George Strait is a country music icon from Pearsall, Texas. He released 18 albums from the start of the 1980’s through the 1990’s, all of which went platinum. In total, Strait has released 23 platinum records, placing him third all time for the most gold and platinum releases, behind only Elvis and The Beatles. He also holds the title for the most number one singles of any artist in any genre. He’s largely seen as one of the most influential country artists of all time having toured consistently for multiple years and being named as “Artist of the Decade,” for his work in the 2000’s.
The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and Music City’s influence bleeds through every song, particularly in the tightness of the instrumentation. Paul Franklin, an absolute legend in country and outlaw music, helms the steel guitar which shines blindingly on “Some Nights,” but decorates virtually every cut perfectly. Bluegrass icon Stuart Duncan plays violin and mandolin as well, both of which are particularly noticeable on one of the album’s lead singles, “Codigo.” As is often the case with modern records from country icons, the instrumental personnel on Honky Tonk Time Machine is absolutely stacked.
Not to be outdone, however, George Strait gives quite a few impressive vocal performances himself. On “Sometimes Love,” for example, his tight runs and thick baritone timbre are pure country and represent a sound that Strait himself pioneered. He’s even more impressive on “Old Violin,” in which he sings with quite a bit of sincerity and vulnerability about coming to grips with his age and waning status within the industry. Ultimately, George’s voice still holds up to this day thanks to his soft touch and laid back style.
The strongest point to the record is fairly multifaceted, but can be generally summed up as great songwriting. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the shortcomings are mostly hidden by the fact that several of these tracks are just a blast to listen to. From the very funny concept of a song like “Two More Wishes,” to the Buffet-esque, island dwelling sound of “Blue Water,” and even the roaring blues riffs on the title track, the majority of this album is simply enjoyable.
On top of this, some of the slower, sappier songs dodge the common pitfalls of being boring or overly idealistic by leaning heavily into the very most classic cliche’s of the genre. “God And Country Music,” is heavily driven by twanging violins and an impassioned vocal performance while “The Weight of the Badge,” benefits quite a bit from a well played acoustic guitar. These tracks will likely turn off many outsiders and casual fans, but if you appreciate the works of country’s golden age, these are quite enjoyable.
Best of all, George and his team of cowriters are fantastically talented when it comes to writing hooks and choruses. The opener, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” for example, will rattle around the minds of listeners for days after the first listen thanks to an extremely catchy chorus. The closer and strongest cut, “Sing One With Willie,” is hilarious and extremely listenable, brought together perfectly by the singable hook which is sung by both Strait and fellow country legend, Willie Nelson.
I do have a few gripes with the album. As I said, the lyricism leaves quite a bit to be desired on most of the tracklist. On top of this, George’s voice doesn’t sit all that well in the more bluegrass inspired tracks like “Codigo.” The worst offense however, comes in the production by longtime Nashville engineer, Chuck Ainlay, who can’t seem to keep his hands out of these tracks. Most of the mixing is relatively inoffensive but the vocal tuning makes the lead feel somewhat lifeless very often and several of the harmonies just don’t quite mesh. This can often be ignored, but tracks like “Take Me Away,” and “What Goes Up,” are nearly ruined by the production.
All told, George Strait’s 30th LP is a fun addition to his legendary catalog. It’s full of enjoyable callbacks to the sound of country’s golden age with a few interesting twists and it’s extremely well performed, despite several hiccups along the way.
Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.
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