(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
George Strait’s 39th studio album, Here for a Good Time, has just been released. It is as good as anything he has ever recorded. Please discuss amongst you.
The man is a phenomenon. He almost never moves onstage during a concert. No swinging from the rafters like Garth Brooks for him. If George were to move around any less, you might be tempted to check his breathing with a hand mirror held in front of his nostrils to make sure he was still in the land of the living.
No matter. There is probably no country artist more loved and admired after all these many years. And for good reason. He has more No. 1 hits than any country artist in history. His list of achievements and awards would take up pages.
But the important thing for me is that the man stands for good, solid, no-nonsense, no-frills, fundamental country music. He remains the Plymouth Rock of country music. Trends come, trends go. There stands George, ever unchanged and unchanging.
I’m sure most people reading this have never seen a Gary Cooper movie. His movies may probably best explain the appeal of George Strait. Cooper was unmatched in portraying the chisel-jawed marshal who tamed the lawless frontier town through his sheer will. Cooper was not the loud-talking showoff that John Wayne often played in his Westerns. Cooper was the strong, silent, good-guy who was admired by the men and adored by the women. And he loved children and animals.
If you’re truly a country fan, do yourself a favor and seek out Cooper’s movie High Noon. You’ll see just what I’m talking about. It’s a totally understated but powerful performance. Cooper was equally strong and effective as a peaceful Quaker in the film Friendly Persuasion. But High Noon is where Cooper portrays Strait.
Anyway, think George Strait when you can finally get to see Gary Cooper.
Cooper let his determination and his six-shooter do his talking. And George Strait lets his songs do his talking.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to conduct a two-hour interview with Strait in San Antonio. I have since been told this was a phenomenal achievement. I don’t know about that. I do know I greatly enjoyed the time with George, and I learned a few new things about him.
In person, he very much comes across as a latter-day Gary Cooper — soft-spoken, not given to long discourses on anything. A man of few words.
He was remarkably open about his career, discussing its arc and his reasons for what he has done over his long career, about his choices and his songs. He’s very careful and deliberate in making his musical decisions.
He does not talk much about his personal life, and I understand that. He and his wife Norma underwent a terrible tragedy with the death of their young daughter, and they don’t talk about that. Understandably.
He will talk about the fact that most of his friends in the San Antonio area, where they live, have nothing to do with the music business. He and they all love to ride horses and rodeo and fish and hunt and play golf. Strait said he virtually never picked up a guitar at home or even thought about music until his son Bubba (also known as George Strait Jr.) starting showing an interest in learning guitar and progressed into becoming a songwriter. Now they are partnering on writing songs together. Strait wrote much early on in his career, then as success came, he no longer wrote songs. Now he’s back on board. He and Bubba have been co-writing songs at a torrid pace — torrid for George, that is. They worked together on seven of the 11 songs on Here for a Good Time.
The only time I have ever heard him raise his voice a little bit and verge on criticizing anyone came when I asked him about the circumstances of his duet with Frank Sinatra. In the early ’90s, Sinatra — one of Strait’s few musical idols — sent word that he would like Strait to record a duet on a projected duets project. George was offered a short list of songs. He would have preferred “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” but settled for “Fly Me to the Moon.” Sinatra was too busy to record with his duet partners in the same studio. So he recorded his vocals, and his prospective duet partners cut theirs and sent them in to be mixed. Strait did so with “Fly Me to the Moon” and sent it in.
He later learned — not directly from Sinatra — that Sinatra decided to drop “Fly Me to the Moon” from his album.
“That made me mad,” Strait firmly told me. “I didn’t like that at all.”
Strait later included the duet on his four-CD boxed set, Strait Out of the Box, and that was the end of that.
My main realization in coming away from the interview is that George is essentially the Everyman of country music. He is very much both the artist creating the music and the music fan listening to and enjoying that music. He basically makes music for himself. His audience fortuitously shares his musical taste.
In the end, I think Strait’s musical appeal is pretty simple. Everything he does, he does with grace. And he is a man you can trust, who also makes music you can trust.