At this stage of his nearly four-decades-long career, George Strait sure knows his sweet spot. Take a look at the cover of his 30th studio album, and it's understood that it's the honky tonks that are part and parcel of the tall Texan. Not to mention the title.
And that means, Strait is going to be singing about drinking, loving and faith in styles ranging from honky tonk to straight ahead country to Tex-Mex stylings to ballads. You're also going to hear fiddle and pedal steel throughout, instruments in short supply in country music these days.
Strait starts that right off the bat with "Every Little Honky Tonk Bar." Penned with son Bubba, a fixture on recent albums, long-time Strait writer Dean Dillon and Strait himself, not only does Strait make it clear he's not going to give into what's au courant on "country" radio, he's going to do it his way. Give the trio of writers a lot of credit for painting a lot of pictures of life at the honky tonk.
Strait merges two recurrent themes of country in "God and Country Music," citing them as "two things still worth saving." The song introduces a third generation of Straits with grandson Harvey pinching in at the end.
Strait fulfills one apparent "regret" with the closing "Sing One for Willie." Strait acknowledges that he's had a long career in the song, but never was afforded the chance to sing with Willie. Until now, of course. And instead of the usual weed references, this one's about the music. It's a love fest between the two and a fine coda.
The 13 songs are uniformly strong from start to finish. That includes a cover of Johnny Paycheck's 1986 single "Old Violin" with Strait putting his vocals into higher gear. The only questionable song is "Codigo," not for the song itself, but Strait invests in a company producing the tequila. As a song, the single is a keeper in an album filled with them.
Co-producer Chuck Ainlay has done a masterful job of combining Strait's considerable vocal talents with just the right musical touches - never sacrificing authenticity.
In the liner notes, Strait says, "Hard to call this work but we actually did work really hard to make this record and in my opinion it's one of my best ever." He is right. As Strait sings on the title track: "He's gonna make damn sure the jukebox don't rock. And the record's gonna be the only thing that pops." In the hands of King George, life at the honky tonks is quite fine, thank you.