09 March 2013

"Strait Out of the Box" by George Strait

Strait Out of the Box
George Strait
Original Release Date: 12 September 1995
Date of Purchase: 2 October 1997
4 discs | 72 songs | 217:32

I only know the date I bought mine because last year, I came across the canceled check I wrote for it. I paid $36.21 (including sales tax). This was the first box set I ever bought, and it remains the gold standard by which I judge them all. Box sets have become extraneous in the digital era, where fans can simply throw an entire artist's discography onto their iPods and make their own career-spanning playlists, but in 1995, this one rewarded fans for re-buying so many songs they probably already had.

Strait Out of the Box surveys the entire first fifteen years of George Strait's recording career. Every album in his discography to that point is represented with the lone exception of 1987's Merry Christmas Wherever You Are, for obvious reasons. Every non-holiday single is included, with the lone exception of "Down and Out", his second charting single, which Strait himself disliked and didn't even want to release. There are quite a lot of album cuts, too, each personally selected by Strait, and another eleven rarities such as three songs Strait recorded prior to signing with MCA. It's this blend of radio favorites, album cuts and rarities that makes Strait Out of the Box so compelling.

Other box sets tend to be much lazier, opting to just collect radio singles and some B-sides. For instance, Garth Brooks's 1998 The Limited Series simply threw his first six studio albums in a box, adding one song to each. There was clearly more thought put into Strait Out of the Box.

Perhaps the most impressive work that went into this isn't even the music content at all, but rather the 72-page booklet. There's a 37-page, in-depth biography of King George penned by Paul Kingsbury that chronicles his life and career, chock full of photos from publicity stills to personal candids. That's followed by a cut-by-cut commentary organized by Kay West from her interview with Strait about each of the songs here. Completing the booklet is Dee Henry Jenkins's discography of the included material listing songwriter and performer credits, recording dates, etc.

It's as close to an authorized biography or autobiography as Strait has ever released and a valuable resource for his fans - particular at the time of its pre-Internet era. Remember, kids...there used to be a time when information wasn't just a Google search or Wikipedia visit away. Even now, it's a wonderful source. I consulted it last year when I penned a blog piece for Flickchart on the Pure Country soundtrack album.

What's remarkable about George Strait's career has been his consistency. There has yet to be a particularly conspicuous George Strait album, though that's not to say they're all repetitive. On the contrary, this box set demonstrates how comfortably Strait has explored his range of styles. It can be difficult to tell when listening to any of these four discs just when you've moved on from material from one album to the next, but pull back a bit and contrast any of the four discs and it reveals how much growth actually took place every few years. None of the songs here are embarrassingly dated, because Strait never followed faddish trends, but there are distinctive "phases".

My personal favorite of the four discs here has always been Disc Two. My favorite of Strait's albums from the surveyed years is Ocean Front Property, and it's represented on that disc. Plus, my favorite Strait song ever, "The Cowboy Rides Away", is also on that disc. So too is "The Chair", as well as "In Too Deep" and "Lefty's Gone", all three from Something Special.I thoroughly enjoy Strait's duet with Hank Thompson on "Six Pack to Go", a song recorded for Thompson's duets album.

I do wish they'd included more material from 1994's Lead On, my second favorite Strait album from the first 15 years of his career. That album was still charting and singles were still being released at the time this box was compiled, though, so I can understand why it wasn't a priority. "The Big One" is a fun song and I like it, but I'd have loved for "Adalida" or "I Met a Friend of Yours Today" to have made their way into this box set.

Each disc comes in just under an hour, because there was also a cassette version of this box set. I've long wondered what might have been included had they sequenced exclusively for CD, which could have added up to a full hour of additional content. In my idealized version, there were another four songs from Lead On included at the least, as well as the live recording of Strait's performance of "All My Ex's Live in Texas" at the Grammy Awards (included on Grammy's Greatest Country Moments, Volume II). There was also the George Strait Live! concert video. From that, I'd have selected "Dance Time in Texas", a song that even as of this blog post he has never recorded for one of his studio albums.

Also, at least one song from Merry Christmas Strait to You. I think I'd probably have picked either the title track or perhaps the forlorn "What a Merry Christmas This Could Be", composed by veteran songwriters Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. Perhaps "When It's Christmas Time in Texas", written by Benny McArthur, a longtime member of Strait's Ace in the Hole Band.