Critics looking for flaws in George Strait's albums are a frustrated bunch, not unlike the Maytag repairman. (You remember him, the guy in those TV ads who waits by the phone but is never called on to fix anything.) Strait is just too consistent, too reliable, to release anything that might provoke a mocking word or dismissive wave. He so rarely miscalculates, when critics do complain about any of the 53-year-old's albums it always sounds like quibbling.
With his latest release, "Somewhere Down in Texas," the traditional country singer once again confounds the carpers. A can't-miss mix of ballads and honky-tonk romps, it even includes a slice of gospel, "You'll Be There," that has already become a hit. The new album, like the 30 or so that have come before it, plays to Strait's strengths, among them his voice and a singing style that never strains or overreaches. He has captured the cool of country, which, like the cool of everything else, means never looking like you're trying too hard.
Strait has another gift. For someone who rarely writes his own material, he makes songs sound as if he had. Take the opening track, "If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk." It's a twangy number on which he yearns for simpler solutions and a world where we "wouldn't need no lawyers to decide / Who is wrong and who is right / No need for big expensive trials / Brother, we'd just step outside." Right on, George.
The best ones here, though, are the relationship songs. On "Ready for the End of the World," Strait prepares for getting dumped with "a case of Jack, a box set of Merle." And with the clever "She Let Herself Go," he tells of a woman who takes being abandoned much better than expected. Another song, "High Tone Woman," is cool retro rockabilly with Strait sounding a bit like a cross between Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, and singing lines like "She doesn't like cowboys and thinks less of fools."
The album also features Strait's first-ever duet with a woman. Teaming up with Lee Ann Womack on "Good News, Bad News," he delivers an old-fashioned hard-luck-in-love weeper that hasn't been done as well since George Jones and Tammy Wynette sang together. "I guess all is fair in love and war," Strait sings, "Someone wins -- " and then Womack interjects "but someone wins more."
In fact, it is Strait who often wins more. In his nearly 25-year recording career he has 51 No. 1 country singles and has sold more than 60 million records. It's hard to argue with that kind of success. You can perhaps wish that he took a few more chances or stretched his selections a bit. You might wish for a little more emotion in some of his songs. But you know what that sounds like? Quibbling.