George Strait has been recording albums for nearly twenty years. With countless top-ten hits and several of his songs regarded as classics, he has established himself as a country legend. The late ’90s have been a particularly good time for him, as two of his last three albums, Blue Clear Sky and Carrying Your Love With Me, earned him numerous awards and put high expectations on every new project.
In the face of such expectations, Always Never the Same, his 24th album, delivers. Country music subject matter is often reduced to three categorizes (four, if you count drinking): loving, leaving and crying. This album has a good fast love song and fine crying and leaving songs (Strait is always getting left; he isn’t the leaving kind of guy). The only thing that Always is missing is the one great love ballad in the vein of “The Man in Love with You,” from Lead On, or “Carrying Your Love with Me,” from the album of the same name. “I Look at You” tries to fill this role, but falls short. Perhaps this is why Strait, who co-produced Always, put the track so late on the album.
Part of Strait’s success has been his ability to cater to both the radio audience and to country-dance bars. “Meanwhile,” the first single, is already racing up the country charts. “Always Never the Same” is a toe-tapper that is perfect for Club Dance on The Nashville Network.
Of course, song selection can only take an entertainer so far. Strait has one of the best voices in the business; generally, he does not have too much twang, although he can vary it depending on the song. His vocal range is not quite to the level of artists like John Michael Montgomery, but his emotional range is unsurpassed.
The biggest problem with the album is that some of the songs, as written, are just not very good. Strait often puts one or two long songs with no rhythm on his albums. He does this yet again with “What Do You Say To That” and especially with “That’s Where I Want to Take Our Love.” Both are drawn out for maximum sappiness. Neither song will get radio airplay, but Strait knew this when he recorded the songs. This inclusion of such sap is the one part of the Strait formula for a good album that does not work.
George Strait did not make Always alone. Though rarely given credit, his band is a key ingredient in the success of the album. When you are as successful as George Strait, you can have some of the top musicians available, and Strait does in the Ace in the Hole Band. It gets to showcase its talent in the song “Piece of Mind,” which features Stuart Duncan on the fiddle. Liana Mantis and Curtis Young also deserve special mention for their work on the background vocals.
When you buy a CD out of Nashville today, you do not necessarily know what you will get. It may be country music, but it could also be some new country-pop crossover, a genre led by Shania Twain. If you buy a George Strait CD, though, you know you’re getting country music. This has not changed since his days as a foreman on a cattle ranch in Texas, when he was nothing but a regional star. Strait may not sell as many albums as Garth Brooks, nor flaunt his fame and fortune, but he has been country music’s most consistent quality performer for over a decade.