George Strait has been so good for so long that it's easy to take him for granted, and Somewhere Down in Texas -- his 28th album, if you're keeping score -- is the kind of album that's easy to take for granted, since its scope and scale are so modest.
Which isn't to say that it's dull: it's just that it's such a low-key, assured album, it's easy to overlook the craft and skill involved in its production, particularly because Strait always makes his music sound so effortless.
He never changes, always staying within the confines of pure country, but part of his genius is that he has an excellent ear for material, picking songs that uphold the hardcore country traditions of George Jones and Merle Haggard yet feel fresh and contemporary.
He also knows how to group these songs together, sustaining a mood throughout a full album.
If 2003's Honkytonkville was a lean, tough honky tonk record, this 2005 sequel is its more sedate, introspective flip side.
There are still moments that are pure honky tonk -- from the mid-tempo anthem "If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk" to the quick two-step "High Tone Woman" -- but this is a gentle, nostalgic, ballad-heavy affair that takes its tone from Strait's terrific cover of Hag's sweet, lazy (and often overlooked) "The Seashores of Old Mexico." It's a warm, occasionally bittersweet, often soothing collection of perfectly pitched, reflective tunes, ranging from the clever breakup tale "She Let Herself Go" and the Lone Star valentine "Texas" to the excellent slow duet with Lee Ann Womack, "Good News, Bad News." Again, there's nothing new or surprising here, but it's a completely satisfying listen thanks to the strong material, sustained mood, and Strait's unhurried, confident performance.
These have been hallmarks of Strait's work throughout the decades, and they haven't let him down yet, nearly 30 years and 30 albums into his career, as Somewhere Down in Texas proves.