On the cover of George Strait’s new album, TWANG, he sits in the driver’s seat of a classic American Cadillac, strumming a toy guitar and mugging for the camera. It’s an unexpectedly playful photo for the Texas superstar, yet it perfectly captures the animated energy he’s recently infused into his never-out-of-style brand of country music.
“When I got into that old Caddy, there was a little guitar lying in the front seat,” Strait says of the photo shoot. “I picked it up and started clowning around with it, and the photographer kept shooting. It’s not a staged shot, by any means. When I started going through the pictures, I saw this shot and thought it fit the feel of TWANG I was looking for.”
In other words, Strait remains in the driver seat—not just on the album cover, but as the person gunning the engine behind his on-the-move career. With a fresh string of No. 1 hits, his first Grammy Award for Best Country Album and two consecutive CMA Awards for Album of the Year plus honors for Song and Single of the Year, Strait is as hot as ever—and, as always, he seems to know just what will work best for him and for his time.
On TWANG, he slips off into rocking country, Cajun and even a mariachi tune sung in Spanish, mixing it up with the wise ballads and dance-floor boot scooters that are as much a part of him as his comes-to-it-naturally Western look. As always, Strait epitomizes what makes modern country music so relevant and so entertaining. And, as always, he makes it look so easy.
The most important development on TWANG can be found in the songwriting credits. Strait co-wrote three songs for his new album including the debut single, “Living for the Night,” which shot up the radio charts so quickly that MCA Nashville had to move the street date of the album. Strait’s first songwriting contributions since his debut album were a direct result of writing with his son Bubba Strait.
“My son’s desire to write really inspired me,” Strait says. “After writing a few songs with Bubba, I had the idea to call and see if Dean Dillon wanted to come to my ranch and write with us. He did, we had a great time, and we were able to come up with a few songs.”
"It makes a papa proud to have my son contributing to the creation of this record,” Strait admits. “We had a great time writing with each other and then Dean adding his magic made it even more special. I hope the people who buy this record have as much fun listening to it as I had making it."
Strait always knew TWANG would be something different—and special. “When I was putting this album together I knew that I wanted to put some original material on it,” Strait says. “That’s something I hadn't done in a good while.”
Producer Tony Brown sensed this spark, too. Coming off of back-to-back award-winning albums, Strait returned to Shrimpboat Sound Studio in Key West, Florida—owned by Strait’s friend Jimmy Buffett—determined to take chances and stretch himself. “The thing I love about George is he never gets stagnant,” says Brown, one of country music’s most legendary producers. “He knows just how far he can push the envelope without breaking it. He likes to try new things, but he always stays within what he can do best, too.”
“Living for the Night” exemplifies Strait’s forward-looking attitude. A moody, thoroughly modern arrangement, Strait brings a subtly nuanced vocal performance to the song that both grounds it in Texas country yet embraces fresh, contemporary sounds.
“I actually think his voice keeps getting better,” Brown says. “George is so subtle, and so focused on expressing a song, that people don’t always realize just what an incredible singer he really is because he’s not showy. The tone he has, the way he phrases lines, the emotion he puts into them—there’s really no one as good as he is at all that. He doesn’t think of himself as a celebrity. He thinks of himself as an artist and a vocalist. He pays attention to every note.”
Strait and Brown credit the ocean air, with its cool breezes and lack of allergens, for bringing out the best in Strait’s vocal tone, purity and power. “I feel like my voice is as good as it's ever been, and the air in Key West suits it,” the singer says. “It also suits the players. It's a laid-back atmosphere, as anyone who's ever been to Key West knows, and that definitely filters right into the studio.”
As for stepping out, Strait takes on Texas bluesman Delbert McClinton’s “Same Kind of Crazy,” which McClinton co-wrote with Gary Nicholson. Brown credits the idea to record the song to Strait. “It was a fun song to do and we did it in one take,” Strait says, citing how great the studio band sounds on the cut. “That says a lot for just how much everybody was into it. I'm a Delbert fan, and I hope he likes it. He's one of our Texas treasures.”
Then there’s the album’s biggest surprise: Strait singing the Spanish lyrics of “El Rey,” a mariachi standard heard nightly across Mexico and in Border States. “I've loved mariachi music for years, and although I’m not fluent in Spanish, I’ve been trying to get better,” Strait says. “‘El Rey’ has been a favorite song of mine for years, and I request it every chance I get. So I decided to give it a shot. What a blast that was. I had a version by the great Vicente Fernandez. I played it for the guys, and we worked it out. I think it turned out great, and I hope the real mariachis like it. That will be the real test.”
Strait tackles other unexpected ideas, too, as in the let-the-good-times-roll blast of Louisiana roadhouse rock, “Hot Grease and Zydeco.” “Arkansas Dave,” the self-penned song by Bubba Strait, also presents a departure. “That one sounds like a Johnny Cash song to me,” Brown says. “I had George’s harmony singer, Marty Slayton, listen to how June Carter would harmonize with Cash to get more of that flavor. She nailed it, and it helps make the song sound unlike anything George has ever cut.”
TWANG includes plenty of songs that hardcore Strait fans expect, too. “Out of Sight Out of Mind”—another song written by the father and son team—is a steel-guitar Texas country ballad that ranks with Strait’s most moving old-school performances, as is the beautiful “Easy As You Go.” The sage wisdom in “The Breath You Take” offers a mature take on life that Strait has served up regularly and with great impact.
The romantic “I Gotta Get to You” is a mid-tempo tune that would have fit, and stood out, on any of Strait’s classic albums. “That one reminds me of ‘Amarillo by Morning’ in how great George sounds when singing it,” Brown notes. It was co-written by Jim Lauderdale, a longtime Strait favorite, with Jimmy Ritchey and Blaine Larsen. Lauderdale and Ritchey, along with co-writer Kendell Marvel, also contributed the title song, “TWANG,” an adrenalized honky-tonker Strait fills with mischievous joy.
In other words, TWANG doesn’t rest on any laurels, even though Strait stands as one of the most honored and record-setting artists in country music history. His 38th album comes during a year when the accolades continue to pile up for the legendary Texan. He won a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Country Album for Troubadour, and in April, he became only the fifth artist ever named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music. He also headlined the kick-off event at the Dallas Cowboys new stadium, selling out the venue is less than an hour. The concert was hailed by the Dallas Morning News as “an extravaganza” that “showcased Strait at the pinnacle of his musical game.”
Overall, Strait has sold more than 67 million albums and has achieved 57 No. 1 singles, the record for the most chart-topping hits by any artist in history. His 33 platinum and multi-platinum albums have earned him the most RIAA platinum certifications in country music and third in all genres behind The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, making him one of a few artists to receive such an honor while still actively producing top radio hits and selling out arenas and stadiums.
“George is having as much fun as ever making records,” Brown says of his longtime recording collaborator. “You can hear it, too. I think this album shows more range than usual, yet everything he does comes so natural to him. I do think this is going to be one of those albums people hold up as one of his high-water moments.”