A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop writer Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
There is a strange category of artists I like to call “the exceptions.” Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Eminem, Digable Planets, and De La Soul all qualify as exceptions in the field of hip-hop, since even people who profess to be indifferent to rap at best and actively hostile to it at worst tend to single them out as hip-hop acts they enjoy, or at least can tolerate.
Being a prominent Exception must be equal parts flattering and maddening, since people who single them out as the only act in a genre they enjoy are essentially saying, “Hey, you know that art form you’ve devoted your life to? I think it sucks, but you’re pretty good. You’re the one artist in your genre that doesn’t make me want to projectile vomit.” Gee, thanks.
When it comes to country, the big Exceptions are Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. Who doesn’t like Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash? Only a black-hearted Nazi robot, that’s who. Cash and Nelson almost don’t count, however, since they transcend country. They belong to everyone, and so, to a lesser extent, do Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and George Jones.
Cash and Nelson are quintessential Exceptions in part because they stood in opposition to everything people who don’t like country can’t stand about the genre: the slickness, the pandering, the cornball patriotism, the one-size-fits-all strings, the oppressive backup singers. You don’t like that country-fried bullshit? Good. Neither do Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.
George Strait, today’s entry in Nashville Or Bust, is about as big as artists can get without transcending their genres. Before I began Nashville Or Bust, I had a vague sense that Strait was popular, but I didn’t grasp the full extent of his enormous popularity. He’s sold nearly 60 million albums, making him the 10th best-selling American artist in history. From the comments in this column, it seems like Strait is the Exception that proves the rule that contemporary mainstream country sucks. He’s the mainstream, incredibly popular country act that even people who don’t like mainstream country enjoy. He’s like the Garth Brooks it’s okay to like.
I also have a more personal, selfish reason for writing about Strait. My girlfriend’s father, a wonderful, sweet, sensitive, brilliant man, is a big fan of Strait. He likes to drink whiskey, listen to George Strait, and call up his children to tell them how much he loves them. That’s an image and a trait I find enormously endearing. He also cries every time he watches Strait’s sole cinematic vehicle, Pure Country. So I want to do justice to one of his favorite acts. (Admittedly, if all the sordid revelations in my memoir aren’t a deal-breaker when it comes to dating his daughter, then being insufficiently eloquent in my appreciation of Strait probably wouldn’t be, either.)
By 1981, when Strait released his first album, he’d already done a lot of living. He served in the army, got a degree in agriculture from Texas State University, and segued from playing with an army-sponsored band to fronting his own outfit, Ace In The Hole, which later became his backing band.
Listening to Strait Country, his 1981 debut, it’s easy to see why he became such a big star. The songs on Strait Country boast what Malcolm Gladwell calls “stickiness”: they burrow into the listener’s subconscious and refuse to leave. One of Strait Country’s biggest strengths is that it’s a 1981 album that sounds like it could have been released in 1961 or 1991. It’s product of the ’80s, but there’s nothing remotely ’80s about it.
Strait was and is a proud throwback, a traditionalist who favored fiddles and steel guitar over synthesizers and strings. “Unwound” kicks off the album and Strait’s recording career on the perfect note. Being a fan of the deplorable practice of drinking alcohol, I appreciated that half the songs on Strait Country glorify drinking. If you took a shot every time Strait mentions whiskey on his debut, you’d be drunker than a Kennedy at an open bar by the end of the album.
In the liner notes for Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, the Man In Black writes, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God.” As for me, I prefer songs about drinking to songs about Jesus, songs about prison to songs about patriotism, uptempo songs to ballads, Western swing to Countrypolitan, and dark humor to uplift.
So the aptly named Strait Country perfectly suited my preferences. It’s filled with songs about whiskey, devoid of sappy ballads and rooted in the fundamentals of country. From the masters, Strait learned the value of understatement and restraint; his vocals always serve the song instead of the other way around. And as someone who came of age on 23-track, 73-minute, skit-and-filler-filled hip-hop albums, I’ve come to appreciate the succinctness and purity of an album like Strait Country, which whizzes by in 27 filler-free minutes.
Strait is an enormously likeable presence who agitates for basic human decency on “Every Time You Throw Dirt On Her (You Lose A Little Ground),” a stern rebuke to a jerk who builds up his fragile ego at the expense of a long-suffering partner who puts up with his never-ending slights and digs, and “I Get Along With You,” a sweet love song filled with uncontroversial but ingratiating sentiments like “I don’t get along with people who aren’t kind / I don’t get along with folks with only money on their mind.”
Strait’s penchant for pun-titled, rock-solid albums continued with 1982’s Strait From The Heart. It’s a lean, 10-track opus that picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, and it boasts what’s perhaps Strait’s best song. “Amarillo By Morning” is a plaintive exploration of the ramshackle, vagabond existence of a rodeo cowboy, and it perfectly captures the melancholy, rambling rhythms of life on the road.
Garth Brooks makes a special point of including a song about the rodeo on every album, and he helped make the career of rodeo-cowboy-turned-country-singer Chris LeDoux, so it must have been frustrating to have Strait, perhaps his biggest rival, record a better rodeo song than anything he’d ever done.
Strait pays simultaneous homage to his home state and Bob Wills on Strait From The Heart’s fiddle-heavy “I Can’t See Texas From Here,” an appetizer of sorts for the heavy Western swing element of his third album, Right Or Wrong, which takes its title from the jazz song Bob Wills made a Western swing standard. Strait takes another country standard out to the dance floor for a spin on Fred Rose’s “I’m Satisfied With You,” while “80 Proof Bottle Of Tear Stopper” accomplishes the formidable feat of living up to its awesome title.
The man heralded as the “king of country” made his first and hopefully worst video for Right Or Wrong’s “You Look So Good In Love.” Strait is far from a pretty boy; if they were to make a biopic about him, Michael Shannon would be a good choice for the lead. To his credit, Strait was so disappointed by the experience that it threatened to put him off making videos permanently. It’s easy to see why. Strait’s first three albums are timeless, but the video for “You Look So Good In Love” occupies the ninth circle of ’80s hell, as Strait lurks menacingly at a fern bar while his ex makes goo-goo eyes at a gentleman I like to think of as Douchey McBigBeard. From the amateur way the video is filmed and acted, it’s unclear whether Strait is being noble about a lost love’s new flame, or stalking the couple.
And here’s Jamie Foxx expounding on the sexiness of Strait and his music before performing “You Look So Good In Love.” Why am I showing you this? Because I can. And also to illustrate how easy it is to transform a country ballad into an R&B slow jam.
Strait’s fourth album, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, doesn’t measure up to the high standards of his first three, though it certainly has its defenders. Like his previous efforts, it’s only 10 songs long, but it’s heavy on ballads and lacks the spark of his best work. Strait’s career didn’t end there, of course. He went on to be one of the biggest hit-makers in country history. He’s scored an astonishing 57 No. 1 hits on the country charts, and he’s the only artist other than Eddy Arnold inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame while still actively recording hit albums. Alas, I don’t have the time to cover the rest of Strait’s discography (Nashville Or Bust constitutes about a 20th of my A.V. Club workload, yet takes up a disproportionate amount of my time) so this is where I will leave him. And you, dear reader.
On the whole, I enjoyed the time I spent in Strait’s amiable company. When I have a family, I so totally plan to drink screwdrivers, listen to George Strait, and call my children to tell them how much I love them.
Up next on Nashville Or Bust: