On Sept. 25, country music legend George Strait released his twenty-ninth studio album, “Cold Beer Conversation.” Though the first two singles on the album have not enjoyed a great deal of commercial success, the 63-year-old has nothing left to prove in that department – he holds the record for country number-ones and is the twelfth-bestselling American musical artist of all time.
In honor of Strait’s new album, this week we are slightly bending the rules of the column and taking a look at two classic songs, one much older than the other. The newer of the two is Strait’s 1986 number-one, “Ocean Front Property,” a laid-back, tongue-in-cheek narrative surrounding Strait’s desire to sell a former flame some oceanfront property in Arizona – an entirely landlocked state – if she’s also willing to believe that he’s over her.
It is a clever song that requires a cursory knowledge of geography and the ability to listen carefully, lest you think Strait is a realtor expounding the virtues of his beachfront property in the southwest. The verses are declarations of independence and confidence: “If you leave me, I won't miss you/And I won't ever take you back/Girl, your memory won't ever haunt me/Cause I don't love you, and now if you'll buy that,” and then the chorus comes in, “I got some oceanfront property in Arizona.”The feeling of heartache underlies the song but is not overt. The listener doesn’t sense the heartache until the chorus hits, and only then do they truly understand the song. The writing formula is one employed in many country songs: a chorus that alters the meaning of the verses and allows the listener a feeling of satisfaction for having understood its complexities.
Many of Strait’s songs are characterized by an easygoingness and genuine twang that today’s country radio lacks, which is perhaps why he hasn’t had a #1 hit since 2009. For more experienced country listeners, Straight’s sound still offers comfort and harkens back to a different era, one in which sincerity was a premium.
No country artist better represents that era than George Jones, “The Possum,” who passed away in 2013. And no song better represents the masterful vocalist than his 1962 hit, “She Thinks I Still Care.” When Jones passed away, Merle Haggard wrote in Rolling Stone, “Imagine you’re George Jones, and every night you’re expected to sing as good as you did on ‘She Thinks I Still Care…’ he was the Babe Ruth of country music, and people expected a home run every time.”
“She Thinks I Still Care” employs similar sarcasm to that in “Ocean Front Property”: “just because I ask a friend about her/just because I spoke her name somewhere/just because I rang her number by mistake today/she thinks I still care.” The Possum’s song is also similar to Strait’s in that it may take a listen or two before you understand how heartbroken he really is. In fact, with every listen you may suspend your disbelief right up until Jones croons, “but how could she ever be so foolish/oh, where would she get such an idea?”
Both Georges are legends and have churned out a prodigious amount of country music. As country moves toward a newer, more modern sound, it can be comforting to throw on a classic record and remember the brilliant simplicity that is the genre’s foundation.