George Strait’s career has long been defined by the singer’s dogged consistency and predictability: For the better part of 30 years, he’s put out a new album roughly every couple of years that includes two or three solid singles and some inoffensive and utterly unremarkable filler. Since his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, though, Strait has been taking more risks, and, as a result, his two most recent albums, Troubadour and Twang, are among his strongest. Here for a Good Time manages to be even better, boasting a higher caliber of songwriting than even those two records and considering broader themes in a way that Strait’s albums rarely have before.
What’s most fascinating about the newfound depth of focus in Strait’s work is that he’s begun to take a more prominent role in writing the songs on his albums. Better known for choosing material by some of Nashville’s best hired-gun songwriters, Strait and his son “Bubba” Strait co-wrote the majority of Here for a Good Time, giving the record a more singular point of view and real sense of voice. Strait’s singing voice may be one of country music’s most recognizable, but his persona as a recording artist hasn’t always been so distinct.
Though he sticks to many of country’s most familiar tropes (heartbreak, drinking, and faith), Strait brings a mature perspective to his writing on those themes, and his vocal performances convey a lived-in sense of authority. He sounds as youthful as he has in years on the title track, a terrific single that gives his trademark brand of slick trad-country a noteworthy lyrical hook to hang onto (“I’m ain’t here for a long time/I’m here for a good time”). It’s a cleverly written song, subtly folding matters of faith into an anthem of escapism. On the remainder of the album, Strait explores the consequences of a less thoughtful form of escapism (on “Poison” and “Shame on Me”) and provides balance with songs like “I’ll Always Remember You” and standout “Drinkin’ Man” that are characterized by their genuine reflection and insight. There’s still a bit of filler here (Gary Nicholson and Delbert McClinton are both great songwriters, but “Lone Star Blues” isn’t up to their usual standards), but the songs on Here for a Good Time amount to the most thematically coherent album Strait has recorded.
In co-producing the album with longtime collaborator Tony Brown, Strait continues to explore slight variations on his tried-and-true formula. “Poison,” with its lightly plucked acoustic guitar figure and muffled bass drum strikes, impresses for its minimalism, while “Blue Marlin Blues” opens with a surprising choral chant that couches its narrative about fishing in deep Southern gospel, thereby making explicit the fact that, for many Southerners, fishing counts as a kind of religious experience. Jesse Winchester’s excellent “A Showman’s Life,” which plays as a follow-up to the title track from Troubadour, is drenched in steel guitar washes and boasts a gorgeous harmony vocal from Faith Hill, and Strait has never sounded more soulful. It’s this willingness to take some calculated risks with his trademark sound and to develop his voice as a songwriter that makes Strait’s most recent run the richest and most rewarding of his career, and Here for a Good Time is both a good time and a new peak for Strait.