It was clear right from the start that George Strait was going to be a big star, when his very first MCA single, ‘Unwound’, was a top 10 hit in 1981. It was one of no fewer than six songs on his debut album, Strait Country, to be co-written by Dean Dillon, then a young singer-songwriter with a handful of minor hits of his own on rival label RCA. He was to become the songwriter most associated with Strait’s early success. ‘Unwound’ and the second single, ‘Down And Out’, which was a little less successful, only reaching #16, were both written by the songwriting partnership of Dillon with Frank Dycus, whose contribution has probably been overlooked in comparison.
Both singles were uncompromisingly country, at a time when pop-influenced sounds were battling with more traditional ones after the success of the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. ‘Unwound’ is a hard country lament shot through with piercing fiddle, as the narrator sets in for a night’s drinking in response to his wife seeing through all the lies, complaining “that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound”. The wilder ‘Down And Out’ continues the theme, with the protagonist really settling in to his night’s drinking, as he explains:
“Well, I’m out on a tear, ’cause she’s tearin’ me apart
If I look rough on the outside you oughta see my heart.”
Dillon and Dycus also wrote the closing track, ‘Her Goodbye Hit Me In The Heart’, a less memorable but still decent song about a tough guy who finds a woman leaving hits him harder than he expected. They also teamed up with the album’s producer, Blake Mevis, to write ‘Friday Night Fever’, a good-humored tale of a husband enjoying a weekly night out while his homebody wife stays in watching Dallas on the TV.
The couple in ‘She’s Playing Hell Trying To Get Me To Heaven’, written by Dean Dillon again, this time with Charles Quillen and David Wills, are more conflicted about their differing tastes in life, as our protagonist tells us without much regret:
“Well, I promised to go to church with her about a month of Sundays ago
Well, here it is, Sunday again, and I ain’t been once in a row ….
There’s only 10 commandments but I’ve broke at least 11
She’s playing hell trying to get me to heaven.”
I’m a big fan of Dean Dillon as a songwriter, but he probably got one credit too many on this album, with the inclusion of ‘I Get Along With You’. The only remarkable thing about this pleasant but forgettable song is that it took five writers, including Dillon and Dycus, to create, and while George’s vocal is warm, the backing vocals on the track are rather dated.
There was a change of pace with the album’s third and last single, the gentler sounding ‘If You’re Thinking You Want A Stranger (There’s One Coming Home), which was written by Blake Mevis and David Wills. Here a cheating husband has seen the error of his ways once he realizes his wife might be intending to copy him. It was George’s biggest hit to date, reaching #3 on Billboard.
Although it was not a single, one of the best-remembered tracks from this album is Darrell Staedtler’s ‘Blame It On Mexico’, a mellow sounding story set to a pretty tune with delicate Spanish instrumentation. It starts out appearing to be a love song, but has a bitter twist in the tale, as the narrator, who has fallen in love with a girl he met on vacation finds himself alone “in a run-down motel room as dark as hell”. This brings a new meaning to the chorus:
“Blame it on Mexico but she’s the reason
That I fell in love again for my last time.”
Another highlight is a lesser-known cover, ‘Honky Tonk Downstairs’, which was previously recorded by the other great George, George Jones, on his Sings The Songs Of Dallas Frazier album in 1968. Here we have a shame-filled man admitting to the results of his drinking on his wife:
“It’s a shame she wears the name
Of a man who’s locked and chained
To a bottle that’s destroyin’ all her hopes and cares
She’s the barmaid in the honky tonk downstairs.”
Another great track, although it has slightly dated production, is ‘Every Time You Throw Dirt On Her (You Lose A Little Ground)’, written by Michael Garvin and Tom Shapiro. George chides an acquaintance for the way he treats his wife, and warns him that she won’t take it forever:
“She slips a little further away each time that you put her down
A lady like that can come here and get
Somebody’s who’ll know what he’s found
And every time you throw dirt on her, you lose a little ground.”
The album fulfilled the promise of its punning title, showcasing George Strait as a genuinely country singer with a very good set of songs. His vocals are a little rawer sounding on most tracks than on his more recent work, and Blake Mevis’ production is solid, with plenty of fiddle and steel, although some aspects have dated a little on some tracks, particularly the background vocals. Sales were not immediately outstanding, and the album never rose above #26 on the Billboard country albums chart, despite the singles’ good performance. However, over time George’s fans have gone back to this record, and it is now classified platinum. If you haven’t heard it, it is well worth seeking out, and thanks to the sustained success of his career, it is readily available.