George Strait is in a talkative mood, as he considers the Nov. 6 release of his MCA Nashville album, "The Road Less Traveled." So the obvious opening question for the reticent Strait -- whose represen

George Strait is in a talkative mood, as he considers the Nov. 6 release of his MCA Nashville album, "The Road Less Traveled." So the obvious opening question for the reticent Strait -- whose representatives claim he does interviews "about as often as pigs fly" -- is, "Why so silent?"

"I guess probably the fact that I've been able to get away with it," says Strait, laughing out loud. "But it's really just a time thing -- I [only] have just so much time. I used to do a lot of interviews in the early '80s, when my career started, but it came to a point when I decided I didn't want to talk anymore, and people kind of understood that and left me alone."

The personable artist "doesn't mind so much talking about the music and the music business," he notes, "but it's the personal things that I don't feel like I need to or even want to share with everybody in the world -- not that everybody in the world cares. And I've had some tragedy in my life [his eldest child died in a car accident in 1986], and that's a big part of it. But I'm sitting around here today with nothing else to do and bored to death, so I'm figuring out who to call."

Jokingly assuring his interviewer that this talk isn't a "Candid Camera" TV show gag, Strait in fact does proceed to talk about the music -- particularly the tracks on "The Road Less Traveled," which he agrees is aptly titled.

"It tells the truth somewhat," he says, singling out the title track, written by Buddy Brock and longtime Strait catalog contributor Dean Dillon. "I try to do my own thing and do what's right for me and not be pushed into doing things I don't want to do. Not that Dean necessarily wrote it for me, because he's taken the road less traveled himself. But it's about the choices you have to make, like when I decided I wasn't going to do interviews for a while: I had my reasons, and if it was going to cost me my career, that's just the way it was going to be, and it wouldn't be the worst thing that ever happened to me."

"And that's how I looked at making changes in producers throughout the years," Strait continues, "which was a scary thing to do but always seemed to work out."

The soft-spoken singer says that the process of making "The Road Less Traveled," which he co-produced with MCA Nashville president Tony Brown, was consistent with his previous outings.

"We went through the same steps," he says. "I'm always looking for great songs, and not being much of a songwriter, I depend on great songwriters to send them to me. I go through tons of stuff, and sometimes you just find material that kind of fits and becomes something special. This time was one of those special times ... and it's one of my better efforts in a while."

Strait tries to isolate lead track "She'll Leave You With a Smile" as one of his favorites, but then comes upon the next cut and first single, "Run."

"I find myself liking every one of them," he says, also citing his cover of Rodney Crowell's "Stars on the Water" and especially Merle Haggard's "My Life's Been Grand," which closes the set.

"The first time I heard it, I fell in love with it," Strait says. "I can really relate to a lot of what Hag says because my life's been grand, with 'good times and bad times and hard times.' The only thing I can't say is I've 'done time,' but otherwise the lyrics rang true for me, so I felt I should just learn it and do it onstage and see what happens -- and the crowd just got right into it."

Haggard was "definitely a big influence on my career," Strait adds, recounting how he sang "tons of Haggard's songs back in the honky-tonks" during his club-heavy, pre-record-deal days. Dave Weigand, MCA Nashville's senior VP of sales and marketing, proudly points out that since debuting at MCA 20 years ago with the 1981 album "Strait Country," Strait has sold more than 57 million albums, including 25 platinum titles -- "more than any other country artist in history."

Weigand further tallies 15 Country Music Association (CMA) awards and 11 Academy of Country Music trophies. "He's the cornerstone of any country station playlist, whether it's a major metro market or even a small AM station in heartland America," Weigand adds. "Any time of day you can hear 'Run' -- and a little later a classic like [1982 hit] 'Amarillo by Morning.' But both are instantly recognizable George Strait songs. They don't sound like anybody else, and he's crafted a very successful career by being a trendsetter -- not a follower."

At Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, mainstream country station KSCS, Linda O'Brian, assistant PD/music director and host of the station's alt-country show, Hill Country Cafe, says that Strait's hits are played at the top of every morning drive hour, with two album tracks programmed back-to-back during later slots.

"He remains such a constant-like Tony Bennett," O'Brian says. "They're both stylists, and how many are there in our format that you can say that about? He hasn't changed one iota -- and never has to. And though he's not really a writer, he has the gift of picking a song."

O'Brian echoes Strait in being partial to "My Life's Been Grand," calling it a "slow, mushy, Western swing thing that if you're a guy and play it, you'll get lucky," she says. John Gusty, sales manager at the West End Tower Records outlet in Nashville, also cites the Haggard track as "a good sign" for the new album's commercial prospects in the country marketplace -- in light of its current torpor.

"I really care about [Strait] as an artist, but [his last albums have been] ballad after ballad after ballad-and not enough country," Gusty says, noting that "people who like country music have gone elsewhere."

But Strait, who is among the performers on the Nov. 7 CMA Awards show, thinks that "country music is always going to be country music" and "no matter how far outside the lines we go, we'll always come back to traditional country music." In fact, he has been in the middle of the current country vs. pop debate since his first album.

"I remember that in '81, country radio was pretty pop, and everybody wanted a crossover record-and all of a sudden it came back to traditional," Strait says. "Now it's kind of swung the other way a little bit, but it always comes back."

Either way, Strait, who is "keeping my options open" about continuing with his superstar stadium tour packages next year, scoffs at the concept of an intentional pop crossover.

"Why'd I want to try that?" he asks. "I'm a country singer. I love all kinds of music, but country is where my loyalty lies. That's just me and what I do, and I'm not going to change it."

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