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Makin’ Tracks: ‘Damn Strait’ It’s Easy to ID Scotty McCreery’s Idol

Scotty McCreery wears his allegiance to the country icon on his sleeve in "Damn Strait," a steel-tipped heartbreak ballad that references a series of the Cowboy's familiar titles.

Scotty McCreery‘s first country concert as a fan boasted a really solid lineup: George Strait, Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack at the Greensboro Coliseum, when he was 16 years old.

When McCreery made his life-changing run on American Idol the next year, he competed with the Strait hit “I Cross My Heart” during one episode and performed “Check Yes or No” — at his hero’s request — in the finale.

“I’m a big old Strait fan,” says McCreery. “And that will always be the case, for sure.”

McCreery wears his allegiance on his sleeve in his latest release, “Damn Strait,” a steel-tipped heartbreak ballad that references a series of the Cowboy’s familiar titles. It mimics the latter’s style, too, with a bit of wordplay delivered through a subtle melody, devoid of theatrics. He also sings it like Strait would, with a sturdy matter-of-factness that acknowledges the very emotion he’s holding back.

“I never thought about it that way, but I’m sure that was subconsciously there,” says McCreery. “I was definitely thinking of Strait the whole time we were recording this. That probably just came through.”

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Former Lyric Street artist Trent Tomlinson, who landed a cut on Strait’s 2006 album It Just Comes Natural, lived out the story in “Damn Strait.” He and an ex shared an affinity for the Cowboy’s music, and when that relationship came crashing down, it changed his relationship with Strait’s catalog.

“Every time a George Strait song would come on the radio or on Spotify or some kind of playlist, I didn’t want to hear it because it reminded me of that situation,” explains Tomlinson. “I never thought in a million years I would turn George Strait off my radio.”

Tomlinson shared that experience with songwriter Jim Collins, who co-wrote Strait’s “It Just Comes Natural,” and they decided to make that story the basis for their own song. They would need to incorporate enough Strait references to make the plot work, but they also knew they shouldn’t get carried away.

“The trick to a song like this is you don’t want to overdo it with the song titles because then it shifts into a grocery list of George Strait titles,” notes Collins. “The songs needed to fit into a storyline, and we tried to do it as subtly as possible.”

They led with a title, though — “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” — making it the ex-girlfriend’s favorite Strait song, mirroring Tomlinson’s real-life experience. They wrapped a total of six titles — including “Baby Blue,” “Marina Del Rey,” “Blue Clear Sky,” “Give It Away” and “I Hate Everything” (“You kind of have to be a George Strait fan to get that one,” says Collins) — into the lyrics, though it feels like more.

It was only after they started that the phrase “Damn Strait” revealed itself: They used it as the opening to the chorus, as if the singer were cursing all those songs. As the chorus unwound, it recycled that same phrase, but with a different meaning, as the singer asks rhetorically, “Do I wish I could get her back?” The answer: “Damn straight.”

“The turn of a phrase made it all come together,” says Tomlinson. (The setup line sounds a tad like another Strait title, “I’d Like to Have That One Back,” though the writers say that was coincidental.)

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Right or wrong, they structured it musically like a Strait tune. The chorus is distinct, but unlike many hits, it remains mostly in the same range as the verses that support it.

“That was intentional,” says Collins. “It just seemed like it ought to be kind of a George Strait vibe.”

More importantly, it fit Tomlinson’s range, since he envisioned it as a song he would record himself. And he did, giving a tip of the Resistol to the track’s inspiration in the process.

“If George Strait would’ve cut it in 1982, that’s what it sounds like,” says Tomlinson.

Riley Green heard Tomlinson do “Damn Strait” at a live acoustic show, and he considered recording it for a bit. Meanwhile, Tomlinson played it casually for Triple Tigers senior vp national promotion Kevin Herring, who was vp promotion at Lyric Street when Tomlinson was on the roster. Herring thought it was perfect for McCreery, so he relayed it via Triple 8 Management day-to-day manager Scott Stem in August 2020. And it rang true for McCreery.

“The way Jim and Trent wrote the song, there’s Strait titles that are in there obviously, but they make sense in the story of the song and they’re grammatically correct,” he says. “I just thought it was so cleverly written; then the hook is a clever twist on that as well.”

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McCreery recorded it during the first few months of 2021 at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios with producers Frank Rogers, Aaron Eshuis and Derek Wells, paying homage to Strait while retaining McCreery’s musical personality.

“The conversation was, ‘How can we make this natural to Scotty and not so on the nose of like, ‘See what I did there?’ with the Strait references,'” says Eshuis. “Just make it feel sincere, like it belonged on a Scotty record and sounds like something he would actually say.”

Wells felt compelled to warn everyone that he had played on a Granger Smith recording of “Damn Strait” — another song with the same title. It turns out there are 21 different compositions with the same title and spelling in ASCAP and BMI’s Songview database, which Tomlinson and Collins had already discovered. Titles are not protected by copyright, but the two still wanted to get a blessing from all the writers whose songs they referenced, and they even gave them a one-time payment to acknowledge their inspiration.

“We just felt like it was the right thing to do,” says Collins.

The bulk of the track went down live in the studio, with a pulsing tone putting a modern spin on the old-school Strait vibe. That traditional portion of the production was enhanced when Mike Johnson blanketed the song with steel guitar at a later date.

“Scotty was really running the show, and he’s good at it,” says Eshuis of the tracking date. “He trusts the people he hires, but he knows what he wants, and it goes kind of smoothly and uneventful, for lack of a better word. And Scotty, you know, we could almost just keep his live vocals.”

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“Damn Strait” was viewed as a potential single from the moment it arrived in McCreery’s camp, and it officially went to AM/FM radio via PlayMPE on Oct. 4. It rises to No. 47 on the Country Airplay chart dated Nov. 6 in its second week on the list.

“We have entered a time and place where country radio just doesn’t play George Strait anymore,” says Tomlinson. “And I had the thought of like, in some weird way, we’re kind of responsible for them playing George Strait again.”

That happens in a roundabout way, with McCreery essentially singing about how the Strait canon is so meaningful that he simply can’t listen to it. It’s kind of a backhanded compliment, though he believes his idol understands.

“I’m not sure that I’ve heard that storyline from a fan before,” says McCreery, “but I imagine I’d be flattered by it.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.