Few artists have capitalized on country music’s conservatism as well as George Strait, regarded by many as the genre’s modern-day king. Finding a way to balance his skill with traditional country styles with the pop polish of the urban cowboy era that dominated the genre at the time of his debut, Strait perfected his trademark formula very early in his career and has rarely strayed from it, and the result of that consistency has been an astonishing 42 #1 singles between 1982 and 2006. “I Saw God Today,” the first single from his 25th album, Troubadour, looks to extend that streak, vaulting into the Top 5 in just six weeks, making it one of the fastest-rising singles of Strait’s career.
That the song is more maudlin than most of the 500-odd songs in his catalogue hasn’t dampened its appeal; in terms of its production and Strait’s smooth, straightforward delivery, it’s what his fans and radio programmers have come to expect. The read on Strait is that he’s been perhaps too conservative over the course of his career—consider some of the comparatively edgier projects that Alan Jackson has recorded—but his last few projects have found him taking a few calculated risks. Troubadour continues in that vein, with Strait making slight adjustments to his formula and recording some songs that don’t sound like variations on previous hits.
The best of these departures, “West Texas Town,” a duet with songwriter Dean Dillon, finds Strait pulling off an excellent take on Texas Swing that favorably recalls Asleep at the Wheel. “House of Cash,” a duet with Patty Loveless, who is in predictably stellar voice, foregrounds a far grittier electric guitar riff than is typically found on Strait’s records, and it actually works with Strait’s just-behind-the-beat delivery. Unfortunately, not all of the risks pay off quite so well: In an attempt to update “Convoy,” “Brothers of the Highway” uses the kind of pirate imagery more commonly associated with Kenny Chesney, while “River of Love” adopts a second-rate Jimmy Buffett production style that simply doesn’t work for Strait.
These slight tweaks to his style tend to stand out since they represent a departure for Strait and because the remainder of Troubadour adheres more to his signature sound. And aside from the risks that don’t work, the album suffers from inconsistent song selection. “I Saw God Today” isn’t the worst offender in that regard: “Give Me More Time” is mired in overwrought clichés and would fit right into Martina McBride’s wasting-disease wheelhouse, “It Was Me” recalls many of Brad Paisley’s less-than-convincing sentimental numbers, and closer “If Heartaches Were Horses” is built on a badly-mixed metaphor. Still, the obvious singles “Make Her Fall In Love with Me Song” and “House with No Doors” are well written and should perpetuate Strait’s unrivaled run at the top of the country charts.