One proof of George Strait's importance is that the 50-year-old country institution hardly stands out at all anymore. Back in 1981, when his breakthrough debut was released, Strait seemed too good to be true, in every sense of the cliché. His Clark Kent comeliness, omnipresent white cowboy hat, even his honest-to-goodness surname were all "too squeaky clean to be real," as Paul Kingsburg put it in the liner notes to Strait's hugely popular 1995 boxed set, Strait Out of the Box. Since Strait's blend of western swing and heartbreak ballads arrived in the era of Urban Cowboy and Eddie Rabbitt, the Texas army vet was grouped with such hard-country anomalies as John Anderson and Ricky Skaggs. But as one critic noted, Strait was really more about "soft honky-tonk." It was the hallmark of the neotraditionalist wave to come, a wave that has transformed squeaky-clean goodness into a Nashville mainstay and made Strait seem more like a standard than a star.
The drawbacks to this position were made all too clear on his most newsworthy hit of recent years, "Murder on Music Row," a duet with the youngest of his children, Alan Jackson. The song's critique of Nashville's newfangled pop styles was couched in an utterly formulaic hoedown that actually belied the lyric's sentiments, demonstrating why country, like all popular music, needs innovation.
This may explain why Strait took some experimental chances on his 2001 release, The Road Less Traveled. The departures range from the pent-up passion and hushed arrangement on "Run" to the surprising touch of Cher-like vocodor on the loping line dance "Stars on the Water." It's all balanced by sure-shot covers and predictable ballads, of course, but presented live, this half-step might be enough to make a standard sound startling again.