The cover of George Strait's latest LP, Honkytonkville, shows the singer leaning against a lamppost before a neon-lit strip of taverns and dives that stretches to infinity. It's a pose, sure, meant as much to evoke Sinatra going where the lonely go as it is to remind Strait's audience, as if they had any doubts, where the man's heart lies. The album's uneven material, veering from two-stepping party music to forgettable power-ballad foam, shows that Strait remains a contradiction. He's a traditionalist by instinct and a pop artist by calculated craft. He's a conservative cultural icon (we all know George W. Bush and Strait are from Texas, but that's not why the prez got a brief cameo on this year's live album) and a maverick who risked releasing the anti-Nashville anthem "Murder on Music Row" as a single. He's an ace rodeo rider and a master of honky-tonk, country music's most blue-collar style, even if there's nary a working-class bone in his body.
Strait is also, hands down, the most important country artist of the past twenty years. No one has had as many number-one country singles and no other mainstream artist has done as much to keep the sound of western swing and honky-tonk on the radio. The uncharitable might blame him for the hat-act assembly line of the '90s, but that would be like blaming Nirvana for the Stone Temple Pilots. Strait's image, with his butt-hugging Wranglers, dry-cleaned Stetsons and bland good looks, gave Nashville a facile template, but none of his clones could touch his best work. "If You're Thinking You Want a Stranger (There's One Coming Home)," "Amarillo by Morning," "Famous Last Words of a Fool," "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind" and "Chill of an Early Fall" all demonstrate his eye for great, sometimes sublime and often complex country songs, not to mention his commanding voice. Strait is the only singer over 50 that country radio deigns to play, and no one else sounds like him. While some have faulted his recent studio work for relying more on ubiquitous Nashville A-teamers and less on his longtime road band Ace in the Hole (who never get enough credit for the muscle and heartbreak of his best records), Strait's concerts still spotlight that band, and his not-quite-fallen-from-grace baritone, in all their swinging glory.