10 April 2013

Playlist: George Strait - Phase One, 1981-1992

It's been awhile since I last worked on a playlist, but I've been going through my music library in the last few weeks and kinda got on a George Strait kick. You might have noticed that when one of the handful of blog posts I wrote last month was about his Strait Out of the Box box set. I've wanted to make a George Strait playlist for quite some time, but with so much material it was hard to pick a specific scope. I ultimately elected to survey the first decade or so of his career, from 1981 into 1992. It was in '92 that Strait first collaborated with producer Tony Brown on the soundtrack album for the feature film Pure Country, which I wrote about for Flickchart. Brown has produced all of Strait's work since then, so it seemed to me that the pre-Tony Brown era would make for an interesting focus. Hence the playlist title, "Phase One, 1981-1992".

Remember, kids; for most of his career, King George released an album annually. That's twelve albums of ten songs apiece for a total of 120 songs; 130 if you include 1987's Merry Christmas Strait to You (from which I very nearly did select "What a Merry Christmas This Could Be"). There were also three different hits collections of ten songs apiece, released every four years, but they included no new material so they didn't actually add to the volume of songs for consideration.

There really weren't any non-album tracks to consider. There is a live performance of "All My Ex's Live in Texas" from the Grammy's, but it didn't feel right for this playlist so I went with the album version. Strait Out of the Box includes three recordings from before Strait signed with MCA and another three tracks that were recorded from an ultimately scrapped session but I didn't feel any of those six songs fit this playlist. The box set does include Strait's duet with Hank Thompson on "Six Pack to Go", which only appeared on a duets album of Thompson's, and that fit this playlist. More on that later.

"Rhythm of the Road"
(Dan McCoy) from #7

I knew the lion's share of this playlist would wind up being singles, so I wanted to use an album cut to open it. This one has a great sound, a lot of energy and its lyrics make it a perfect opening number for a concert.

"All My Ex's Live in Texas"
(Sanger D. Shafer, Lyndia J. Shafer) from Ocean Front Property

Coming right out of the unexpected "Rhythm of the Road", I liked this familiar favorite to settle the mood. Plus, it's nice to have the fiddle and steel guitar so prominent so early. This song so easily lent itself to being mocked and incorporated into the stereotype about country music, but it's so self-aware that it's one big joke where we all get to laugh with it and not at it. You can mock this song all you want and it doesn't matter. It's still shameless fun.

"Blame It on Mexico"
(Darryl Staedtler) from Strait Country

Another album cut this time. It has a similar aesthetic to "Marina Del Rey", which I dropped because I like this song more. It works well coming right after "All My Ex's", I think.

"The Chair"
(Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran) from Something Special

What I love about this song is that it's the most ridiculous pick-up ever, but set to music with Strait singing it somehow it's actually smooth and charming. I always liked the line "No, I don't know the name of the band but they're good" and that in the music video, the band is Strait's Ace in the Hole Band. I could never pull off anything like this, so I admire the hubris to make it into a song.

"Let's Fall to Pieces Together"
(Dickey Lee, Johnny Russell, Tommy Rocco) from Right or Wrong

I didn't mean for it to work out this way, but this is the only song from the Right or Wrong album that made it to the final version of this playlist. I liked pairing it with "The Chair" since both songs are basically first person come-ons at a bar. Where "The Chair" is playful, "Let's Fall to Pieces Together" is somewhere between vulnerable and defiant, hoping that someone else hurting will want to find solace together. This is a song that's been on my mind a lot lately, even before I started going back through my music library.

"Hot Burning Flames"
(Hank Cochran, Mack Vickery, Wayne Kemp) from Ocean Front Property

From this entire era, Ocean Front Property is my favorite album and when I made my first cuts, I had five of its ten songs selected for this playlist. Like "Rhythm of the Road", this one has a lot of energy and it's fun, but like "Let's Fall to Pieces Together", it resonates with me very directly these days. Right now I've only got that little spark but I continue to hope someone out there will want to turn it into "Hot Burning Flames".

"In Too Deep"
(Erv Woolsey, Jerry Max Lane) from Something Special

I owned Strait Out of the Box before I got around to buying several of the earlier albums, so this is one of several songs I first heard there instead of on the original album. I just love the sound of this one. There's something about undulating between fastly sung lines and slower sung lines that I dig.

"Wonderland of Love"
(Curtis Wayne) from Holding My Own

Strait himself laments that if there was one negative thing about Pure Country, it's that it overshadowed the Holding My Own album. I completely agree with him on that, and this album cut is a personal favorite. Like "In Too Deep", I first heard it on Strait Out of the Box rather than on Holding My Own. I like the idea of being comfortable saying to someone, "Sometimes I need assurance of your love". Yes, it can quickly become clingy and unhealthy but I think we make a mistake by not allowing those moments to be expressed honestly between partners. There's a playful tone to this song, but it really does address some very important relationship content.

