Not too many times a year, an album comes along oozing such apparently effortless class that you know you’re listening to a master at work. George Strait has been having that effect on his adoring audience for decades.
But as he arrived at his 30th studio release, Honky Tonk Time Machine, released on March 29, 2019, there was more of a sense than ever that he represents an understated, old-school craft that had become increasingly endangered.
It was three and a half years since the Texan charmer had worked his subtle magic on a new collection of songs, when 2016’s Cold Beer Conversation became merely his 26th No.1 country album. This from a man who collects telephone-number statistics about his stellar achievements, and famously has 60 – that’s six-oh – No.1 singles to his name in all chart configurations.
Strait has not tended to pen his own hits, which is understandable when you can call on the cream of Nashville’s songwriting community. Indeed, we lost one of that number, Sanger D “Whitey” Shafer, in January 2019, he the co-writer of two of George’s 80s calling cards, “Does Fort Worth Cross Your Mind” and “All My Ex’s Live In Texas.’ But Honky Tonk Time Machine was significant in hosting a great deal of Strait’s own songwriting, on eight of the 13 inclusions, all with his son George, Jr (aka Bubba), and longtime confidant Dean Dillon.
A new Strait classic
There was not the slightest dilution in quality control here, the bar set as high as ever for songs that were just right for that rich baritone. “Código,” released as an early single in December 2018, was a deliberately lightweight curtain-raiser and a eulogy to the premium tequila in which the singer just happens to be an investor.
“God And Country Music” was an altogether weightier affair and, one dares to suggest, a new Strait classic, its melody and sentiment honed to perfection by the A-team of Luke Laird, Barry Dean and Lori McKenna. The lyric’s clever marriage of the spiritual and the secular, with its references to Johnny Cash and “I Saw The Light,” is irresistible.
Similarly attractive was the track which, ahead of the album’s release, was already shaping to return Strait to the daytime country airwaves. “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” one of the creations by that formidable firm of Strait, Strait, and Dillon, is exactly the kind of less-is-more party tune that really does feel like a trip in that titular time machine. It set a scene and describes a place you want to visit – and, even more delightfully, it dared to have a fiddle solo.
Apart from a few light brushstrokes of modernity in the production, Honky Tonk Time Machine built into an album that could, essentially, have appeared at any time in the reign of King George, and that is part of its delight. There were moments of reflection, such as “Sometimes Love” and “What Goes Up,” and two well-chosen covers, of Jim Lauderdale’s “Two More Wishes” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin.” Then the record went out in a blaze of glory as one country legend meets another and Willie Nelson climbed aboard for “Sing One With Willie.”
To borrow one of his time-honored titles, this was Strait singing somewhere beyond the blue neon, taking in the clean air of country tradition that has been his life and breath for so long.
Buy or stream Honky Tonk Time Machine.