Our discussions of ‘80s country records thus far have focused mainly on the artists themselves, rather than the general country music picture. It was, as these turn of the decades typically are, a period of change as certain older artists struggled while newer artists flourished. But what about the general sound of the era? We’ve touched upon this loosely in past conversations, but it’s time to address it directly head-on, through an artist who stood directly on one side of the musical divide, even if his sophomore album tells a slightly different story. Onward!
You wouldn’t expect a conversation surrounding change and upheaval to involve George Strait.
I don’t mean that as a slight, mind you. If anything, I mean it more as a positive character trait. Listening to a George Strait record just feels like indulging in the best sort of comfort food: it’s warm, clean-cut, and soft-spoken, but there’s always a respectable degree of integrity present that’s helped it aged considerably well, regardless of the decade it was released. It’s never the deepest or most challenging material, but it doesn’t need to be, because pure consistency is an underrated artistic strength, too.
And yet, his rise to stardom is a notable one even those only vaguely familiar with their country music history have surely heard about in some form. The records we’ve discussed through this series have all dabbled in their fair share of pop-country elegance, but those slight pivots have all felt individualistic in their attempts to branch out and meet the demands of the new era; pop-country should never be used as an automatic pejorative, after all. Still, that evergreen debate will forever rage on, and when it comes to the early ‘80s … well, I kind of understand why. I’ve written about the Urban Cowboy phenomenon in greater detail before, but through its success a lot of sleepy, pop-influenced country music infiltrated the airwaves, most of which hasn’t aged well one bit.
The boom itself would die down with time, but it also received some natural counters that helped ease in the course correction. It’s a far subtler pushback than we’ve seen elsewhere in this genre’s history, and it’s really just a result of certain artists looking to echo past influences rather than fit comfortably in with the new normal. John Anderson’s unique drawl made him better suited to sing hard-shell honky tonk in the vein of Lefty Frizzell; Ricky Skaggs took his experience playing with Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris to bring bluegrass to the mainstream; and George Strait … well, that’s a simpler tale. He just went back to the basics.
Debut single “Unwound,” then, stood out on the airwaves in 1981 in a good way. It, along with his debut album in general, Strait Country, was unabashedly honky tonk in spirit and drew inspiration from notable country and western-swing icons. But there was also a freshness and crispness to its presentation that made it sound fitting for the modern era. As such, “neo-traditional” country music was born.
In essence, Strait’s sophomore album is largely a repeat of his debut album, right down to the name-drop pun of the title and the general desired sound, but it’s a fascinating discussion point in his discography and career that I’ve seen split opinions on over the years. Of course, this also comes with the caveat that, if we’re being honest, Strait has never been much of an albums artist (though many of my personal favorites by him are deep-cut gems). It’s not a mark against him, just more of a testament to why he’s endured, if anything. By focusing on one iconic single after another, there’s an accessibility that makes his work over the decades so easily approachable.
But I also think Strait From the Heart provides an interesting window into this specific time period in country music, not just for Strait but for the genre in general. It’s varied but surprisingly consistent in tone, and while, again, it never aims to make some grandiose statement as a complete collection of music, the consistency and quality is enough to make it one of my favorite albums of his, even if there is slightly more to unpack with this one than expected.
Granted, for the most part this is fairly meat-and-potatoes Strait material, where its greatest assets tend to come down to excellent melodic compositions anchored by well-produced fiddle and pedal steel, a general warmth and grace that makes it easy to return to, and a lead singer who always tends to rely on subtlety but packs an equally warm charisma in his performances regardless. But there is a notable ‘80s polish that can make some of the material here feel a bit less unique, too, even if it’s always still well-performed. Most tend to point to “Marina Del Rey” as the obvious example of this, a big departure from Strait’s previous work in how it anchors itself in lush piano and strings. But it’s still one of my favorites of his regardless, if only because it furthers its differences from that past material by being much sadder and more emotional – damn-near hypnotic in its beauty, really. For as direct as he tends to be, I’ve always found Strait’s melancholic cuts to be among his best, and this is a prime example.
Where it’s a tad less convincing is on tracks like “Steal of the Night” and “Lover in Disguise,” both of which do feel a tad old-fashioned in their language and – the latter, in particular – sleazy in construct, even if Strait never leans into that and still manages to make both come across as generally good-natured. Even still, off the darker allure provided by the strings on the latter track, I do appreciate the general atmosphere, different as it is for Strait.
But I also think the difference goes beyond mere general genre conventions and soundscape. This feels like a slightly moodier effort for the better. Heck, I’ve always felt that by introducing the song with that distanced extended fiddle and soft percussion, “Amarillo By Morning” has that feeling of a sunrise – a new day dawning that’s full of possibilities but still lonely in how its star character chases down a dream solely for himself. He’s even sacrificed quite a bit for just a chance at it.
And if it’s just general heartache and loneliness we’re after, this album provides that in spades. “Fool Hearted Memory” almost defies expectations in how sweet and chipper that lead fiddle comes across, only for it to depict a common rambler-like fool who’s finally met his match in heartache and possibly received his due comeuppance, even if it’s still easy to sympathize with his pain. I also quite enjoy the sharper sizzle of the electric axes and bass to give the similar-themed “The Only Thing I Have Left” a bit more bite and edge. And while I’m very tempted to say “Amarillo By Morning” would have made for the better album closer, I’ve always appreciated “A Fire I Can’t Put Out” acting as that instead, not just for its richer elegance carried by the softer touches of piano and fiddle, but for showing how the cycle of heartache ends as it began, providing at least some sense of a thematic arc.
It’s certainly not morose, though. It’s just more emotionally stirring and more revealing of what Strait himself could effectively handle compared to his debut, though there are also some cuts that play to direct expectations, for better or worse. He’s not much of a hellraiser, but with its loose, thumping rollick, “Honky Tonk Crazy” still comes across as a good excuse to blow off some steam and let loose one’s worries. “I Can’t See Texas From Here” is the lone western-swing cut here that’s as lighthearted, fun, and goofy as you’d expect. There’s also, of course, the deceptively chipper “Heartbroke,” a Guy Clark cover that also provides an interesting nod toward the aforementioned Ricky Skaggs, who was indirectly part of Strait’s band of brothers during this era and released his own version as a single. Though I will be honest: Strait’s version sounds oddly stiff compared to most other versions I’ve heard, and I’d definitely have to label this as filler material.
Although, if we’re looking for more fun facts, “A Fire I Can’t Put Out” was penned by Darryl Staedtler, a Texas songwriter who first shopped Strait’s demo around Nashville in 1977. But I think the more interesting bit of trivia is not only reflected in this unusual melting pot of Strait styles, but also in what it actually meant for him afterward. Strait’s first two albums were produced by Blake Mevis, and for his third, he switched to Ray Baker. The reason behind the switch was because Mevis wanted to shift Strait toward a more conventional country-pop mold, which Strait objected to, even if it’s easy to see where some of those seeds were planted on this particular record (Mevis would find himself in a similar situation years later, through none other than Keith Whitley).
Even still, despite being the oddball album of Strait’s discography, between the numerous iconic singles, some surprisingly well-crafted album cuts, and a general appreciated consistency in tone even despite the somewhat odd variety in sound, I’d say it’s mostly held up well. Not that I’d expect the king to suffer a sophomore slump anyway.
Join me next time, where for the next few editions we’ll focus on career breakthroughs, all of which reflect the eclectic nature of where country music had headed by the middle of the decade. Our first focus in that regard will be on The Judds and Why Not Me.