With a total of 60 Billboard No. 1 singles (more than Elvis Presley, more than The Beatles), George Strait has made it all seem effortless. His 29th studio album, which the singer co-produced with Chuck Ainlay, will likely add to that tally.
Cold Beer Conversation, out Friday, comes on the heels of the King of Country’s Sept. 22 announcement that the cowboy who rode away from touring last year will ride back in again in 2016 with a string of dates in Las Vegas.
As the album name implies, in Strait’s world, there’s not a lot that a cool libation won’t cure — or at least help erase sorrows temporarily. In twangy “Going Going Gone,” his everyman — they don’t hand out stock options down here in the pits, he sings — seeks refuge in an open tab down at the corner bar. On the zydeco-tinged “Stop and Drink,” Strait contemplates the bigger questions, such as climate change and Wall Street shenanigans, before realizing such thinking is getting him nowhere. The liquor (and a very tasty pedal steel solo) bridges the gap between “wish you were here” and “wish you well” on “Wish You Well.” The loping, finger-popping, humorous “Cheaper Than A Shrink,” espouses why a case of beer may be a better salve than any analyst’s couch (complete with a belch at the end). And on the gentle title track and current single, some good old boys try to unravel the mysteries of women and “this crazy old world” with the help of a brew or five or six.
The key to Strait’s success is that he brings a different flavor and nuance to each song, even if the subject matter is similar. More than 30 years since his MCA Nashville debut (he’s still on the same label after all these decades), his smooth tenor is as clear as ever and each subtlety — a well-placed chuckle, a tiny sigh — still resonates.
It’s never been Strait’s style to come in with a wrecking ball when a hammer will do, especially on a love song as sultry as “Something Going Down,” a tune that would have fit nicely in the canon of one of his heroes, Conway Twitty. Both lyrically and in demeanor, Strait is too much of a gentleman to take us too far into the boudoir, and in today’s TMI world, his chivalry is charming.
Strait isn’t one to wear his heart on his sleeve, but as he ages, the 63-year-old seems to be letting listeners into his world a little more, especially on “Everything I See,” one of four songs he co-wrote on the album, and one about missing his father, who died in 2013. “Everywhere I look there’s one more memory, there’s a little bit of you in everything I see…,” he sings in a tune that anyone who has suffered loss — parental or otherwise — can relate to.
Strait brings some welcome grit on “Rock Paper Scissors” a hard-charging tale of divorce from the perspective of a woman scorned that Strait delivers with a Merle Haggard-like gruffness. Other nods to his heroes surface on the Bob Wills-leaning genial western swing of “It Takes All Kinds.”
The whole endeavor has a “live and let live” feel that fits in perfectly with Strait’s laid-back, though never sloppy, attitude. Even album closer “Even When I Can’t Feel It,” a slightly sappy song about believing in God, love and other intangibles, reeks of authenticity. As with many of these tunes, it may have fallen short in less talented and less experienced hands, but under Strait’s steady guidance, it soars.