Given George Strait's stature and his enduring popularity, it's easy to forget just how startling his debut Strait Country was in 1981. At the time, country music was given over to lush country-pop crossovers, aging outlaws, urban cowboy swagger and the emergence of Alabama-styled country-rock, all sounds that evoked the dawn of the Reagan era (and still do to this day), but Strait flew in the face of all of these trends, drawing deep on honky tonk tradition, undeniably rooted in Texas but willing to wander outside of the Lone Star State's borders. This restlessness manifested itself most notably on Strait's clear love of Merle Haggard, evident on the warm, breezy "Blame It on Mexico" whose verses could have been lifted from Hag's early-'70s efforts, but this wasn't a tune that was stuck in the past: this, along with the Top Ten hit "If You're Wanting a Stranger (There's One Coming Home)," was given enough of a light production sheen so it could fit alongside urban cowboy, but Strait's delivery and attitude made these slight forays into poppier material sound as pure country as the harder stuff here. And that's the genius of Strait Country -- it showed how it was possible to be planted firmly in traditional country yet flexible enough to play softer stuff without losing that hardcore stance. As the years rolled on, Strait moved away from the softer stuff here -- and something like "I Get Along with You" now sound close to early-'80s soft rock in tone and feel -- but by blending the hardcore honky tonk, Western swing and Bakersfield country with a few melodic ballads that weren't designed for the barroom, he set the template for years and years of modern country. So, Strait Country is influential, but it's also flat-out great, the beginning of a remarkable streak of continually satisfying albums from George Strait. He does sound younger here -- a little thinner, a little twangier, than he did later, when his voice deepened and softened -- but he negotiates the turns on barroom anthems like "Unwound" and "Down and Out" or the Western swing of "She's Playing Hell Trying to Get Me to Heaven" like an old pro, and he has a great set of tunes here, from those tunes to the clever "Every Time You Throw Dirt on Her (You Lose a Little Ground)." It's what makes Strait Country not just influential, but still satisfying after many years of great albums from Strait.
Strait Country Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine