It’s been said that the young men must overcome what he does not know, whereas the old man must overcome what he can no longer do. However, the only thing George Strait can no longer do is S-P-E-L.
In 2019, “King” George Strait stands as the oft-namechecked gold standard in country music, and his name sits on the short list of artists (Williams, Arnold, Jones, Brooks, and perhaps a few others) as one of the greatest in country music history. However, the radio sounds a lot different than when Strait ceased to be a major factor on it back in the early 2010s, as the genre has been jumping from trend to trend in search of its next big score. Now, in the Nashville equivalent of Pope Emeritus Benedict stepping back into the Vatican to issue a rebuttal to all of Pope Francis’s decrees, Strait has stepped back up to the mic to tell people what really happens in “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” across the country. Instead of leaning on the sleazy pick-up culture that permeates much of modern country, Strait does what he’s always done, delivering a neotraditional, line-dance-ready track that offers a view of more than just the pretty woman at the bar.
If you’ve heard a George Strait song within the last twenty-five years or so, you know exactly what’s coming: Guitars with equal parts texture and sizzle, copious amounts of fiddle and steel guitar, real drums with some punch, and some other instruments (piano, organ) for some background atmosphere. If there were ever a song that passed the context test, this would be it: Not only does it sound exactly like the type of song you would hear in every barroom and beer joint in the world, but its bright tone and two-step tempo make it the perfect tune to usher in the next line-dancing craze. It’s the kind of old-fashioned stomper that Strait has made a living off of for decades (it reminds me a lot of “Here For A Good Time,” actually), and when it’s executed this cleanly, there’s not here you can complain about.
For a sixty-six-year-old man, Strait’s voice sounds remarkably similar to that of his 90s/00s heyday. It doesn’t have quite the power that it used to, but its tone and range (especially that dive into the basement at the very end) are remarkable, and holy cow, since when did George freaking Strait show off this kind of flow? (For a stone-cold cowboy, this dude can flat-out spit.) Strait’s charisma and charm are basically a given at this point, and after almost forty years in mainstream country music are who-known-how-many songs set inside a bar, Strait is a leading authority on what takes place inside your typical honky tonk, giving the listener no reason to doubt him and no choice but to tap their toes to the beat. (He’s also got more than enough authority to credibly namedrop other artists, even ones like Hank Williams Sr.) The only surprise here is how well Strait’s voice has held up over time (I have to admit, all that autotuning from a few years ago had me worried), and how even now he retains the skill and the authority to get the job done.
The lyrics are probably the least impressive part of the song, as describing the inner workings of a honky tonk isn’t exactly the most novel topic in the world (booze, smoke, waitresses, amateur parking lot bouts…yep, they’re all here). Still, I’m impressed by the interesting metaphors used to spice up the generic scene:
Whiskey is the gasoline that lights the fire that burns the bridge
Ice creates the water that’s no longer runnin’ under it
Stool holds the fool that pours the whiskey on his broken heart
Unlike, say, “A Girl Like You,” the writing here at least tries to put a fresh spin on the comings and goings here. That said, not every observation has a clever twist on it, and the narrator has an inexplicable inability to spell (“L-I-V-N livin’,” “D-R-A-G-N draggin'”), which makes no sense given the pace of the lyrics—I mean, you practically make Strait rap on the verses, and then can’t be bothered to fit a few more letters into your chorus? In the end, the writing is just a vehicle for Strait and the producer to drop some neotraditional charm onto the radio, and it leaves just enough hooks for the singer and sound to do just that.
Much like it’s subject matter, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” isn’t a song written for critics. It’s a song for people to enjoy while they’re having a good time, and George Strait can work this angle as well as anyone in the business, even when he’s eligible for Social Security. The prodution captures Strait’s signature sound perfectly to capitalize on the current 90s nostalgia trend, and the lyrics give King George plenty of space to do what he does best. It’s not “Rednecks, White Socks And Blue Ribbon Beer,” but in a world filled with slick, sleazy pickup songs, I’ll gladly take it.
Rating: 8/10. I overrated a similar song from Garth Brooks last year, but I like this one better and it feels like it’s got more staying power. Definitely check it out.