Out of all the country stars of the Eighties and early Nineties, George Strait was perhaps the most unlikely candidate for movie stardom. The hit-maker was notoriously reticent to do on-camera interviews, and his performances emphasized songs above attention-getting stage moves.
But Strait’s unpretentious charisma made him the perfect star of Pure Country, a gentle musical drama full of soul-searching and personal redemption that was released October 23rd, 1992. Although the movie’s box office haul was decent – it grossed $15.1 million against a $10 million budget – the Christopher Cain-directed film was lambasted by most reviewers. Still, the movie kept finding new fans organically, thanks to home video sales and cable syndication, and its influence has grown over time. In the last decade, Pure Country has become a movie series – 2010’s Pure Country 2: The Gift was followed by this year’s straight-to-video, Willie Nelson-featuring Pure Country: Pure Heart – while a long-gestating musical based on the original film even premiered back in June.
In hindsight, though, it wasn’t exactly obvious that Pure Country would grow into a cultural touchstone. Strait plays stoic Wyatt “Dusty” Chandler, a ponytail-wearing country star who sports a jacket with his name in script on the back. After becoming disillusioned with the pomp and artifice of his concerts, Dusty suddenly abandons the tour, leaving behind his band: Strait’s real-life collaborators, the Ace in the Hole Band, along with the fictional Earl Blackstock (X’s John Doe).
This departure sends Dusty’s wily business manager, Lula Rogers (Lesley Ann Warren), into a panic. Her solution is to have arrogant young musician Buddy Jackson (Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame) stand in for the absent star onstage, with fans supposedly none the wiser. Blissfully unaware of the switch, Dusty is in the midst of a visit to his grandmother and an encounter with a new romantic interest, ranch worker Harley Tucker (Isabel Glasser). Still, the respite was only temporary: Lula eventually tracks down Dusty and hauls him back to the tour for the final gig, a concert in Las Vegas where all of the disparate plot threads converge and resolve.
Strait needed some convincing to do Pure Country – even though Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had recommended the King of Country to the late producer Jerry Weintraub (The Karate Kid, Robert Altman’s Nashville). “[Strait] was kind of hesitant at first,” Weintraub, who also managed John Denver and was a former concert promoter, told Country Music in 1992. “He said to me, ‘What do I have to gain? I sell a lot of albums. I’ve got a great life. What is this going to do for me? And I don’t know how to act.”‘
It helped that the script resonated with Strait. Not only did the movie feature plenty of performance scenes, but it also placed his character in familiar situations (such as working on a ranch) that mirrored Strait’s real life. And he certainly sympathized with Dusty’s dislike of onstage bells and whistles – in the film, the fictional star frequently bemoans the presence of smoke and lights – and grueling tour schedules.
“To be totally truthful, I’ve experienced the kind of burnout this guy has in the movie,” Strait said in the same Country Music interview. “Back seven, eight years ago, when I was working 250 dates a year, you get to a point where you wonder if you can do that another year. It’s not an easy thing to deal with. It’s pretty serious. Everything starts happening so fast, you feel like you’ve lost control. That’s kind of what this guy is going through. He’s unhappy with a lot of different things in his life.”
That Dusty did something about this unhappiness is one facet of Pure Country‘s enduring appeal: Who hasn’t thought about disappearing for a while and escaping real-life stresses in order to figure out what matters most? Pure Country‘s underlying encouragement to listen to your heart – which, in Dusty’s case, involved reconnecting with stripped-down songwriting – is also inspirational. “[The leading character] can’t feel his own music any longer,” Pure Country screenwriter Rex McGee told the Fort-Worth Business Press earlier this year. “So he goes back home and gets his soul back. It’s Goethe’s Faust, basically – the ultimate midlife crisis, I imagine.”
Detractors might also call Strait’s acting detour the byproduct of a midlife career crisis; after all, according to a 2014 interview with McGee, “there was a new crop of country artists becoming very popular. George was being overshadowed by the likes of Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Alan Jackson, and he needed to get his name back on top again.” But, like Dusty, Strait found success on his own terms with the Pure Country soundtrack, which is still his best-selling record and was recently reissued on vinyl.
