Honky Tonk Time Machine
MCA Nashville 2019 George Strait
George Strait’s latest album Honky Tonk Time Machine serves as a reminder that country music’s 67-year-old elder statesman is still the most faithful progenitor of the genre’s traditionalist wing.
Indeed, Strait’s music has never strayed too far from the classic Texas country sound rooted in the western swing of his heroes like Bob Wills and Milton Brown and the early honky-tonk of Ernest Tubb. Strait’s modern version of traditional country music carried him to the top of the charts soon after the release of his 1981 debut album Strait Country, and Honky Tonk Time Machine – his 30th studio album – makes it clear that the man who has come to be known as the “King of Country” is not quite ready to abdicate the throne.
But while Strait has stayed true to his roots sonically, he has been a master of subtlety when it comes to tweaking his music thematically to stay in tune with the times. His previous album, 2015’s Cold Beer Conversation, even found Strait espousing the virtues of diversity in “It Takes All Kinds” and 2013’s Love Is Everything found Strait throwing caution to the wind as an impulsive young lover in songs like “I Got A Car” and “Give It All We Got Tonight.”
Those kinds of characters are missing from Honky Tonk Time Machine which feels like a conscious effort to bring his music back closer to his Strait Country roots. The first clue is on the album’s cover which features a no-frills shot of Austin’s legendary dancehall, The Broken Spoke, and it’s not just window dressing. In between the release of his last studio album and this latest edition to his catalog, Strait paid a visit with his band to Gruene Hall, another famous honky tonk just south of Austin.
The show marked Strait’s long-overdue return to his original stomping ground, and the opening cut “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” is an ode to the reliable familiarity of places like Gruene Hall and the Broken Spoke. The broken-hearted barflies in those places may be just as desperate as those on Love Is Everything, but instead of running from their surroundings, they seek refuge in habitual haunts choosing predictability over the uncertainty that comes with running away.
Even the lovesick fool in “Some Nights” would rather endure solitude in his usual surroundings than choose to waltz across Texas in search of a lost love who has fled to Fort Worth. It’s just another little way the album feels rooted in the familiar, and songs like “God and Country Music,” “The Weight of the Badge” and the title cut all plow proven ground that will appeal to traditional country fans.
The furthest Strait probably gets away from putting the integrity of the music front and center is the inclusion of the song "Código" – a tune he penned himself with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon, the songsmith who has authored many of Strait’s biggest hits through the years. "Código” is a toe-tapping, dance-floor filler that, in truth, is an advertisement for a tequila brand in which Strait has invested. Just in case you missed it, there’s another plug for the brand in “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” the album’s lead single.
But even when Strait is turning his art into a commercial for his own brand of liquor, it’s wrapped up so neatly in his traditional aesthetics that you barely notice. After all, being a traditionalist has never meant that Strait wasn’t also a master salesman as his 44 Billboard No. 1 hits and 70 million albums sold will attest. And Honky Tonk Time Machine feels like an album that will continue what is country music’s longest current commercial winning streak.