Album Review: Cold Beer Conversation


George Strait
MCA/Universal
2015


George Strait - Cold Beer ConversationThere’s a message in George Strait’s new album Cold Beer Conversation, and you don’t have to be Aretha Franklin to spell ‘respect.’

Strait’s album seems in some ways to be a response to the overheated political climate in this country as we head full-speed into another brutal primary season with politicians and the American public split into a record number of camps. Strait seems to be saying we’re never going to agree all the time anyway, and yet, there’s still enough room here for each of us to do our own thing as long as we all have respect for each other. And, besides, there’s no debate or conversation that can’t be enhanced by having a few ice cold brews within arm’s reach.

That’s not to say that Strait doesn’t allude to some of the hot topics of the day, but he’s never been one to be overtly political on or off record. He’s downright reclusive for a star of his magnitude, and he’s managed to carve out a very private personal life in part by not being the kind of star who injects himself into political controversies or maintaining a constant presence on social media and weighing in on political firestorms. He’s certainly got the platform to do it. It’s just not Strait’s style to intrude in anyone else’s business.

So even when the album tiptoes up to a politically-charged topic like global warming, it ends up taking a big Texas two-step around it. That works just fine for the honky-tonk crowd that just came in to dance, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t still an important message to be gleaned from Strait’s lyrics. The album may not seek to give us the answers to the weighty political issues of the day, but it does work overtime to convey the message that how we deal with the questions when they come up and how we discuss them with each other is important.

Cold beer conversations … just a couple old boys, a little time well-wasted …
George Strait’s “Cold Beer Conversation”

It’s there in the title track “Cold Beer Conversation” as two country boys enjoy a few cold ones talking about life, talking about girls and just trying to figure it all out. Nobody’s worked up getting drunk and looking for a fight. And the message is there again in the heart of the album in back-to-back tracks. Track 7’s “It Takes All Kinds” might not be an outright endorsement of diversity as the different kinds of people it deals with – for example, top-lip dippers vs. bottom-lip dippers – aren’t exactly the divided masses that usually get the most lip service in today’s media. But Strait has been the master of subtlety now for years, and the playful mood of the song still manages to deliver a message of tolerance (“that’s what makes this world go ’round, you keep doing your thing, I’m doing mine right now”) that manages to make a bigger point.

That’s followed by Track 8 which opens with the lines “weatherman says ‘it’s 105’ … is it global warming, I’m trying to decide.” Ultimately, we have no idea what conclusion Strait draws on the subject because, either way, 105 degrees is pretty damn hot. Which means it’s also a perfect opportunity to crack open another pop-top while you “Stop and Drink.” Overthinking and overdrinking may both kill a few brain cells, but Strait isn’t afraid to point out that it’s still a choice. And one is an ice-cold, refreshing antidote to the other.

I believe in God even when He’s silent … I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining … I believe in good luck even when the dealer don’t deal it …
George Strait’s “Even When I Can’t Feel It”

It’s very possible that some of Strait’s subtle messages might, ironically, skim right over the top of the cowboy hats in the beer-drinking honky-tonk crowd that adores him. But his subtlety is present even in his delivery and his ability to take even the more average material here and turn it into something greater than the individual lines would be without a master interpreting them. That’s true for the album’s opening track “It Was Love” from the pen of Keith Gattis and again in Gattis’s composition with Wyatt Earp where Strait’s throwing back a few more cold ones on an open tab after another week of punching the clock in “Goin’ Goin’ Gone.” And he manages to take the potentially maudlin finale “Even When I Can’t Feel It” and lift it closer to the heights to which it aspired just through the sincerity of his performance.

Of course, the usual stable of Strait writers contributes here including the reliable trio of Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson teaming up on “Cheaper Than A Shrink” and Johnson again delivering with Tom Shapiro on “Something Going Down.” And the album’s grittiest moment comes via the pen of Strait’s son Bubba who teams up with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell on “Rock Paper Scissors” with Strait handling the material as deftly as if he had written all the stories himself.

In fact, the moments that pack the most punch on a Strait record these days are the ones that come from his own pen usually in tandem or some combination with his son as the elder Strait continues to emerge and grow as a songwriter in the twilight of his amazing career. Strait wrote “I Can’t See Texas” way back on 1982’s Strait from the Heart long player, but was not credited as a songwriter again until Twang in 2009. His son is credited on all three of the tracks featuring Strait as a writer on Cold Beer Conversation including the aforementioned “It Takes All Kinds” with Bob Regan and Will Nance also contributing. “Let It Go” features the Straits writing with Gattis, and finally, the soaring “Everything I See” includes Gattis again with Strait’s ace writer Dean Dillon sitting in on the session.

Everywhere I look there’s one more memory … there’s a little bit of you in everything I see …
George Strait’s “Everything I See”

It’s that final track above sitting in the album’s ninth slot that serves as the emotional centerpiece of the project with Strait reflecting on the loss of his father, John, in 2013. It finds him wishing he had slipped a cell phone into the pocket of his father’s suit so that he could continue sending him pictures and messages to the other side. That may seem a little overwrought if you’ve never lost a parent, but for those who have experienced it, the song does a great job of capturing the universal emotions that we all feel grappling for a way to stay connected to a person we’ve lost. Strait then sings of wishing he could tell him one more time that he loves him and misses him so much, another sentiment you feel staring at a coffin in that moment feeling guilty for passing up opportunities that you’ll never get back. In truth, it’s something you could probably never say enough, but at least in listening to Strait express the same thoughts, you find some comfort in realizing that you’re not the only one who feels that way.

It’s the album’s emotional apex, and even in an album that mostly tries to keep things chilled and relaxed, it ends up feeling like the core of this 13-track set. You get the feeling Strait is still dealing with the raw emotion of that event in his life, and you’d even forgive the guy if he’s telling you he still occasionally sheds a tear when he sings that “sometimes it’s the little things that really get to me.” Heck, everybody knows that cowboys aren’t supposed to cry, but at least you can respect the fact that, after nearly 35 years of making records, this one is still shooting straight.


 

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