Released on September 16, 1992, the album came together quickly out of necessity, because it had to be done before Strait shot the movie. Still, the musician approached the collection like he did any of his other studio records. “We had some specific types of songs that we looked for for specific parts in the movie, but there was only about three or four of those at the most,” Strait said in a 1992 interview filmed for Entertainment Tonight. “Other than that, we just went about it the same way as we always do when we’re putting together an album – and that’s listening to hundreds and hundreds of tapes and trying to find the best songs that you can find.”
These songs include compositions by J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey (“Last in Love”), Steve Dorff and John Bettis (“Heartland”) and Jim Lauderdale (“The King of Broken Hearts,” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” co-written with John Leventhal). Musically, the Pure Country soundtrack marked Strait’s first co-production with Tony Brown; the relationship went on to span decades. Still, Pure Country‘s soundtrack worked just as well apart from the movie, because it featured relatable songs chronicling the simple things that make people tick: deep wells of heartache and the kind of true-blue romance that comes along once in a lifetime.
One of the few thematic outliers is the Number One country hit “Heartland,” which longs for a simpler (if idealized) time with friendly neighbors and the preservation of sturdy traditions. “We needed a really big song to open the movie,” Strait said in the liner notes for 1995’s Strait Out of the Box retrospective. “We had to change this one quite a bit from what Steve Dorff brought me originally, but even so I still had reservations about it. It’s about as rocked up and popped up as you can get and still pass it along to the country market. I had to remember this was not me – George Strait – doing an album. This was for the character in the movie to sing in a situation that wasn’t real.”
In addition to “Heartland,” the ballad “I Cross My Heart” topped the country charts, propelling the album to sell 6 million copies. Artists such as George Jones, Mark Chesnutt and Lee Ann Womack also covered songs from the soundtrack in ensuing years, a further testament to its quality. “We were very lucky finding these songs,” Strait said in 1992. “The way it came together, it’s been pretty amazing. I’ve done a lot of albums and this one has come together easier than any album I’ve ever done – and turned out the best.”
Reception to Pure Country the movie was decidedly more mixed. Los Angeles Times critic Peter Rainer wrote, “Singers often make good actors, but Strait’s debut performance doesn’t measure up to his heartfelt, down-home warbling.” Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune was harsher in his take, calling the film “pure twaddle,” as well as “shamelessly cornball and hackneyed, as phony as the road-show act that Strait’s character has come to deplore.” People led off their take with a backhanded compliment (“If it were any cornier or mushier, it would be chowder”) but said the movie “generates a charming sweetness, the music is lively, and both Strait and Glasser are ingratiating new faces.”
In hindsight, Pure Country has some plot holes and storylines that are resolved a little bit too neatly. Yet the movie’s guileless approach is an obvious influence on the comfort-food movies that have increasingly dominated the programming of networks such as Hallmark Channel, ABC Family and ION. These warm-and-fuzzy films are generally family-friendly; involve mild romantic or personal conflicts that are resolved by the movie’s end; and portray fairy-tale perfect, chaste love stories. (On a granular level, one of Pure Country‘s plot threads – Harley Tucker needing to save the family business because of financial pressures – is a storyline frequently driving the Hallmark Channel’s holiday movies.) Pure Country‘s western backdrop has also inspired plenty of other films. Peruse Netflix, and there’s a stack of recent movies with titles such as Rodeo & Juliet, Country Crush and A Country Called Home that involve things such as cowboy romances, aspiring country musicians and journeys home to heal the heart.
Strait’s insistence that Pure Country respect country music, and not resort to demeaning or insulting stereotypes about its fans, has also made it timeless. Dusty’s loyalists look like they could have been at a Strait concert during this era, which is no accident: The audience of the climactic Las Vegas scene was made up of fan club members, and the movie was also filmed on location in Texas, with locals as extras.
