The short version: While it’s scattershot in some places, ‘Honky Tonk Time Machine’ is nonetheless a welcome return for King George Strait.
- Favorite tracks: “Some Days,” “Sometimes Love,” “Blue Water,” “Old Violin,” “Sing One With Willie (w/ Willie Nelson)”
- Least favorite track: “Código”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Sadly, an eventual exclusion of country music legends from the mainstream is a large part of country music history. No one wants to admit it, but this is a business. Artists come, have their time in the spotlight, and finally make way for newcomers.
In the four years since George Strait released his last album, Cold Beer Conversation, it feels like the country music family is split more than ever. Perhaps there’s a recency bias to take into account here, but Strait’s departure has hurt more than most.
Of course, for Strait himself, this has its benefits and its consequences. On his newest album, Honky Tonk Time Machine, Strait both addresses his legacy and place in current country music and records material that feels more natural to him. It doesn’t come without some snags in the road, but Honky Tonk Time Machine is a record that feels perfect for Strait to make at this point in his career.
In terms of the instrumentation and production, if you’ve heard just one Strait song, you know exactly what to expect. There’s plenty of fiddle, steel guitar, warm acoustics and piano to carry the melodies. When I said too that this album felt like Strait easing into his current position, part of that had to do with the presentation. Tracks like “Two More Wishes” and “Blue Water” are easy-going in their respective deliveries. Even the melodic compositions are fairly striking on “Sometimes Love,” “Blue Water,” “God and Country Music,” “Take Me Away,” and “Some Nights.”
Perhaps here more than on other works, there’s more attention to detail in the compositions as well. The fiddle pickup after the choruses of “Blue Water” comes through with warmth and delicacy to fit the mood of the content well. “Some Nights” begins with liquid guitar strums anchored by piano and fiddle before unleashing a fairly powerful chorus to sell its bitterness. The quirky melody of “Two More Wishes” easily fits Jim Lauderdale’s writing style and Strait’s relaxed, humorous delivery, and the same comment extends toward the bouncy “Take Me Away.”
But the points for well-executed songs also extend toward Strait himself. No, this album doesn’t test his range on a technical level all that much. But it’s surprising just how “at home” he feels on this album. He’s not taking himself too seriously on “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” “Two More Wishes,” or the title track, and the desire for some rest and relaxation on “Blue Water” certainly feels earned. In other words, while Strait’s voice has always been comparable to the comfort food of country music, it’s even more refined here.
Of course, one of Strait’s best assets has always been his simplicity. “Some Nights” and “Sometimes Love” are fairly standard tracks addressing the aftermath of a relationship, but by God, Strait sells the former track with a ton of firepower. On the latter track, his knack for pulling off that delicate, intimate balance makes the song feel all the more aching. Even while certain tracks like “God and Country Music,” “The Weight Of The Badge,” and “What Goes Up,” do come close to crossing the line between authentic and schmaltzy, you certainly never doubt that Strait feels what he’s singing there.
In terms of the content, Honky Tonk Time Machine presents an interesting discussion. One has to question if, with the abundance of tracks addressing the aftermath of a breakup and moving on, if he’s referring to mere characters or his actual relationship with country music. Strait had a song called “Kicked Outta Country” released with Jamey Johnson a few years ago – it’s not like this theory isn’t plausible!
If anything, while Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin” wasn’t originally intended to revolve around aging, it certainly feels like Strait was gunning for that sentiment with his version. Thankfully, “Take Me Away” follows it up where Strait explicitly states that nothing will take him away from the love of the game.
Strait also reflects on the past in quite a humorous way. Whether it’s literally going back to the musical past on the title track or observing the scene around him in “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” Strait is ultimately looking back on his career with a smile on his face. Is it the most poetic way to go about it? Of course not, but to reiterate a previous point, Strait’s greatest asset has always been his simplicity and easy-going nature. It’s fitting, therefore, that the album ends with his insecurity about having come this far without singing a duet with Willie Nelson on “Sing One With Willie.”
But if we’re reaching for criticisms with this album, the most glaringly weak track is his commercial track, “Código,” especially when it’s sandwiched between two of the more serious (and better) tracks, “Sometimes Love” and “Old Violin.” It’s a fairly jarring three-track run. At 13 tracks too, the album could have afforded to trim a bit of fat. Lead single “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” still feels like a weaker cut, and both “God and Country Music” and “Weight Of The Badge” certainly won’t be for everyone.
Yet overall, Honky Tonk Time Machine is a fairly solid return from King Strait, and certainly a welcome fit given what the current country music climate looks like. With Strait, the easiest way to sell this album is to ask if you’ve liked his previous material, but the album also goes deeper by exploring his current stance in the country music industry. On top of that, the instrumentation, melodic structure and vocal performances are surprisingly in top form. Some critics have questioned how many more albums we’ll likely get out of Strait, but if you read between the lines, I’d say there’s nothing to worry about.