During her opening set Thursday night at the Universal Amphitheatre, singer Kathy Mattea referred to headliner George Strait as "the Mark Harmon of country music."

Strait has the clean-cut good looks to fit that description, but he could also be called country's answer to Gary Cooper. Like Cooper, Strait is the strong, silent type. He hardly said a word through his first six songs, and even then he didn't say much. Fortunately, his music can do the talking for him.

Strait calls his fine eight-man backing group the Ace in the Hole Band. But the 35-year old Texan's real ace in the hole is his ability to move with ease between traditional country hoedowns and contemporary country ballads.

Strait--whose "Ocean Front Property" recently became the first album to enter the country chart at No. 1--specializes in warm, melodic songs whose titles alone suggest their poignancy: "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?," "Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her." If that were all that Strait could do, he would be a smooth country crooner in the Kenny Rogers/Eddie Rabbitt camp. But he can also up the tempo with some lively honky-tonk jams.

Strait, whose arrival in 1981 helped usher in the "new traditionalist" trend in country music, also played such country classics as Hank Williams' "Love Sick Blues" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." A few of his own hits also showed bravado, especially the current "All My Ex's Live In Texas," a sly, witty song about a reformed carouser.

Strait didn't acknowledge the squeals and wolf-whistles that punctuated his performance. It's to his credit that he didn't pander by unbuttoning his shirt or throwing a sweaty handkerchief into the audience. He didn't even remove his hat until the encores.

But Strait needs to convey more personality. You don't come away from the show knowing any more about him than when you walked in. Even Coop let down his guard once in a while.

Mattea demonstrated strength and grit in her opening set. The West Virginian conveyed a plucky, no-nonsense attitude in both her manner and her music.

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