"Ace in the Hole"
(Dennis Adkins) from Beyond the Blue Neon

The first George Strait album I ever heard was Beyond the Blue Neon. My brother and I both had Walkmans and were allowed to pick out one tape each. I picked Prince's Batman soundtrack, and my brother picked Beyond the Blue Neon. I've always enjoyed that album, and this song in particular. I love that the movie Swingers ends with Jasper the hound at Chuck E. Cheese covering this song.

"Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye"
(Tony Martin, Troy Martin) from Beyond the Blue Neon

I don't normally like to put two songs from the same album together on a playlist, but there's a sort of personal connotation for me that links these two. The music video for "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye" was out around the time that my brother got the tape, so there's a reflexive connection for me of that album and video. This song taught me a lot about subtle satire, incidentally. When I first heard it, I couldn't believe that "I still can't believe she'd leave so easily" despite the fact they'd fought so often that she left regularly. It sounds like such a sad song, but when you stop and think on it you realize this guy is a self-deluded jerk.

"Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind"
(Darlene Shafer, Sanger D. Shafer) from Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind

I would listen to just an instrumental performance of this and be soothed by the fiddle, steel and piano. That it's such a well-written lamentation of love lost is almost incidental. The first few notes (bars?) sound pleasant enough but then comes one of my favorite first lines ever: "Cold Fort Worth beer just ain't no good for jealous". Just like that, you know where you are and what's going on and that no good will come of it. It's an ubiquitous situation retold vividly.

"Ocean Front Property"
(Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran, Royce Porter) from Ocean Front Property

I liked the pseudo-sarcasm of the lyrics, but what really draws me to this song time and again is the instrumentation. Johnny Gimble absolutely kills that fiddle part. I've seen George Strait in concert thrice, and he never sang this at any of those shows, which still disappoints me.

"Gone as a Girl Can Get"
(Jerry Max Lane) from Holding My Own

This song also made its way onto #myraptureplaylist in 2011. I really like the unusual sound of this one, but also how masochistic it is. I mean, this guy just will not let up on how completely over him his ex now is. It's like Jerry Max Lane wrote this song when Taylor Swift was born in anticipation of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to show us the guy's side of hearing that declaration from her.

"If I Know Me"
(Pam Belford, Dean Dillon) from Chill of an Early Fall

"You Know Me Better Than That"
(Tony Haselden, Anna Lisa Graham) from Chill of an Early Fall

These two are so obvious to link that I had to do it. They were also released as singles back-to-back in this order, so there's that. I really wanted to include the title song from Chill of an Early Fall. It made it through several rounds of cuts, but not the final playlist. This "Know Me" duo is an awfully solid representation of that album, though. I love the juxtaposition of perspectives even though the songs weren't written to be companions at all. "You know the me that gets lazy and fat/Oh she tells her friends I'm perfect and that I love her cat/But you know me better than that" - that's some of my favorite writing.

"Fool Hearted Memory"
(Byron Hill, Alan R. Mevis) from Strait from the Heart

Strait's very first #1 single is sort of a third-person omniscient narrator version of "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind". I thought originally about pairing them together in this playlist, but I wanted to break up their similar sounds. This isn't necessarily a song I think of immediately when naming my favorite George Strait tracks, but every time I hear it I get lost in it and that's how it made it through each round of cuts here.

"If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')"
(Tommy Collins) from If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')

Sometimes this song bothers me because I feel like it's saying that when I'm not in a relationship, my life is incomplete but then I remember that 1) I actually feel like that on my own anyway and 2) that's not the point being made here. Rather, the philosophy here is that no matter how much you may accomplish or acquire, it's  not a substitute for some lovin'. It's fun to sing along with this one, especially with some of its more absurd lyrics, like being "kin to the president and...help[ing] run the government" not making up for being lonely.

"I've Come to Expect It from You"
(Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon) from Livin' It Up

This is another of those songs where the sound is unusual and draws me in, and then I find myself loving the lyrics. This is a song about finally coming to terms with the fact that you've allowed yourself to be done wrong by someone who is very bad for you. It's really easy for someone on the outside, but it's a very hard thing to do yourself to get to this point.

"It Ain't Cool to Be Crazy About You"
(Dean Dillon, Royce Porter) from #7

At first blanch this seems thematically similar to the previous song but there's a sort of resigned acceptance here in the stead of the defiance of "I've Come to Expect It from You". I can't tell if this song takes place before or after "Expect" in the process of making a break from someone who's not right for you, and I think it works either way but I liked the sound of this order more than I liked it in reverse.

