No, just, no (Or, WHY GOD WHY?!?!?!): An Album Review – George Strait’s Live Final Concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away”

I have never been as disappointed in an album as I am the live recording of George Strait’s final tour concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Not because it’s a bad album, but because it should have been so much more. George Strait is the greatest recording artist I have ever heard, BAR F*ING NONE. The concert was amazing and both he and his fans deserve so much better than this travesty. I can’t believe I’m writing a bad album review for GEORGE FRIGGING STRAIT.

One word: G*D DAMNED AUTOTUNE. Okay, that’s two words. But listen, I’m in the process of becoming an ordained minister. I am not taking the Lord’s name in vain here – I’m simply literally asking the divine to DAMN THE MONSTROSITY THAT IS OVERUSED AUTOTUNE AND THE SIN THAT IS CALLING IT MUSIC. ENOUGH ALREADY.

Don’t get me wrong. From the clips I’ve watched, George Strait’s farewell concert was exactly what it needed to be, and we all know the legendary career. There is none greater in the history of country music and if you think Hank or Cash can beat it then just shut up because I’m a Texan and what I’m doing right now is called hero worship. I wish to high heaven I could have been in Dallas in June. But this God-awful album is chalk-full of autotune, and nothing else can shine through. You can hear it on most tracks, but especially on George’s voice on “The Cowboy Rides Away” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” as well as Alan Jackson’s on “Murder On Music Row.” It even dominates the gorram fiddle on “Fool Hearted Memory.”

I can see how autotune would help the voices carry across a crowded arena of 104,000 screaming fans and I wish I’d been one of them – but recorded?

No, just, no.

There’s a reason Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line did not perform at the King’s last show. At least Jason Aldean pretended to be the old Jason, not the new Jason. This was a farewell salute to REAL country music. So what the hell was autotune doing so prominently on the album, even if it was necessary at the show? You can say it’s fine music, and you might not be wrong, but that don’t make it country.

This is not George Strait’s first foray into autotone. There were those couple lines in 2001’s “Stars on the Water“. But, that was one track on one album – I can’t blame anyone for experimentation. A mark of a true professional is trying, failing, recognizing it as failing, and moving on. And that’s what George Strait did, for 13 years – so I can only blame MCA for this bullshit.

King George’s next studio album – as he’s only retired from touring, not recording, and is already back at work in the studio – can’t come soon enough to wipe this bloodstain from our ears. In the meantime, just stick with 2003’s “For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome“.

Two whiskey bottles out of five. The songs and singers are of course four or five bottles because it’s GEORGE STRAIT, but frick this should have been done better. This was clearly a fast turnaround by major-label execs who saw big dollar signs and wanted to make a quick buck – it has nothing to do with respecting fans paying homage to the best musical career in four decades. Money over music, everything Strait’s (admittedly poorly acted) movie strained against. No, just, no.

Ah, hell. At least it included the Martina McBride duet on the old Cash favorite, “Jackson.” That was a lot of fun when I saw the show in Philadelphia, so, that’s something.

George Strait retires, and I bawl like a f*****’ baby

George Strait is, without a doubt in my mind, the absolute greatest country artist who has EVER lived. 60 #1 hits without every giving up the cowboy image or neo-traditional sound. He’s been my favorite artist for nearly 2/3 of my life, and I have been blessed enough to see him four times live. I would have killed, literally killed, to be at last night’s George Strait concert in Arlington, Texas. I almost went, too – even just six days ago I still didn’t know I was going to do, but in the end, couldn’t quite swing it.

I knew I would absolutely lose it during the final “The Cowboy Rides Away” if I made it in person. But I didn’t expect to lose it just watching the clip on my laptop.

I should have gone to Dallas. I should have thrown every last bit of caution to the wind and gone to Dallas. And yet, he’s only retired from TOURing, not PERFORMing… he promises a few more one-off shows are still to come… my best guess is that that means some San Antonio area concerts and a few more shows at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo… something tells me I’ll get to the see king once or twice more yet, the good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

Video via Saving Country Music

I still have hope for the future of country music

George_strait_texas_monthly_cover_no_typeTexas Monthly is always far more than a regional magazine, but this month’s cover is really something special. No words, no article teasers, just a black-and-white of the retiring (from touring) king George Strait with his hand on his heart, looking straight into the camera and straight at his fans. It’s direct, it’s simple, and it tells a personal story without needing any bells, whistles, or other distractions — just like George Strait himself.

