George Strait calls his new album “Honky Tonk Time Machine,” but it’s hard to think of a country star less in need of one of those.
The genre’s most consistent A-list act, this handsome Texas native has been remaking the same record — happily polished yet crisply traditional — since he broke into the top 10 of Billboard’s country chart nearly four decades ago with “Unwound,” the first song on his first major-label album.
And at 66 he sounds and looks as good today as he ever has — maybe better, if you’re into the crinkly-around-the-eyes thing.
In other words, Strait never really changed, so what’s there to go back to?
Success of a kind, I suppose.
“Honky Tonk Time Machine,” due Friday, is the singer’s follow-up to 2015’s “Cold Beer Conversation,” which came out after he said he was retiring from the road. As a result (or not) of that decreased visibility, the typically solid “Cold Beer” failed to produce a real-deal hit single at country radio — an unprecedented event for Strait, whose 2004 best-of was titled “50 Number Ones.”
You can understand, then, why he might be in a nostalgic mood — and why he’s easing back into touring, playing concerts, including one Saturday night at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, beyond his semi-regular gig in Las Vegas.
“Well, he comes in here on the first and fifteenth / Pockets just jinglin’ like a tambourine,” he sings in the new album’s revved-up title track, and it’s easy to picture a guy pumping quarters into a jukebox filled with the likes of “Ocean Front Property” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
Strait isn’t the only country veteran who’s got old accomplishments in mind.
Next week Reba McEntire is set to release a new album that she’s framing as a return to her roots. And Brooks & Dunn has one on the way that pairs the long-running duo with famous admirers for updated versions of their biggest hits. (It’s called — oh yes — “Reboot.”)
What’s interesting about “Honky Tonk Time Machine,” though, is that, as eager as Strait seems to reclaim his commercial clout, the album doesn’t downplay his perspective as an aging grandfather at a moment when country music is dominated by youngsters.
He may want to go back in time, but not because he wants to be a kid again; instead, he’s longing gently for an era when the mainstream made a place for the kind of grown-up he’s always been.
Widely thought of as an interpreter rather than a songwriter, Strait co-wrote eight of the 13 tunes here — one reason, perhaps, that the four-year gap separating “Cold Beer Conversation” and “Honky Tonk Time Machine” is the longest he’s ever taken between albums.
In “Sometimes Love,” which Strait wrote with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon (a collaborator since the early ’80s), he’s in his romantic sweet spot, describing a man and woman who can’t quite manage to quit each other; “Código” is more playful as he compares a lover to his favorite tequila.
“Baby, just like you it’s something new I just had to try / I didn’t plan on it, but a sip and you’ll want it — it’s a beautiful high,” he sings with enough rascally charm to make you forget briefly that he’s an investor in the Código brand.
“Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” offers a variation on the title track’s good-times escapism, in this case with a vivid image of “the stool [that] holds the fool that pours the whiskey on his broken heart.” (For those with different tastes in booze, Strait works in another plug for his tequila.)
Yet the album touches on darker themes too, as in a stately cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” in which he contemplates his fear of obsolescence, and “Blue Water,” which opens with a deceptively bouncy groove only to find Strait rhyming “The whole world’s spinning in the wrong direction” with “Body and soul needs a resurrection.”
In “The Weight of the Badge,” Strait — who’s spent his years in the spotlight carefully avoiding even a whisper of controversy — sings reverently of the dangers faced by police; it’s not Fox News-style law-and-order stuff, but Strait is smart enough to know that in this political climate the song is tantamount to taking a stand.
But “Honky Tonk Time Machine” suggests he’s reached an age where he’s OK with that.
“God and Country Music,” after all, features a cute cameo by Strait’s young grandson. And the album closes with “Sing One With Willie,” a comedic novelty in which he looks back over his career with satisfaction — except for the nagging disappointment that he never got to duet with Willie Nelson.
“Now I’ve heard him with Merle, Waylon and Cash / Jones and Toby, that man is totally gracious,” he sings, “But I’m thinking, Damn, why not me? / We could even sing it on TV like him and old Julio Iglesias.”
The punchline arrives, of course, when Nelson shows up to point out in his wizened croon that he never got to sing one with George Strait.
The tune advises you against underestimating what an old-timer can make happen.