In the spring of 1998, I reviewed the George Strait Country Music Festival for my college newspaper. Once I got past describing the cigarette and chewing tobacco giveaways in the parking lot, this is what I wrote about Strait’s set: “His style of music was much more traditional compared to the other performers on the bill. Complete with twangy guitars and dueling fiddles, he seemed to belt out hit after hit with the entire crowd singing along to songs about love, love lost, rodeos and even a ‘Song about the Heartland.’”
Now, more than two decades later, I feel like I could write the same thing about Strait’s latest record Honky Tonk Time Machine. As country music keeps changing, his music remains connected to the ghosts of country-music past, nostalgic perhaps for a bygone era that never quite existed in the first place.
The album includes a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1986 hit “Old Violin.” Paycheck was an outlaw-country singer, best known for his workingman anthem “Take This Job and Shove It.” Despite Paycheck’s outlaw mystique, “Old Violin” is a straightforward country ballad about a man confronting his own mortality. “Tonight I feel like an old violin/Soon to be put away and never played again.”
Strait’s cover does not veer too far from Paycheck’s original. It’s heavy on the acoustic and steel guitars, fiddle and honky-tonk piano. But that is not exactly a knock against the cover, the original recording was similar to the neotraditional country Strait was playing in the ‘80s. Strait could have easily recorded the track himself during the Reagan era. It just might have been a tougher sell back when he was not yet old enough to join AARP. In the end, the narrator concludes: “And just like that, it hit me/That old violin and I were just alike/We give our all to music/And soon, we’ll give our lives.” Not exactly a young man’s sentiment, but perfectly appropriate for an old troubadour like Strait at this stage of his career.
Click here to listen to more George Strait covers.