LONG BEFORE Randy Travis made his first record, there was another young country singer with a big white cowboy hat, a terrific tenor voice and an unerring instinct for honky-tonk and western swing. His name is George Strait and no less an authority than Merle Haggard has cited the Texan as the best of country's neo- traditionalists.
Strait's 12th album, "Livin' It Up," is yet another classy collection of heartbreaking saloon ballads and lively Texas swing. He sounds so natural and unassuming -- so Strait-forward, as it were -- that the familiar tales of romantic betrayal and loneliness have a bedrock credibility few pop songs can match.
Strait and his co-producer Jimmy Bowen have picked 10 superb honky-tonk tunes by contemporary songwriters, thus creating that country-music rarity: an album without filler. Carl Perkins, of all people, contributes "When You're a Man on Your Own," and both Strait's understated vocal and Johnny Gimble's fiddle fills capture the lonely Hank Williams Sr. feel. Bill Mack's "Drinking Champagne" is a revealing monologue about a man who anticipates feeling miserable in the morning even as he's having a good time at night, and Strait captures that paradox in his vocal. Strait's road band appears on songs by Harlan Howard and Conway Twitty, and they kick up the dance-hall sawdust on the album's two liveliest cuts, "Someone Had to Teach You" and "She Loves Me (She Don't Love You)."
Producer Tony Brown has introduced such fresh blood as Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle to country music, but one of Brown's biggest commercial successes has been Louisville singer Patty Loveless, who emerged last year as a new Emmylou Harris/Rosanne Cash figure -- an attractive, clear-voiced, best-selling interpreter of progressive country-pop.
Loveless's new album, "On Down the Line," includes two songs by Harris's producer Paul Kennerley and four songs by Kostas, who wrote Loveless's earlier number-one smash, "Timber." Loveless serves these songs well, selling their bouncy melodies and simple catch-phrases, but she doesn't add that extra personal touch that great singers like Cash and Lucinda Williams provide. This is clearest when Loveless records Williams's "The Night's Too Long"; Loveless tells the story but completely misses the subtext of yearning and frustration.