This second LP since George Strait’s retirement from touring — his 30th studio LP — is a trip back to when country radio didn’t suck as a rule: Eighties pop shine cut with pedal steel/fiddle poetry, Texas swing, cantina blues and achingly-crooned nostalgia that generally doesn’t feel hard sell, even when things gets treacly.
Which of course, they do. But “The Weight of the Badge” is a good-cop tribute that feels legit despite a whiff of Fox News human interest story. And “God and Country Music” is a matter-of-fact spiritual that might soften hardboiled atheists — even if the charming kid’s voice at the end (it belongs to Strait’s grandson) feels like cheating. The song was penned by the power trio of Luke Laird, Barry Dean and Lori McKenna, and holds up an image of two patriarchs: Johnny Cash, beloved Christian progressive and tolerant empath, with his arm around Billy Graham, beloved Christian conservative, legacy homophobe and closet anti-Semite. It’s an idealized vision of country’s power to unite, and religion’s. But good on Strait for pitching it. And the Lone Star soul in the chorus — the way he shoots into his upper register on “there’s always lost in the found/Darkness in the ‘I saw the light’” like a Blue Angels squadron while invoking two country gospel cornerstones — is magnificent by any measure.
The highlights elsewhere include top-shelf boilerplate honky-tonkin’: see the Hank Williams-invoking “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” and the rock’n’rollin’ “Honky Tonk Time Machine.” There’s some Bob Wills Tex-Mex swing (“Codigo”) and a lonesome Johnny Paycheck cover (“Old Violin”). The duet “Sing One With Willie,” a sort of second cousin to Toby Keith’s “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again,” wraps things up with a smirk. It’s a half-baked love song between two old Texas legends who are as different as Cash and Graham, but unified by country music. These days, we all need to find common ground where we can.