Somewhere Down In Texas
eorge Strait’s last release, 2004’s career-spanning 50 Number Ones, put an exclamation point on the “Hell, yeah” response to the question “Is George Strait one of the best artists in country music—and has he been for the past quarter-century?” From early classics such as “Fool Hearted Memory” and “You Look So Good In Love” (a bit clichéd, yes, but Strait’s sincerity sells it) to recent smashes including “She’ll Leave You With A Smile” and the stunning open prairie of “Run,” 50 Number Ones shows and proves that just by doing what he does so well (and seemingly so simply), Strait’s become one of the all-time greats. (Now that the Country Music Hall of Fame has instituted a post-1980 category, expect him to be inducted sooner rather than later, even as he’s still an active hit maker.)
The fact that his new Somewhere Down In Texas is such a dud is thus all the more heartbreaking. The problem is a simple, and surprising, one: this is a pretty poor collection of songs. For someone such as Strait who doesn’t write his own material (not generally uncommon in country music, though a bit unusual for someone whose superstar wattage burns as brightly as his), there’s basically nothing more important than song selection—Toby Keith, for instance, can write himself an 11th song to round out an album, an option Strait doesn’t choose to (or feels he can’t) use. As he’s shown throughout his career (on fine evidence on 50 Number Ones), few choose songs better than Strait does; he’s got a string of classics trailing him 25 years back.
Somehow, that skill evaded him when it came time to hit the studio to cut Somewhere Down In Texas. Don’t be fooled by the album’s second and third songs, which could fit rather nicely in Strait’s pantheon—the title track is a lovely, true-to-George tale of who he is (and where he’s from), while “The Seashores of Old Mexico” is a hidden midtempo gem from Waylon Jennings’s mid-‘70s catalog, featuring some sweet Latin guitar picking and a charming string section (the song’s 1974 copyright is no shock). More true to the nature of Texas is opener “If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk,” a gleefully politically incorrect number about how “You could smoke that cigarette, be politically incorrect [natch], show that red around your neck,” et cetera, if, well, you saw the song’s title. With a more amphetamine-fueled arrangement, this song could work a charm for someone like Trace Adkins or Toby Keith, but from Strait, it just doesn’t sound right.
“Good News, Bad News” is a generic ballad that wastes the formidable talents of duet partner Lee Ann Womack, complete with swelling strings ripped straight from a Faith Hill record, while “Oh, What A Perfect Day” ruins a fine ‘60s-ish arrangement (two-step tempo, sweet fiddle) with lyrics from The Big Book of Country Clichés. “Texas” is a love letter than Dubya will inevitably love, and residents of any other state should find a waste of their time. “High Tone Woman” is a fun enough song, very honky-tonk, with its train-kept-a-rollin’ snare tattoo. Unfortunately for Strait, it sounds like it belongs on k.d. lang’s 1988 classic Absolute Torch and Twang next to “Big-Boned Gal.”
As Texas became yet another #1 album on Billboard’s country chart for Strait (his incredible 20th such chart-topper), it’s doubtful that either he or anyone in his camp will see anything wrong with this album, which is a shame. Easily Strait’s worst album in over a decade, this Texas is a place most definitely not worth your vacation dollars.