Granted, I’m biased; Strait has been my favorite artist since I was 10, and I write this post wearing jeans from Wrangler’s George Strait line, literally the only kinds of jeans I own. But even allowing for all that, the two cover articles are both must-reads for any traditional country fan – one a retrospective of Strait’s career by TM’s always-excellent John Spong, the other an essay pondering the future of country music by Music City Roots’ Craig Havighurst.

These are dark times for country music, there’s no doubt about that – and sadly, Havighurst argues that there will probably never be another King George. “Were [Strait] starting out today, he’d face a quick-hit culture that would undoubtedly clash against his tempo and timing… Perhaps the system just doesn’t do built-to-last anymore.” (Well, one can only hope that Florida Georgia Line will have the longevity of an Ikea dresser.) Havighurst also points out that Brad Paisley’s momentum is slowing, Josh Turner hasn’t been nominated for a major award in six years, and Kacey Musgraves’ critical adoration “feels like a dark harbinger of how she’ll fare on the radio long-term.” It all reminds me of what singer Clay Walker said late last year:

Traditional country music died. I think that George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs was, to me, a symbolic and a real closing of the door… I think people are fooling themselves if they think for a second that the recording industry is going to accept any more traditional country music on the radio.

Maybe Havighurst and Walker are right, but I’m not so sure. Strait was a traditional singer who toppled slick, commercial music and forced Nashville to make room for a new kind of sound. The way he did it can’t be replicated, no, but perhaps the feat itself can still be accomplished another way.

In 1980, Strait’s traditional, Texas sound was almost as out of place on mainstream country radio as it is today. I don’t disagree that the way Strait broke through then would be almost impossible to replicate today. As Spong explains:

Back then, most radio stations were owned by individuals, and all [manager Erv] Woolsey had to do to get Strait on the air was get program directors to attend his concerts. Now those stations are owned by only a handful of conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus, and the people at the top of those pyramids have decided to stick with this new sound. Sometimes country radio seems like one long, loud song.

What all that means is that in 1983, you could have thousands of chances to make it big in dozens of regional markets; today, you have just three or four chances in one national market.

As dire as that sounds, the future of country radio and record labels is NOT the same thing as the future of country music. In 1983, if you wanted to be a music star, you had to make it big on the radio. That’s still somewhat true today, but things are changing fast, and the market landscape will be radically different by 2020 or 2030.

Radio isn’t dying the same way newspapers are, no, but ratings are falling. It’s true, 92% of Americans listen to the radio each week versus just 20% who listen to Internet radio – but 20% is a huge number when you consider that Spotify is just four years old. Demographics matter, too – what’s the age of the average FM music listener? Today’s youth don’t want to roll the dice and hope the DJ plays something cool when they can just design their own iPhone playlists.

Similarly, while major record labels are still the only way to become a superstar, they don’t have the same stranglehold on middle-tier success that they used to. Thanks to Internet crowd-funding and social media, there are now dozens of ways to build a fan base. Nothing proves that more than this month’s stellar news that traditionalist Sturgill Simpson’s second album debuted at #11 on the charts – independently produced, a perfect bird to the major labels.

Are Internet radio, social media, and crowd-funding the future of pop music? And if so, does that extend to the demographics of a traditionally more-rural format like country? I don’t know. The tech landscape is changing too fast, and too much is at stake in the net neutrality battle, for anyone to authoritatively state that they know what Web 3.0 or 4.0 will look like. But what we can say is that the future does not look like the present.

The deep pockets always tajohnny-cash-fingerke over a genre once it starts to get popular – and the people always counter with something new. When pop became stale, along came rock. When rock became too slick, along came punk. When Nashville threw out the steel guitars, the Texas outlaws gave them the middle finger and the neo-traditionalists pulled Hank Williams’ old cowboy hat out of the dumpster. And today, with pop more obsessed with teenagers than ever, indie folk has come along with its banjos.

Giant corporations try to put profit before people, but there are always just enough people with just enough voice to scream “SOD OFF” loud enough to make it stick. So no, the record labels can’t be beat the same way they were in 1983. But they can be beat another way, and time will show us exactly what that is. Maybe Sturgill is already leading the way.