Sometimes George Strait seems more like a movie director's dream than a country singer. If it were the 1930s, there's no doubt this young and handsome Texan would be galloping across the silver screen just like Gene Autry and the other singing cowboys. The fact is, in addition to being one of the most successful country stars in America, Strait is a real cowboy and even wears a trademark white hat.
Strait's fifth album, "Something Special" (MCA-5605), proves he's still not only easy to like, but also a pleasure to hear. Now coproducing his own records with Jimmy Bowen, Strait continues to assert his Texas traditionalism with a mix of rugged honky-tonk, high-flying western swing and the occasional shuffle and waltz. Although it was recorded in Nashville with studio musicians, "Something Special" is a delightful evocation of the sweat, whiskey and romance of the Texas honky-tonks where Strait's career began.
Like Merle Haggard's, Strait's smooth yet emphatic baritone lends itself to ballads, and he turns in two of the finest and saddest tearjerkers of his career on this album. "Haven't You Heard" casts Strait as a wife stealer who has destroyed his best friend's marriage. When he returns to visit his friend and ease his conscience, he's greeted by the man's son, who offers the song's tragic chorus: "Haven't you heard, Daddy's gone crazy." "Lefty's Gone" is a misty-eyed tribute to the late Lefty Frizzell, skillfully drawn by songwriter Sanger Shafer who once wrote with the legendary Frizzell.
While a number of ballads here, like "Blue Is Not a Word," find Strait down on his romantic luck, he mostly avoids the bleary-eyed pathos of a George Jones. That fits Strait's youthful approach in the freewheeling atmosphere of the large southwestern dance halls where he plays and where his music and subject matter are born. Strait may lose the girl, but the next song is a new dance and a new chance to stir up some action.
Part of the joy of "Something Special" is that Strait's band does kick up its musical heels, especially in the swinging "Last Time the First Time," "In Too Deep" and "Dance Time in Texas." These songs are rooted in the tradition of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys and with ex-Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble leading the way, Strait lets his soloists show off their jazzy licks. The beauty of the standout instrumental work here, including some superb electric and steel guitar unison leads, is that it conveys a sense that these musicians are a band and not just backup for a singer.
Like Strait, Kentucky-born Keith Whitley is a country traditionalist. Despite a long background in bluegrass, including stints with Ralph Stanley and J.D. Crowe's New South, Whitley is a hard country singer obviously indebted to the bent note phrasing of Frizzell and Jones. Unfortunately, the eight pleasantly maudlin songs on Whitley's second major label album, "L.A. to Miami" (RCA CPL-1-7043-A), would go down easier in a cocktail lounge than a honky-tonk.
The shame of "L.A. to Miami" is that Whitley is a fine country singer with a soft yet emotive voice capable of getting inside of a song and turning out its pain and grief. Blake Mervis' production, however, is so low-key and genteel that it doesn't allow Whitley's voice or the instrument to register with any dramatic force. Typical of Nashville music-making, both the production and song writing here are designed less to establish Whitley's identity than to register inoffensively on the radio.
If there's any irony to Whitley's creative entombment since coming to RCA, it's that he was signed to the label on the basis of "Somewhere Between," a great hard country album he recorded for Rounder Records. On "Somewhere Between," J.D. Crowe's forceful blend of electric and acoustic instrumentation and Whitley's hand-picked selection of angst-ridden ballads was good enough to suggest Whitley would be a major star like Strait. Perhaps it's time for RCA officials to go back and figure out why they liked Whitley so much in the first place, or perhaps it's just time to hire Crowe to produce him again.