, choosing only material that fits his classic vocal style and his personal beliefs. He’s been known to turn down obvious hits because he simply couldn’t agree with one line or a verse in the song.
“He’s real,” Loveless says, “and anything that’s real, it stays around. His music: It just comes out there effortlessly. It’s no hanging from the rafters, no tricks, he just comes out there and sings to people. Men appreciate him as the real deal, and women are drawn to his voice and the way he carries himself on stage. He’s such a gentleman, and he does have a great smile.”
And, of course, a career that’s consistently weathered musical trends to arrive at a place where he no longer worries about the rules of the music industry. He sets his own.
With an enviable consistency, Strait continues to sell out arenas and to stretch himself creatively with an album, Troubadour, which stands among the best in a career already filled with highlights. And he does so while all the while holding a permanent place on the country radio dial.
George Strait’s ability to balance his personal life with his business and to creatively challenge himself without error is, in a word, remarkable.