George Strait, “Honky Tonk Time Machine” (MCA Nashville)
It’s hard to think of a country star less in need of a honky tonk time machine. The genre’s most consistent A-list act, this Texan native has been remaking the same record — happily polished yet crisply traditional — since he emerged nearly four decades ago.
“Honky Tonk Time Machine” is the 66-year-old singer’s follow-up to 2015’s “Cold Beer Conversation,” which came out after he said he was retiring from the road, and it didn’t produce a big hit. As eager as Strait seems to reclaim his commercial clout, the new record doesn’t downplay his perspective as an aging grandfather at a moment when country music is dominated by youngsters. He may want to go back in time because he’s longing gently for an era when the mainstream made a place for the kind of grown-up he’s always been.
In “Sometimes Love,” he’s in his romantic sweet spot, describing a man and woman who can’t quite manage to quit each other; “Código” is more playful as he compares a lover to his favorite tequila.
“Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” offers a variation on the title track’s good-times escapism. Yet the album touches on darker themes, too, as in a stately cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” in which he contemplates his fear of obsolescence.
In “The Weight of the Badge,” the controversy-averse Strait sings reverently of the dangers faced by police; it’s not Fox News-style law-and-order stuff, but Strait is smart enough to know that in this political climate the song is tantamount to taking a stand. But this album suggests he’s reached an age where he’s OK with that.
“God and Country Music,” after all, features a cute cameo by Strait’s young grandson. And the album closes with “Sing One With Willie,” a novelty in which he looks back over his career with satisfaction — except for the nagging disappointment that he never got to duet with Willie Nelson. The punchline arrives, of course, when Nelson shows up to point out that he never got to sing one with Strait.
The tune advises you against underestimating what an old-timer can make happen.
Mikael wood, Los Angeles Times
Steve Earle & the Dukes, “Guy” (New West)
In 2009, Earle recorded an album-length tribute to Townes Van Zandt, the deeply melancholy Texas songwriting legend who died in 1997. Van Zandt’s compadre Guy Clark died in 2016, and it turns out that “Guy” is a much better record than “Townes.” Van Zandt was a frequently sublime writer whose music could drift toward torpor, and Earle’s versions were rarely thrilling. Clark isn’t quite so revered as a tragic figure, but his songs have greater musical and emotional range. They’re better suited to the feisty and cantankerous Earle, who is fully engaged, whether singing the sentimental masterpiece “Dublin Blues,” flipping the bird to the big city on “L.A. Freeway,” or digging into the lusty “Rita Ballou.”
Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer
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