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George Strait: Country Pop Stardom With 'Twang'

George Strait performs onstage during the 44th annual Academy Of Country Music Awards' Artist of the Decade in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

Country singer George Strait has racked up some impressive achievements over the course of his decades-long career: His 2008 album, Troubadour, won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and he's surpassed only by Elvis Presley and The Beatles in the number of platinum-selling albums he's had. His latest album, Twang, hits stores Aug. 11.

With his starched white shirts, 10-gallon hats and chiseled handsomeness, Strait is a throwback to a bygone era of heroic cowboy singers and actors, a twangy descendent of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. What makes him unusual is his consistency and enduring popularity.

Of course, consistency isn't the stuff of legends. Strait has never hit the newspapers with tales of wild living in a country tradition of everyone from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash to George Jones. Strait is not an outsize, brash showman like Garth Brooks. Strait's true precursors are Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, gentleman crooners who peaked in the 1960s as mannerly alternatives to Beatlemania. But those comparisons don't quite fit: Strait is his own man, ornery and independent in a quiet but firm way. Neither Reeves nor Arnold, for example, ever recorded a song about killing a killer as genial as "Arkansas Dave."

Strait and Tony Brown, his producer since his 1981 debut disc, Strait Country, have perfected a clean, crisp sound that bypasses decades of trends. That's one reason he could score hits during the heyday of outlaw country music in the 1970s and currently amid the bloated melodrama of acts such as Rascal Flatts and Montgomery Gentry. Strait's latest hit single, "Living for the Night," is a crooning ballad co-written by Strait; his son, Bubba Strait; and veteran Nashville songwriter Dean Dillon.

The song is no masterpiece, but it's a pretty piece of work and unusual in this respect: It's the first song Strait has written since his 1981 debut, and this new collaborating method with his son has resulted in the best song on Twang, the honky-tonk waltz called "Out of Sight, Out of Mind."

The twang in Strait's Texas-born voice and his prominent pedal-steel and fiddle backup have kept Strait from crossing over to pop stardom, which is just the way this courtly, modest performer likes it. Having sold 67 million albums and counting, he has nothing to prove. But that doesn't mean he doesn't prove consistency can be a viable, vital artistic reward.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Country singer George Strait has a new album called "Twang." His previous collection, "Troubadour," won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Country Album, adding to Strait's impressive industry statistics.

He's surpassed only by Elvis Presley and The Beatles in the number of platinum-selling albums. But rock critic Ken Tucker says Straits' achievement goes well beyond commercial success.

(Soundbite of song "Twang")

Mr. GEORGE STRAIT (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) When I get off of work on Friday after working like a dog all week, I go to meet the boys for a cold one at a little joint up the street. They got a jukebox in the corner full of old country tunes. Feed it five dollars worth of quarters is the first thing I always do. 'Cause I need a little twang, a little hillbilly bending on some guitar strings...

KEN TUCKER: With his starched white shirts, 10-gallon hats and chiseled handsomeness, George Strait is a throwback to a bygone era of heroic cowboy singers and actors, a twangy descendent of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. What makes him unusual is his consistency and enduring popularity.

(Soundbite of song, "He's Got That Something Special")

Mr. STRAIT: (Singing) I used to be the one who she was always holding onto. Like a fool I told her way too tight. He was glad to see me let go, he's all I see now in her eyes. He's got that something special but that something special used to be mine. She sees more in him than she ever saw in me. She thinks he's got everything she'll ever need. He's got that something special but that something special used to be mine…

TUCKER: Of course, consistency isn't the stuff of legends. Strait has never hit the newspapers with tales of wild living in a country tradition of everyone from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash to George Jones. Strait is not an outsize, brash showman like Garth Brooks.

Strait's true precursors are Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, gentlemen crooners who peaked in the 1960s as mannerly alternatives to Beatlemania. But those comparisons don't quite fit. Strait is his own man, ornery and independent in a quiet, but firm way. Neither Reeves nor Arnold, for example, ever recorded a song about killing a killer as genial as this new one called "Arkansas Dave."

(Soundbite of song, "Arkansas Dave")

Mr. STRAIT: (Singing) He rode up on a winter day, steam rising off a streak-faced bay. He said, you probably know my name. If you don't, it's Arkansas Dave. He talked of fifteen years ago and how he got the bay he rode. Said, he killed a man in Ohio, first man he killed, first horse he stole. It was a long road…

TUCKER: Strait and Tony Brown, his producer since his 1981 debut disc "Strait Country," have perfected a clean, crisp sound that bypasses decades of trends. That's one reason he could score hits during the heyday of outlaw country music in the '70s and currently amidst the bloated melodrama of acts such as Rascal Flatts and Montgomery Gentry. Strait's latest hit single, "Living for the Night," is a crooning ballad co-written by Strait, his son, Bubba Strait, and veteran Nashville songwriter Dean Dillon.

(Soundbite of song, "Living for the Night")

Mr. STRAIT: (Singing) Every day is a lifetime without you, hard to get through since you've gone. So I do the only thing I know how to, to get back. I'm living for the night.

TUCKER: That song is no masterpiece, but it's a pretty piece of work and unusual in this respect. It's the first song Strait has written since his 1981 debut. And this new collaborating method with his son, Bubba, has resulted in the best song on "Twang," the honky-tonk waltz called "Out of Sight, Out of Mind."

(Soundbite of song, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind")

Mr. STRAIT: (Singing) I always heard people say it. But I guess I never fully understood it. I thought that they meant you'd be easy to forget. But it's driving me crazy. Out of sight, out of mind…

TUCKER: The twang in Strait's Texas-born voice and his prominent pedal-steel and fiddle back-up have kept Strait from crossing over to pop stardom, which is just the way this courtly, modest performer likes it. Having sold 67 million albums and counting, he has nothing to prove. But that doesn't mean he doesn't prove consistency can be a viable, vital artistic reward.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Twang," by George Strait. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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