"Lefty's Gone"
(Sanger D. Shafer) from Something Special

Songwriter Whitey Shafer wrote this about Lefty Frizzell, and Strait recalls in his box set liner notes that when Shafer played the song for him, he had to leave the room because it upset him so much. It's a lovely tribute song, with very specific imagery ("He played the fair in Dallas one year in the cold October rain"), set to a nearly mesmerizing arrangement. Even if you had no idea who Lefty is/was, the song is so forlorn and tragic that I think it can even just work as a story, like "Mr. Bojangles" or "Dumas Walker".

"Six Pack to Go"
with Hank Thompson
(Johnny Lowe, Hank Thompson, Dick Hart) from Strait Out of the Box

This was recorded in 1986 for an album of Thompson's, but I can't find anything anywhere to indicate what album it was! During my undergrad studies I was instructed to always cite exactly where I got information, not where it originated, so on that basis I've cited this track as being from the box set.

Anyway, it's a great remake of the famed honky-tonk number, and Strait sounds very relaxed on it. I confess, I actually forgot to check the box set for material recorded in the years I've covered here until after I'd burned it to a CD. I wound up bumping "You Look So Good in Love" to make room for this. I hated to drop that, particularly as I know it's one of my brother's favorite Strait songs, but it was the right length. Plus, I think that song is just a bit too slow for the overall pace of this playlist, and "Six Pack to Go" is a better fit.

(Take note: there are six songs remaining on the playlist after this one.)

"She Loves Me (She Don't Love You)"
(Conway Twitty) from Livin' It Up

It's funny to me to think of ladies man Conway Twitty writing a tough guy song, but here it is. Gary Allan also covered it, but I found his reading too casual. Strait imbues it with the proper insistent attitude. "Here's your coat and there's the door/I think you better leave". Every time I hear this song, I recall his character's showdown with Buddy Jackson at the end of Pure Country: "Go on. Get your ass out of here!"

"Baby Blue"
(Aaron Barker) from If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')

It's long been speculated that Strait selected this song in subtle tribute to his daughter Jenifer, who was killed at 13 in a traffic accident. It's a bittersweet song even without that context, but whenever this song plays I don't think of it as being about a failed romance.

"Love Without End, Amen"
(Aaron Barker) from Livin' It Up

Whether "Baby Blue" was selected in memory of Strait's daughter, we know for certain that he had his son "Bubba" in mind when he recorded "Love Without End, Amen". He even went so far as to have the lyrics changed to reflect the year of his son's birth. I remember when my niece was born, my dad took my brother and me to visit our half-brother and his then-girlfriend in the hospital. We visited for a bit and then ate at the Pizza Hut in Shelbyville. They had a jukebox, and I played this song. I can be sentimental like that.

"Unwound"
(Dean Dillon, Frank Dycus) from Strait Country

This song could have gone anywhere on this playlist, really. I don't really sympathize with the guy at all here, since his cheating is responsible for his wife kicking him out of the house, but Rob Hajacos's fiddle puts me in a trance. Strait could be singing about submitting to Quetzalcoatl and as long as that fiddle was there I'd sing along with it.

"The Cowboy Rides Away"
(Sonny Throckmorton, Casey Kelly) from Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind

This is my personal favorite George Strait song ever. I love everything about this recording; the lyrics and their image-conjuring narrative, the sound of the arrangement and instrumentation and Strait's vocals. I hate that even though he closes his shows with this song, he only sings the first half of it.

I did notice, though, that the last track on his forthcoming album, Love Is Everything, is titled "When the Credits Roll". A few days ago at the Academy of Country Music Awards, he performed with Garth Brooks in a tribute to Dick Clark. Garth performed "The Dance" in its entirety, then King George came on stage and sang the second half of "The Cowboy Rides Away", starting with the line "And as the credits roll, a sad song starts to play". Perhaps that performance will appear with the altered title to close out the album?

"Amarillo by Morning"
(Terry Stafford, Paul Fraser) from Strait from the Heart

If "The Cowboy Rides Away" was the finale of the set, then "Amarillo by Morning" is its encore. I love the song anyway, deconstructing whatever romantic notions there may have been about life as a rodeo cowboy. Buddy Spicher's fiddle performance is one of my favorites not only in this playlist, but of anything I've ever heard. Plus thematically I liked the cowboy riding away, trying to make Amarillo by morning, and this also brings the playlist full circle with "Rhythm of the Road".

There were, of course, nearly a hundred eligible songs that I omitted and it hurt me to make some of the choices that I wound up having to make. This era of George Strait's career is very interesting; he had clear ideas about who he was (and who he wasn't), but there were a few different producers to handle his work at this point in his career. It wasn't until Jimmy Bowen came along with Strait's fourth album, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, that Strait began co-producing his work. Despite the learning curve inherent to the early part of anyone's artistic career, this was his heaviest saturation of radio success - including a consecutive eleven #1 singles. I've tried to present here something other than a chronological compilation of those singles and instead a survey of this first phase in the evolution of George Strait's music career.

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