May 29, 2009

George Strait Artist of the Decade

"Lean on the gas and off the clutch" - "Run"
It was like manna from Heaven, a look-what-I-found-rebound, to happen across an oasis in the tundra of television, that is the ACM tribute to George Strait. It was mesmerizing to hear all those hits again by new artists. The show was laid-back enough to seem a throwback to twenty years ago, back before money made everybody uptight. Some artists even seemed to regain their personalities; one performer put “King George” on the back of his guitar and flashed it at the end of his tribute and asked the King to sign it. Another said that Strait didn’t talk to him much the first time he met him, making him think that Strait “didn’t like me very much”. That’s country. Fewer fa├žades.

The band Sugarland led off and dominated “Adelaida”, a spicy cajun number. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles seemed to have the spirit for it and she also has a pretty mouth (can you say that post-Deliverance?).

Tody Keith followed up with the only song I didn’t recognize over the whole show, an old-fashioned kick-ass honky-tonker. “Got a problem I’m gong to drink off my chest,” went the lyrics. Reminds me of that iconic song “Rita Ballou”. Keith, a man’s man offered no wasted motion, holding forth with the armor of a hat slung low protecting slitted eyes.

Rarely did singer meet song so well as the mournful Brooks ‘n Dunn lead on “The Cowboy Rides Again”. Were his hooded eyes and wounded voice mere act? I wondered, if not, where the pathos came from. Today’s stars, unlike ol' George Jones, live bourgeois upper-class lives and don’t usually have time for addictions or bankruptcies or infidelities.

Taylor Swift, dressed like a ‘60s flower child, did “Run”, a song with whippet-like lyrics. Goosebumps attended her rendition; she sounded as innocent and ingenue-ish as did Suzanne Vega in “Luka” back some twenty-something years ago. The song is a gem, as simple and direct as a bullet and fast as a Hereford cattle rush. Even if it doesn’t sound like the typical country song the lyrics have the laconic directness of a lonesome cowboy in a Louis L’Amour novel.

“The Fireman,” an uptempo song, took me straight back like a time machine to a particular period of my life, those fabled early ‘90s that stretched to infinity on Saturday nights in a Newark, Ohio honky-tonk and afterwards in the dew grass of my friend’s house-with-acres, my boots carried off into hiding the next morning by Brent’s rugrats. Those old country songs of loss and self-pity and under-doggedness seemed so consoling when I was an unmarried and unknown writer but less potent now that I’m a married unknown writer. :-)

I’m moved by the smallest things; I could easily tear up at seeing Tim McGraw and Faith Hill still together, let alone Martina McBride or George Strait himself. I was also moved by the fealty and homage paid by the big stars. Even if it’s only an act it’s a sort of virtue paying homage to virtue. The constellation of different performers, male and female, have a precious uniqueness in each as if a sure reflection of God’s intent. Alan Jackson sings and I realize it’s that he’s never changed that makes him charismatic. “The smoke and mirrors were just that,” sang one artist of Strait (and could've of Jackson too).

I was skeptical when I learned Lee Ann Rimes would sing my favorite Strait song, “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind”. But she pulled it off even though they seemed to have cut a verse off.

Of course there’s a sour moment. Garth Brooks was preceded by a one-minute infomercial. Like Jimmy Buffet, these guys know how to market themselves. Or do they? Don’t they know that overkill doesn’t play in the savvy marketed-to-death Gen X’rs? I can imagine GB saying: “I’ll come on if you give me a minute highlighting my incredible contributions to country music, including ‘his voice is the soundtrack of our lives’”(no lie, that was actually in the infomercial). I hope I’m wrong and his record company wouldn’t let him go on without that particular plug. But, Garth’s speech was humble. He said that he was “passing the torch to a man who carried the torch for the last thirty years,” a touching tribute that seemed to move even George Strait himself.

Strait seems to embody the secret to life: to remain hungry even when full. He has all the money, fame, adulation he ever would need but still he records the hits and hits the road...

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