There’s a moment on George Strait’s new album, Honky Tonk Time Machine, that any seasoned country fan should be emotionally prepared for. Sandwiched between an ode to his new tequila brand (“Código”) and a rollicking reaffirmation of love (“Take Me Away”), Strait performs Johnny Paycheck’s infamous semi-swan song “Old Violin.”
It’s a gorgeous, if not painful self-eulogy that, even at 66 years young, Strait delivers with a lamenting candor. For the legions of fans who might still not be over Strait’s 2014 retirement from touring, it could be exceptionally painful to hear Strait singing such a lonesome surrender.
But fret not. Strait’s 30th studio album is far from a concession. It’s as lively a gallop through Strait’s strengths as any of his previous platinum endeavors — even if fans had to wait longer than usual for this record, an oddity at least partially attributable to the fact that Strait wrote more of this album than on any other album in his career.
“For the last 10 years or so I’ve been writing again,” Strait tells Texas Music. “I wanted to record more of what I’ve written — but only if it held up.”
Strait wrote eight of the 13 songs on Honky Tonk Time Machine in total, many of them with his longtime collaborator Dean Dillon and son Bubba. “It’s been exciting to collaborate with my son in recent years,” Strait says. “Bubba co-wrote 10 songs on this album, and it’s been great to watch him grow as a songwriter, as he really has a lot of great ideas and a unique perspective to share, whether it’s ‘Arkansas Dave,’ which is still one of my favorite songs, or the title track, ‘Honky Tonk Time Machine.’”
And while Strait retired from touring full-time, rest assured he still enjoys the process of making music. “I’ve also made my last few records in Key West,” he adds. “What better place can you go to make a record?”
“I can’t think of anything that I miss about touring,” Strait says. Part of that sentiment undoubtedly has to do with the fact he’s still playing — just entirely on his own terms. “I do as many shows as I feel like doing and when I feel like doing them. If I don’t want to play in April, for example, I don’t play in April. When you’re touring, you don’t get to do that.”
Nowadays, more often than not a George Strait performance is kind of a big deal. Strait, for instance, agreed to be the first concert announced in Fort Worth’s new Dickies Arena. A small number of tickets went on sale for $19.82, a reference to one of Strait’s rare appearances in Fort Worth at Billy Bob’s Texas in 1982. Good luck finding a ticket for ten times that now, though. The 14,000-seat arena sold out in minutes, with scalpers immediately turning around to try and sell nosebleed seats for upwards of $400.
The frenzy isn’t surprising, especially in Texas — Strait recently broke his own record for concert attendance at Houston’s NRG Stadium, when he closed out the Houston Rodeo to 80,180 fans.
Even with a career as storied as Strait’s, those moments matter.
Strait’s last No. 1 radio single came more than 10 years ago, 2008’s “River of Love.” That’s not to say others haven’t gotten close, or that Strait doesn’t still send multiple singles to radio with every record. But country radio has, by and large, abandoned the King of Country, a fact he’s knowingly chosen to poke and prod with 2016’s song “Kicked Outta Country.”
But if not worrying too much about touring or radio has done anything, it’s freed up Strait to tackle more bucket list items. Like singing a song with Willie Nelson, a joyful moment he saves until the end of the record.
“I’d been thinking for years that I really wanted to sing with Willie, and why in the hell that had never happened,” Strait says. “I guess the opportunity just never presented itself.”
With some encouragement from Ray Benson and Willie’s bandmate, Mickey Rafael, Strait pursued the idea a little harder. “Ray talked to Willie, and Willie said he was up for it and that I should write one with him,” Strait says. “At the time I just laughed, thinking, ‘Yeah right, I’m going to write with Willie Nelson.’” One of Strait’s great strengths, after all, has always been his ability to pick the right song for himself, not necessarily write it.
“Anyway, one morning I thought I’d take a stab at it and wrote a couple verses and a chorus, put down a little guitar vocal on my iPhone, and sent it to him,” Strait recalls. Nelson happily obliged, writing the rest of the song with Buddy Cannon before the pair recorded it. “I think it turned out great,” Strait enthuses, “and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve written and sang a song with the legendary Willie Nelson.”
Synonymous with both George Strait’s and Willie Nelson’s early days, Austin’s iconic Broken Spoke graces the cover of Honky Tonk Time Machine.
“I started booking George back in 1975, when he was first getting started,” says longtime Broken Spoke owner James M. White. “That’s why it’s real exciting for him to still be thinking of the Broken Spoke and put it on the cover.”
In January 2019, Strait and his wife, Norma, paid White a visit, riding in on the bus to conduct a special interview with Spotify. (If anything says “everything changes and nothing changes” all at the same time, it’s that scenario.) “He walked right up to me and said, ‘Hello Mr. White,’” White recalls. “He was always a very polite young man.”
“It was so great to see the Whites again and relive some of those memories of the Broken Spoke,” Strait adds. “It was also refreshing to see they haven’t changed one thing about it. I loved that.”
White first booked the Ace in the Hole band when Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys were late for a show one evening. “Alvin called me up and said, ‘James, I’m gonna be a little late to the gig tonight, but I got a good little band from San Marcos opening up for me,” White recalls. “I liked what I heard, I liked what I saw, and we got along just fine, so I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to start booking him.”
Strait and the band returned about once a month from 1975 through 1981, typically making about $400 or $500 a night until one night his drummer-turned-stage manager Tom Foote told White Strait couldn’t make the show because he was in Nashville recording.
“I figured he’d go a long way singing country music, but you always hear about singers who go up to record in Nashville, and then you don’t hear much about it again,” White laughs. But as soon as Strait’s first song, “Unwound,” went out to radio, White heard Strait a lot more. When White booked Strait the next time, his manager informed him the price went up to $3,500 a show. “So I booked him a couple times at that price,” White says. “Then he had another song, and the manager said, ‘Now it’s gonna be $20,000.’ I had to take some time to think about it, but when I called him back he said the price went up to $100,000! I told him, ‘I’m glad I didn’t have to think about it anymore.’”
Career growth like that is a point of pride for White and the Broken Spoke. In his “Tourist Trap” (a personal collection of memorabilia on display for visitors), White proudly hangs plenty of George Strait fodder, including an original Ace in the Hole poster (“Man I put out a lot of them posters years ago myself,” Strait recalled) and a now somewhat infamous picture, smudged by the lipstick of countless women who stopped to kiss it. “That picture is part of a local scavenger hunt now,” White laughs.
And there’s at least one notable addition proving that Strait’s comment about nothing changing at the Spoke isn’t entirely true. White’s wife, Annetta, whom he calls the “working half” of the partnership (“I’m in charge of the B.S. and P.R.,” White jokes), made the decision to adorn the entrance to the women’s bathroom with George Strait pictures. “Now we officially have the George Strait Women’s Restroom,” White laughs, in a nod to Strait’s wink-and-a-smile sex symbol status. “I did show it to him, and he got a big kick out of it.”
And despite having the totally legitimate option of making the Honky Tonk Time Machine album cover a picture of a bathroom door, Strait opted to instead go with the timeless front entrance to the venue, artfully framing the luxury midrise apartments that now flank either side.
While Strait’s private appearance in January didn’t include a performance, White does have a pretty compelling idea for a nice little “time machine” performance at the Broken Spoke. “My dream team would be to have him and Willie Nelson singing together that song on his album at the Broken Spoke,” White says. “And have Alvin Crow open up. That’s the dream team.”