The King of Country Returns: A Review of George Strait’s “Honky Tonk Time Machine”

Country’s greatest living legend, George Strait, dropped a new album on March 29, “Honky Tonk Time Machine.” (Strait has retired from regular touring, but not from recording.)

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George Strait at Greune Hall, 2016

I make no bones about it: I’m biased and I’m okay with it. George Strait is my favorite artist of any genre, he was my first real concert, and he defines what country music should sound like. No one is perfect, but my fellow Texan can do little wrong. The man may not know songwriting, but he knows music, and perhaps that’s even better. George Strait can listen to a rusty demo, find a gem, and turn it into something we can all connect with, and isn’t that what music’s all about? When you hear the first two notes of The Chair, Amarillo By Morning, Wrapped, Check Yes or No, Fool Hearted Memory, or any one of 100 others – you’re home. And with 60 #1 hits and dozens more in the top 10, it really is 100 others.

“Honky Tonk Time Machine” is a little uneven, but still good. It’s not up there with anything from Strait’s spectacular runs in the ‘80s, 90’s, or ‘00s, but it holds its own with his last few outings, and gives us more of that classic sound we’ve been yearning for.

The album is way better than 2015’s lackluster “Cold Beer Conversation,” and I bet that on repeat listening, it will be of a piece with the previous four albums going back to 2008. (Go back further and you’re into the good stuff.)

HTTMNo songs clearly deserve to be on a future Essentials collection, but with an overall cohesive Texas sound, the record holds its own. Strait co-wrote eight songs, continuing this new phase of his career. After writing a few flops at the very start in the early ‘80s, he turned to singing others’ songs, until picking up the pen again in 2009. Eight is a new high, one more than 2011’s “Here for A Good Time.” Co-writing with his son seems to fire the man up, and who can blame him for that? The result is songwriting that’s not quite as good as we used to get, but a happy artist and another decent album.

“Some Nights” is a slow, classic country song about love and loss. This might be the best song on the album, and I hope it’s the next single. You can say similar things about the wistful ballad “Sometimes Love” or the cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” both of which I like, but nothing touches “Some Nights.” These three have been the highlights, at least during my first listens.

The second single “God and Country Music” sounds good, but don’t pay close attention. It has the feel of a vintage George Strait song, but as an ordained minister, I honestly don’t like the lyrics. “There’s two things still worth saving // God and country music.” Nope. We don’t save God. God saves us. It’s great music but try as I might, I can’t get behind the well-intentioned but accidentally arrogant words. For religion, I prefer “What Goes Up,” a slow song about Christ’s presence during our darkest days.

“Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” (the first single), “Two More Wishes” and “Blue Water” are nothing special, but they’ll all be good background music when you’re hanging out at the lake. They round out the sound and that’s okay.

If you’re looking for fun on the dance floor, for which Strait has given us many fine examples over the years, you’ll be happy with “Take Me Away” and the title track. Same as the previous three I mentioned, they’re nothing special in and of themselves, but they help contribute to the album’s overall feel, that classic George Strait sound that never goes wrong.

I wish I could say the same about “Codigo,” but it feels like a drunk Strait checked out and joined Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett at the shore, and that makes sense, because he’s just trying to hock his own vanity line of tequila, Codigo. That’s fine, whatever, moving on.

“The Weight of The Badge” is the third single, about the sacrifices and honor of a police officer. In my day job, I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns against police violence. Anyone who has the legal authority to deny life and liberty must be held to a higher standard. So let me be clear: I like this song’s message! Yes, sometimes bad people become cops and abuse their authority, but good people also become cops to protect us. This song doesn’t wade into the politics, and if it feels like it does, that’s only because the topic has become politicized. No, this just salutes officers who make sacrifices for their communities, and I like that. Alas, the lyrics themselves are forced and syrupy, but hey, that’s what country did in the 2000s, and aren’t we stepping into a time machine?

Finally, there’s “Sing One With Willie.” You want more from the song that finally gives us this much-yearned for duet; it has no purpose other than to exist and talk about itself. But that’s okay, I’m not going to complain too much, because my heavens, we’ve finally got a Willie Nelson and George Strait duet!!!

Like I say, “Honky Tonk Time Machine” isn’t great, but it is good, and it’s refreshing to have new music from the king. What’s especially encouraging is that the lead single, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” is currently at #19 on the country airplay chart, and Spotify is featuring the album and a short film about Strait’s career on their Hot Country playlist. Along with Chris Stapleton, Luke Combs, and Kasey Musgraves holding spots on the chart, there seems to be at least a tiny resurgence of hope on the airwaves.

3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 and a very hearty Texas thank you to his royal highness.

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