George Strait

Latest Greatest Straitest Hits

(MCA Nashville)

Common sense says you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and in country music that Monty Python-esque mitt belongs to a smattering of powerful radio programmers. If you can’t get your songs on the airwaves you’ll never be a star, yet no other radio format is so rigid. Plenty of underdogs have expressed their frustration with the Nashville machine in song form, and the repertoire seems to have grown as cheeseballs like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain have blasted their way to the top with pyrotechnics and rock bombast. In his “Nashville Rash” Austin honky-tonker Dale Watson laments, “I’m too country now for country,” and Chicago’s own Robbie Fulks, who spent three years as a Nashville songwriter, sums up his experience in the wicked “Fuck This Town.”

If it were only bitter young upstarts who had a beef with the country music industry, the trend could be explained away as sour grapes. But as Jon Langford put it in the Waco Brothers’ “Death of Country Music” a few years ago, living legends like George Jones and Johnny Cash can’t get on the radio either. Jones had to nearly die in an auto accident last year for his excellent single “Choices” to earn moderate airplay, and he was still dissed by the Country Music Association before its annual awards show in September. They invited him to sing the song on the show–or, rather, an excerpt of the song, even though the whole thing is only three and a half minutes long. Understandably, Jones declined and stayed home from the ceremonies. The whole affair passed without comment until, during the live broadcast, Alan Jackson got up to sing his latest single, a cover of the Jim Ed Brown classic “Pop a Top.” Halfway through his performance, the longhaired traditionalist–one of country’s biggest stars in the 90s–segued into “Choices,” saluting Jones with one hand and flipping off Nashville with the other.

That rare rebellious moment sent ripples through Nashville, and recently Jackson has been joined in his protest by an even bigger staple of country radio–George Strait. In the last two decades Strait has made 24 platinum albums and 36 number one country singles. His 1995 box set, Strait Out of the Box, has sold more than six million copies–more than any box set besides Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975-1985–and his annual package tour last year grossed more than $60 million.

Kicking off Latest Greatest Straitest Hits, the Texan’s fourth greatest-hits collection, are two new songs. One is the current hit single “The Best Day,” a nauseatingly sweet slice of profamily hokum. The other, a duet with Jackson, is “Murder on Music Row,” which was written and originally recorded by bluegrass artist Larry Cordle. The lyrics lambaste the country music industry for cutting out the “heart and soul” of country music. “The almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame / Slowly killed tradition and for that someone should hang,” sings Jackson. He laments how steel guitar and fiddle have been supplanted by “drums and rock ‘n’ roll guitars mixed up in your face,” and together he and Strait bemoan the fact that “old Hank” and “the Hag” wouldn’t have a chance of scoring airplay these days.

Musically the song fits nicely into the traditional end of the mainstream spectrum–which means you’d never confuse it with anything by Hank Williams or Merle Haggard–but the lyrics and the context make it every bit as radical, if not more, than anything Bloodshot has ever released. Strait and Jackson have until now been apolitical to the extreme, expressing any beliefs they may have held about the state of the music only by their relative adherence to country conventions. They’re both buffered from any serious consequences by the huge fan bases they’ve built up, but it’s still shocking to hear them pointedly indict the medium that’s helped them build and maintain that popularity.

Now something else weird has happened: Not surprisingly, MCA Nashville has no plans to release “Murder on Music Row” as a single, but lots of country stations are playing it anyway. Last week, in fact, it debuted at number 47 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. And while it’s hard to imagine this tune actually stanching the assembly-line production of hit robots like Garth, Shania, Faith Hill, and Lonestar, it sure is fun to hear that monkey wrench rattling around in the gears.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark Tucker/Pamela Springsteen.