Strait to hell

Country radio does not exist. It's a misnomer, a myth, the great lie--Top 40 hiding behind a Resistol hat and a pair of Tony Lamas. Country music itself is an antiquated term, a marketing tool--pop music hiding behind twangs and pedal steel guitars and fiddles. Country radio and country music are dead and buried up on Boot Hill (which is next to Boot Town); the stuff that passes for country is just boot-scootin' disco for line-dancers who shuffle back and forth on pre-fabbed honky-tonk floors, doing the '90s version of the Funky Chicken in their skin-tight Wranglers. They're even pipin' in KPLX down in hell now, where Beezlebub awaits Ricky Lynn Gregg and Billy Ray Cyrus to head his all-star band.

Hard-core purists are left to fondle their old vinyl or Hank Williams boxed sets, or they are forced to seek out the handful of musicians who approach the music with respect and perhaps even a tinge of irony; they gravitate toward the likes of Junior Brown (Ernest Tubb with a fucked-up guitar), Wayne "The Train" Hancock (Hank Williams joins AA), or the Mavericks (Roy Orbison meets Chris Isaak on a Nancy Sinatra kick) to fulfill their (George) Jones, finding the current crop of Shanias and Tracys and Faiths too sterile, too '70s pop for their tastes. Country's dead, long live country.

Need a further sign? Last week, MCA Records released a 72-track, four-disc George Strait boxed set (imaginatively titled Strait Out of the Box) a mere 14 years after Strait's first release. In less than two decades, the man who singlehandedly saved country from itself--only to lead it down its road to ruin a couple of years later--George Strait is an old man by country-music standards, entombed for the ages in a cardboard coffin just like his heroes Hank Williams and George Jones. Only it took Hank 40 years to get his own box, and No Show Jones just got his a couple of years ago.

Not that George Strait doesn't deserve his box; in fact, it's the collection worth having if you have to own any George Strait, which is more preferable to owning any Garth Brooks. After all, of the post-'70s country artists, Strait's the most fascinating figure--the hero who's not quite the legend, the superstar who can sell out the Alamodome or Reunion Arena at the drop of a Stetson but who no longer rules the radio or sales charts. Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Rodney Crowell, Clint Black, even Garth are mere runners-up to Strait in terms of stature, fame, and relevance; without George, they'd surely be slumming it in low-rent honky-tonks these days, or doing your taxes.

Once the dominant figure in modern country, and certainly the genre's most talented keeper of the flame despite his inability to sing, Strait has been usurped not merely by the Garth Brookses and Clint Blacks of the industry, but by the second-tier-second-generation hat acts who rise and fall on the charts with every new sunset--folks like John Michael Montgomery and Tim McGraw and Toby Keith, products instead of performers. The man who opened the door for the second wave of hat acts--most of whom just saw a good-looking guy with starched shirts, pressed jeans, and clean cowboy hat and discovered an image counted in country as much as it did in rock and roll--has seen it shut in his enormous face.

Strait, who ushered in the era of neotraditionalism, has almost become an anachronism by now, as outdated as George Jones or Waylon Jennings on country radio. He debuted at a time when country was dominated by NashVegas artists, pop stars with hick accents and spangled yokel white-trash wardrobes--folks like the Oak Ridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt. Their ilk was nothing new in country music--Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty and Marty Robbins had damned near ruined country for the purists who swore their souls to the gospel of Hank and Lefty and Jones--but the pop-country artists of the early '80s had ascended to fame as pop artists first, country musicians second. (Dolly excepted, of course, but Eddie Rabbitt was from New Fuggin' Jersey.)

Strait came in to clean up the mess, infusing the banal and barren country-music wasteland with the sound of the pioneers--borrowing Bob Wills' swing and George Jones' soul. Though he possessed a voice as flat as the West Texas plains and didn't write a single one of his hits, Strait traversed the middle ground with unheard-of style and amazing class. He could peddle fluff like "Marina Del Ray," which sounded not so different from Barry Manilow, and then swing into the Longhorn Ballroom to play "Right or Wrong" with some of the old Texas Playboys, and never would he lose his identity in either form.

