It's a tribute to George Strait's instincts for good material that several of the songs he sang Sunday night at the Greek Theatre reminded you of country music's classic honky-tonk and bar-room traditions.
But it doesn't speak well for one of country music's reigning superstars that whenever Strait sang one of those songs--from the wry "Unwound" to the bittersweet "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye"--you couldn't help picturing how much better the song would have sounded if one of country's great veterans had been on stage?
Say George Jones.
Or Merle Haggard.
Or Willie Nelson.
The most telling thing about Strait's rather colorless style is that it's hard to imagine ever hearing an appealing new song and thinking: Boy, wouldn't it be great to hear George Strait sing that?
The handsome Texan has a smooth, pleasing voice and an easy-going, amicable manner on stage, but he lacks the character and dynamic phrasing that is essential to great country music.
That's why Strait's concert Sunday was about as anonymous an evening of country music as you could imagine from a singer who has had almost two dozen No. 1 singles--someone whose "greatest hits" album has been on the country charts now for almost five years.
As an early member of the still surging New Traditionalists movement, Strait did country music a service in the '80s by helping refocus attention on the music's classic values and away from the slick pop emphasis of the '70s.
But this group of new artists--including Randy Travis and Clint Black--tends to echo rather than extend the boundaries established by such landmark country figures as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Jones and Haggard.
Beneath Strait's string of hits, there is a disheartening lack of creative fire. It's as if he and the other newcomers--perhaps humble to a fault--are so in love with country music that they feel they shouldn't tamper with it. Thus, they measure their success only in terms of ability to please the country audience.
By that standard, Strait has done spectacularly well. Only about 10 country artists in history have had more No. 1 singles and the standing ovation when Strait walked on stage at the sold-out Greek testified to his acceptance.
But those guidelines aren't the test of excellence. Sonny James--an equally agreeable country star of the '50s through the '70s--has registered more No. 1 singles than Strait and was also known for bringing fans to their feet. But James is hardly remembered as a landmark figure in the field..
The best country artists--from Johnny Cash through Wilie Nelson--seemed filled with a burning need to express themselves in their music. It may have been part vanity to think they could reshape this country music tradition, but it was also vision and their contributions helped push the boundaries of country music in ways that Strait and most of the other New Traditionalists don't seem to even recognize.
If Strait lacks arresting character as a singer, he still delivers a song well enough to make his records winning in today's undemanding market and he is at his best on an intimate, understated love song, such as "You Look So Good in Love."
For the most part, however, his superstar status in today's country market demonstrates just how much in need this rich American music form is in need of a creative jump-start.
Patty Loveless, who opened Sunday's concert with a fast-paced, if relatively punchless 45-minute set, has a winning stage presence and an equally good ear for material. Yet she, too, seemed to lack the creative fire required to turnaround country's passive celebration of past wonders.