As the indisputable king of country music, George Strait is still riding high after his farewell to life on the road in the summer of 2014 in Dallas. The show at AT&T Stadium was sort of the end of an era, 20-plus years of Strait selling out stadiums across the country. Still, as many people noted at the time, the show never really was meant to indicate an end to the blue-eyed troubadour’s music career.
Last year, Strait had at least three albums left on his contract with MCA, the first of which was released this week. Cold Beer Conversation is classic, by-the-book George Strait. Longtime listeners will quickly recognize this hit-making mix of love songs interspersed with drinking tunes and feel-good ballads. It may not be much of a departure in form for King George here, but this album may serve as a glimpse into the tea leaves of what Strait’s “retirement” is going to look like.
In his review of George Strait's 29th studio album in The Dallas Morning News, music critic Hunter Hauk recalls a conversation he had with Strait producer Tony Brown, who hoped Strait would move in the direction of Willie Nelson in his second act. That he would “forget what the radio trends dictate and go deep down into stylistic rabbit holes.” As exciting as that would be — can you imagine Strait’s rich baritone layered over a stripped down, Dave Cobb-produced track? — that isn’t exactly how Strait made his way to the top, a fact that Hauk is quick to note.
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Still, the comparison is undoubtedly interesting, and it is worth examining where the paths of these two titans cross and diverge. Nelson and Strait are inarguably two of Texas’ greatest contributions to country music, but stylistically they couldn’t be any more different. Both are wildly successful, universally beloved and could sell out venues until they’re 110 years old and about to croak on the stage. We’re not sure about Strait’s stance on pot, but we’re guessing that’s not the only point on which these two differ dramatically.
For the past few decades, Nelson has traded in encores of “Whiskey River” while simultaneously continuing to record and produce new music. In the last year, he’s co-written and released an album with Merle Haggard, and guested on Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material. He even recorded a song with Snoop Dogg and Kris Kristofferson in 2012. In listening to Cold Beer Conversation, it’s hard to hear much innovation at all, which ultimately doesn’t matter — it’s a George Strait album, and all you’re really listening for is his voice and unparalleled ability to tell a story.
There is, though, some diversity of sound. Zydeco, western swing and classic country all play nicely with radio-ready hits-in-waiting like the album’s title track. Strait has never been much of a songwriter, admittedly, so there’s still plenty of that thematic nonsense that's so popular in country music right now. That can be attributed to writing appearances from country’s most in-demand songwriters, including Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, Dean Dillon and Jamey Johnson. Tracks like “Stop and Drink” and “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” indicate that George Strait has fallen victim to recording too many songs about drinking beer and good ol’ boy stereotypes.
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It’s easy to see that consistency has and always will be Strait’s formula for success. A song recorded by Strait in 2015 sounds just like a song recorded by Strait in 1997, and that isn’t a bad thing. He is doing more writing on this album, including co-writing “Let It Go” and another track on the record with his son Bubba Strait, and co-writing credits on three other tracks. Perhaps on the next album we’ll see Strait experimenting with an alt-country vibe or some bizarre psych-folk, but you probably shouldn’t hold your breath.
Back to that Willie Nelson comparison, though. In moments, you certainly feel like Strait might walk down that path. He takes a sort of watered-down detour into outlaw country with “Rock Paper Scissors,” a tale of a divorced woman scorned. There are times when Cold Beer Conversation almost feels like subliminal messaging, indicating that Strait is looking for a harder, more classic sound. We can hope that is a sign for the future, but it is most likely just a nod to the country music that has always, if ever so subtly, influenced his own signature sound.
Cold Beer Conversation is ultimately a safe but well-done and very listenable endeavor. Strait does have a leg up on Nelson in that he hasn’t spent the last five decades ruining his vocal chords with decades of joint-smoking. It’s highly likely that in 15 years he’ll sound just like he did at AT&T Stadium last year, and his voice then didn't sound markedly different from the one that changed country forever in the 1980s.
And therein lies the charm of a guy like George Strait. When you’ve got something that works this well, why change it? Even "more of the same" from Strait is better than 95 percent of the country music that is currently popular. If Cold Beer Conversation weren’t recorded by Strait, it probably wouldn't be particularly notable. It is a good country album, especially compared to its chart competition, but it is not a great or transformative country album. That is, it wasn't until Strait laid down the vocal tracks, producing the best effort from a mainstream male artist that country music has seen, well, since the last George Strait album.