Strait accomplished what a moderately talented whore like Marty Robbins never could--working the honky-tonks and the arenas without sacrificing his integrity or identity. And it made him a star, accruing 31 No. 1 singles in a mere 14 years, among them "All My Exes Live in Texas," "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind," "The Fireman," "Amarillo By Morning," "The Chill of an Early Fall," and "Famous Last Words of a Fool." He brought "country" to country radio, all right, perhaps even exposed a new audience to old heroes for a brief moment. But Strait also proved it was lucrative to go pop when done with honky-tonk sophistication, that it was possible to make the music urban and accessible without turning into James Taylor. And by doing so he forever changed the face and fate of the country music establishment, paving the dirt road for the dozens of faceless and voiceless hunks and sweethearts who now call Nashville home.

Strait, who was born just south of San Antonio, actually began playing music in a garage band that covered popular '60s rock songs; in a 1986 interview with Melody Maker, he admitted to being a huge fan of the Beatles as a 14-year-old kid growing up in South Texas. But he later gravitated toward country, picking up songbooks loaded with the songs of George Jones, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard. By 1976, three years after fronting his first country band during a stint in the Army (he was stationed safely in Hawaii during the height of Vietnam), Strait started touring the South Texas circuit, playing such small towns as Gruene and San Marcos while tending to his farmland on the side. (It's important to note that Strait, who'd become closely associated with the Western Swing sound of Bob Wills by covering "Right or Wrong," arrived at the music second-hand, through the 1970 Merle Haggard album Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World.)

Before signing to MCA Records in 1980, Strait recorded a handful of tracks for H.W. "Pappy" Daily's D Records label in Houston; Daily was the same man who had discovered and produced George Jones in the 1950s, and in Strait he thought he had found a bona fide singing songwriter who'd resuscitate the music he and Jones had created during country's heyday. But the three songs Strait wrote and recorded for D Records--"I Just Can't Go On Dying Like This," "(That Don't Change) The Way I Feel About You," and "I Don't Want to Talk It Over Anymore," all released on the boxed set for the first time--are mediocre at best and lifeless at worst.

They sound vacant, dry, derivative, very much like a man still searching for his own identity. Ironically, when he found it on 1981's Strait Country, it would be presented to him in the hands of other unsung songwriters (such as Dean Dillon, Frank Dycus, Darrell Staedtler, Aaron Baker, and Curtis Wayne) who handed over the material and allowed Strait to interpret it as he saw fit--which sort of made him country's Frank Sinatra, only without the range.

Much of the material that makes up Strait Out of the Box holds up moderately well, propped up by the crutch of convention. There are the tearjerkers and beerjerkers, the pop ballads and jukejoint swingers--some of which sticks to you like cowshit, some of which falls off you like sawdust. Which is what makes Strait so damned brilliant and infuriating: he's always been a man conflicted by his role as the heir to tradition, quick to claim the title and even quicker to dismiss it. In the boxed set's extravagant book, Strait first says he always wanted people to hear his name and think "real country music," then he can be found shrugging off the title of "Mr. Traditional Country," as he calls it.

"I didn't think there was a lot to that [label]," Strait says, "especially after I'd done songs like 'Marina Del Ray' and 'The Chair,' and some of these songs that were about as far away from traditional type country as they could be. I guess people have got to label you somehow...It doesn't bother me at all. I mean, I love that kind of music. It's just that I don't think that all my music is like that."

As if to prove it, Strait closes the box with an unreleased duet with Frank Sinatra, a take on "Fly Me to the Moon" that crosses the line separating homage and novelty. Done in the Duet style--Sinatra laying down his weary vocals first, then shipping the tape to Strait so he can add his finishing touches--it's an obvious pairing that fails miserably. On the eve of Sinatra's 80th birthday, as he has gone into a reclusive self-imposed retirement, the song serves to underscore what becomes a dinosaur most: his voice sounds creaky and worn-out, flashing only the rarest and tiniest of glimpses of what made him the most important singer ever to step into a studio.

Strait, though nearly half Sinatra's age, sounds no better or worse than his hero. In fact, they both sound quite average, and there is nothing at all special about the moment--no great meeting of the mouths. The only thing you hear is an echo of a memory, the original version of "Fly Me to the Moon" playing somewhere in the background. Strait and Sinatra could be any two half-decent singers in any karaoke bar in the world, evoking painful laughter instead of the tender smile.


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