Perhaps that statement sounds ridiculous: Strait has 34 albums that have sold over a million copies each, seemingly countless hit songs, and a string of sold-out concerts year after year. He's only the second Country Music Hall of Fame inductee to be honored while still recording chart-topping albums. And he was honored by the Academy of Country Music as the Artist of the Decade for the 2000s. But outside of Nashville, it seems George Strait doesn't get much critical recognition.
Example: In the most recent Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll, Strait's album Twang didn't receive a single vote. That's not entirely surprising, since Strait is generally considered a singles artist who also puts out albums. But even the singles didn't do terribly well, with four songs receiving just one vote each.
Even though Pazz and Jop voters generally aren't known as country fans, the wildly overrated Taylor Swift garnered 41 votes for "You Belong with Me," a nice bit of pop fluff but no more substantial than any of Strait's singles.
While the appeal of female-badass-done-wrong Miranda Lambert ("Dead Flowers," 11 votes; "White Liar," 6 votes, a few others with two or one votes) is easy to understand, when another male-hat act like Brad Paisley is somehow considered a more significant and important than Strait, that just seems insulting, if not insane. Maybe Paisley gets more critical accolades because he is generally credited with co-writing his songs and his songs are sort of funny. I'm not sure, but to me, it seems Paisley is doing a slicker, less-country version of what Strait has been doing for three decades now.
It's one thing to champion more obscure alt-country or Americana artists — anyone remember Ryan Adams? — but if you're going to pick a mainstream country artist to champion, make it the one with the longer, superior track record.
To be fair, George Strait hasn't created the most appealing persona (not that Brad Paisley is fascinating, beyond being married to the daughter from Father of the Bride).
Strait enjoys ranching, he's been married to his high school sweetheart since the 1970s, his son is a professional cattle roper, and (outside of the tragic 1986 death of his 13-year-old daughter) he doesn't make news. Instead, he cranks out an album basically every year, plays a stack of sold-out dates every year, drives a Chevy truck around, and watches San Antonio Spurs games.
Fans of "everything but country, although I like . . ." can safely enjoy edgy country legends like Merle Haggard and his jailhouse gambling ring, Hank Williams and his dying in the back of a Cadillac, or Johnny Cash and his pile of pills. Willie Nelson can put out weird, vaguely listenable albums with odd collaborators and NPR listeners will go nuts over them. And Willie just seems cooler than George, mostly because you know he's somewhere on a bus right now, sitting on a weed supply that'd have Lil Wayne green-eyed.
As anyone who's ever purchased a Jonathan Richman album can attest, the personality behind an album helps make the music more appealing, but Strait gives you nothing that conveys an aesthetic of cool. For years, he's used the same band, the same producer, largely the same songwriters, and a relatively predictable formula of neo-traditional music fit for two-stepping at a country bar.
It's why people flock to Strait's shows and pick up each new album: The songs are great. Great in a totally honest, non-pretentious way. Even without hearing his music, you'd assume that someone who has racked up 44 Billboard number one songs (including 11 consecutive singles topping the Billboard country chart in the late '80s) has talent. But listen to a few random George Strait songs and it shouldn't take long to understand his appeal.
Possibly, George Strait doesn't get much recognition from critics because most popular music critics are men more likely to sympathize with the computer-bound loser of Brad Paisley's "Online" or romanticize outlaw country (I'm not excluding myself from this generalization) than find a kinship with the hopeless romantics of Strait's hits. A song like 1995's "Check Yes or No" may be corny, telling the story of a third-grade crush that evolves into marriage, but it represents a world that sounds like a nice place to live in, where kids pass notes looking for romantic validation. "Carrying Your Love with Me" (1997) is not only part of a proud tradition of songs about interstate trucking, but a beautifully romantic ballad. Why wouldn't women swoon over a handsome, middle-aged guy singing about missing someone while on the road? It's the country equivalent of an R&B slow jam, though less sexualized than your average Keith Sweat ballad. In Strait's most recent single, "Living for the Night," the narrator drinks whiskey every night to erase life's pain as he tries to get over the loss of the love of his life. Strait's never going to be the guy who shoots a man for no reason. He's more likely to buy you a really thoughtful Hallmark card on your anniversary.
We often champion music that has neither emotional resonance nor cultural permanence at the expense of the artist who puts in an honest day's work performing music for hard-working people who want to be transported to an idealized, but still accessible, reality.
At the risk of sounding a thousand years old, Panda Bear may sing in "My Girls" something about providing a home for his children, but who could tell with all the electronic sounds on the recording? If, as Pitchfork's Amanda Petrusich says, that song is "the most earnest expression of basic human want recorded in 2009," then I'm losing my connection to the music of today. When Strait performs at US Airways Center, the sold-out crowd will be moved by every song in his troubadour-style live performance, reflecting the "expression of basic human want," from love lost and love treasured.