“The important thing for me was, if we’re going to do it about country music, if that’s going to be in there, I want it to look good,” Strait said in 1992. “I don’t want the people in it to look like they’re hicks or hillbillies. I want it to look real. Because country music fans, and people in country music, I don’t know any hicks in it. There [are a] quality, classy bunch of people out there that like country music.”
Thankfully, director Cain also wanted to steer clear of Hollywood-ized hokiness. “The first draft [of Pure Country] that came in was terrible,” he said during a 2010 press conference. “I said [to Jerry Weintraub], ‘This was like Hee Haw. If you do this in Nashville and I go down there to Nashville and they run it, they’re going to hang me someplace in a back alley.’ Because somebody has a Southern accent doesn’t mean they’re ignorant – it means they have a Southern accent.”
Cain had every intention of replicating this respectful approach once he received the green light from Warner Bros. to do additional Pure Country-like movies in the wake of the film’s niche success. In fact, he and his son, the actor Dean Cain, wrote a script in the mid-Nineties for a follow-up that “was actually green-lit about three months after we wrote it,” he claimed. Unfortunately, the proposed film was put on ice after then-phenom LeAnn Rimes allegedly balked at starring. “Nobody bothered to ask her if she wanted to be in a movie,” the elder Cain said. “When they went to her to start the movie, she said, ‘I don’t want to be in a movie – I don’t know how to act. I’ll be terrible.’ It kind of went on the shelf, and I went off and did something else.”
Pure Country 2: The Gift – which Cain also directed – eventually emerged in 2010 with a country upstart, Katrina Elam, playing the role of Bobbie Thomas. She moves to Nashville, big voice and big dreams in tow, but has to navigate music industry snakes; a complicated rekindled relationship with her father; and a shifting moral compass. Strait also makes a couple of memorable appearances in the film, including an instance where he punches out someone bothering Thomas.
This year’s Pure Country: Pure Heart is even further removed from the original: The film follows musically inclined sisters who go to Nashville to learn more about their late father, a songwriter and Marine who died while serving in Iraq. (Willie Nelson makes a performance cameo and appears on the soundtrack.) Although not technically sequels, these newer movies are in line with the music-centered spirit of the original: Both movies emphasize new music – in fact, the Elam-sung “Dream Big” was released as a single from Pure Country 2 – and have accompanying soundtracks. Country music isn’t an afterthought or incidental part of either plot; it’s as much a vibrant, three-dimensional character as anything else.
Over the years, Pure Country has continued to mean a lot to those who worked on the original film. Earlier this year, scriptwriter Rex McGee and songwriters Jim Lauderdale and Steve Dorff, appeared at the Western Kountry Klub in Midlothian, Texas, for a 25th anniversary celebration. This gathering was a prelude to the unveiling of Pure Country: The Musical at the Lyric Stage in Irving, Texas. A decade in the making, the musical features original songs written by soundtrack scribes Dorff and John Bettis. It’s also a labor of love for McGee, who’s co-producing.
“We figured we’d start in George Strait country and then work our way to Broadway, if ever,” the McGee told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the musical’s future. “Our goal is to take it on tour. To take it on a Texas tour first, then a national tour, because George’s fans are everywhere, and they know this movie.”
Twenty-five years later, Strait too has been commemorating Pure Country. In early September, he honored the movie by playing cuts from the soundtrack at two Vegas shows. Earlier in the year, at a separate Vegas show, he even performed “Heartland” with the same glittery “Dusty” seen in the movie playing on a video screen above.
But even back in 1992, Strait knew that art imitates life only to a certain extent. He spent the promotional cycle around Pure Country stressing that he had no plans to retire, and reiterating that he and Dusty are two separate people.
“I never saw it as a risk,” he told Country Music about the acting role. “I see it as an adventure. It’s a good change of pace for me. I got to try something new. I’m enjoying it, and depending on how it goes, I’ll consider doing another down the line. If it comes out okay, and I can see that I can do it, and if it’s possible for me to do more, then I will. I feel comfortable out there.”