Last fall, George Strait revealed that he plans to retire from the road following his so-called Cowboy Rides Away Tour, which concludes its 2013 leg with a sold-out gig June 1 at San Antonio's 72,000-capacity Alamodome. (The Texas native is to resume the trek next year for one final string of concerts.)
"I just don't want to go to the point where I show up and nobody else does," he told CBS News at the time of his announcement. "It's been great. I've been doing it for 30-some-odd years and I've loved it. Sometimes I've not liked it as much."
That's the plainspoken rationale you'd expect from Strait. Since he began churning out country hits in 1981 -- including 59 No. 1's, more than any other artist -- Strait has cultivated a kind of stoic dependability unmatched among his peers. His perfectly crafted songs may recount overwhelming experiences, but he never sounds overwhelmed himself.
Or at least he hasn't until now. On "Love Is Everything," his stirring new album, Strait's stiff upper lip begins ever so slightly to tremble, a sign perhaps that the deceleration of his decades-long career is taking (or reflects) a heavier psychological toll."I do what my heart says do," he admits in "I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing," one of several tunes on the album about honoring one's emotions. The next song, "That's What Breaking Hearts Do," describes how hard it is to "try to erase that lonely look on your face."
In fact, that used to be easy for Strait, whose singing transmitted the equanimity of a grandfather long before he became one. Here, though, the 60-year-old's vocals feel newly vulnerable, particularly in ballads like "Blue Melodies," a sad song about the value of sad songs, and the gorgeous "I Just Can't Go On Dying Like This," which Strait wrote back in the mid '70s when he was fronting his pre-solo Ace in the Hole Band.
He's putting more of himself in the music, too, a notable shift for an artist whose continued reliance on the Nashville songwriting machine has often seemed like an effort to deflect interest in the details of his private life.
There's the unusually vivid language in "That's What Breaking Hearts Do," which Strait co-wrote with his son Bubba: "Feel like your hands are tied / Bound up, strapped down, busted inside." And there's "Sittin' on the Fence," in which he admires a woman with "a body like a hundred-dollar bill" -- an appealing disruption of Strait's perceived moral rectitude.
But neither of those cuts prepares you for "I Believe," another song by George and Bubba Strait (with Dean Dillon) that appears to be about the shooting last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "The night's as clear as a big desert sky / But it's hard to see stars with these tears in my eyes," Strait sings over delicate acoustic fingerpicking, "Yeah, it's hard not to cry / There's 26 reasons why."
"I Believe" goes on to ponder "broken hearts that'll never beat the same" and "shattered lives still reeling from the pain," yet insists in a chorus swollen with strings that "there's someone who's looking after me." Carefully rendered and unabashed in its optimism, it's as personal as anything Strait has ever recorded. And it's completely devastating.
"Love Is Everything"
Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood