(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There is no musical border between Texas and Mexico. And George Strait graphically proves this on his new CD, Twang, with his expressive version of a well-known song written by a Mexican musical icon.
And he sings it in Spanish. As he should, to present the song in its true form. “El Rey” (the king) was written by the Mexican singer and songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez, who is widely regarded as one of Mexico’s pre-eminent songwriters. He was self-taught, wrote hundreds of songs and died young in 1973 of hepatitis at the age of 47. His tomb, marked by a huge sombrero, in the town of Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, is said to be a major tourist attraction.
Musical bilingualism in Texas is very common, especially in South Texas where Strait is from, but it pervades the entire state. So his decision to record a well-known song by a Mexican musical icon is no surprise. And the matter of singing it in Spanish? Why not? Many Anglo artists in Texas have sung in Spanish, just as many Tejano singers in Texas have sung in English. “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” is a familiar song, attributed to the western poet Charles Badger Clark, dating back to the early 20th century and it’s a lyric much-sung by many singers since. And it’s true. Spanish is a very musical language.
Jimenez’s “El Rey” is a boasting song about a strutting macho man whose word is law and who regards himself as the king.
And Strait gets a bit of a vocal workout within the parameters of “El Rey,” but he gets there and sounds very natural. This is not, after all, your usual George Strait album song. But it belongs here and, for my money, is the best cut on the album. Then again, I grew up in Texas and have always loved all the many strains of music that have flowed through the state. It all sounds natural, whether it’s Western swing or honky-tonk or Tejano or R&B or polka.
Strait also visits the Texas rowdy R&B roadhouse tradition — as opposed to the down-and-dirty honky-tonk country roadhouse — with Delbert McClinton’s “Some Kind of Crazy” (co-written with McClinton’s longtime collaborator Gary Nicholson). You can hear the urgent feel of Delbert’s get-loose-and-goosey phrasing in Strait’s singing here. George is letting his hair down a bit. Good for him.
As a further reminder that he’s not always the crisp and starched buttoned-down singer, Strait kicks it a bit looser yet with “Hot Grease and Zydeco.” He sounds like he might have actually unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his shirtsleeves and gotten up and is raring to dance.
Throughout his decades of pre-eminence in country music, Strait has proved to be the canniest song picker around. He’s always been the man with the best song ears around. Especially because he didn’t write songs.
Now he does. Or rather, he co-writes three cuts here, with his son Bubba and with familiar song partner Dean Dillon. And he does well. George’s son, Bubba, himself is coming into his own as a writer. I especially like his “Arkansas Dave,” which he wrote by himself. It’s a rousing, old-timey, fiddle and guitar saga about killings and horse theft and all the juicy things that country songs used to be about. And it’s even got a shaggy dog ending, the way many of those songs used to end. And George clearly has fun singing it.
There is that same sort of energized spirit about George Strait throughout Twang, which I really love hearing from him at this stage in his career. After 38 studio albums, most artists would begin to sound burnt-out. But Strait is obviously still enjoying what he’s doing and is ready for more.
At age 57, as the standard-bearer of country music, Strait seems to be feeling adventuresome. He probably has boots and saddles that are older than Taylor Swift. But that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in a time warp, as some artists do — far too often. Twang feels in many ways to be one of his most satisfying ventures yet. May many more follow.
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that George Strait may be the Uncle Walter Cronkite of country music. But he is a reassuring presence for the music and is its beacon of stability.