“I want to reach the point where people hear my name and immediately think of real country music.” -George Strait
So what is “real” country music? Since at least the mid-‘70s, when crossover stars like John Denver and Olivia Newton John made country hip, the argument has raged between traditionalists and progressives. When George Strait made his debut in 1981, pop-country was peaking after the success of the John Travolta-led blockbuster film, Urban Cowboy. Barbara Mandrell even made a hit out of describing the situation at the time with “I Was Country, When Country Wasn’t Cool”. So when Strait came on the scene with his cowboy hat, riding a real horse instead of a mechanical bull, he stood out like Kurt Cobain at a Hair Metal convention. Thus began the Neo-Traditionalist movement in Nashville that would carry on well into the ‘90s.
By the spring of ’96 “King George” was already established as country-music royalty. Fresh off the release of his boxed set, Strait Out of the Box, his next album, Blue Clear Sky showed he wasn’t ready to slow down anytime soon. Despite his pioneering of the traditionals in the 80’s, Strait experimented more in the ’90s with his sound. The boxed set featured a duet with Frank Sinatra, and his last couple of albums featured a song or two in that swingy style. For Blue Clear Sky, nestled among the twangy honky-tonk tones and country love ballads, Strait recorded what I believe to be his best song overall, “Rockin’ in the Arms of Your Memory”.
Written by Dean Dillon / Norro Wilson and produced by Tony Brown, this song announces it’s not going to follow the typical Nashville sound from the first note. While the intro features a bendy set of guitar tones, probably from the ubiquitous Fender Telecaster, it’s in a lower octave than normally heard, and conveys a mournful sense of loss right away. Soon after, the Spanish-style guitar that would mark many a Strait tune in the coming years fills in the space. Behind it all is a soft, synthy Clavinova sound that stands up the somber, but achingly beautiful tone. The song’s structure bucks convention as well. Eschewing a traditional verse/chorus setup, it relies on atmosphere to dangle out those barbs and set them in your mind, just like the protagonist of the song. “From that moment on, I was stone cold gone…” in verse one is the line where Strait first pulls out that famous emphasis that makes you believe what he’s saying. There’s only one repeated line in the whole song: “Somewhere in the neon lights, I’m holding on for dear life, rockin’ in the arms of your memory tonight.” The song hits its crescendo at the bridge. Here we would get the sense of desperation even if there were no lyrics. “Somebody tell me it will be, alright…” is a drawn out plea, that begs for an answer. A fiddle subtly echos the feeling, as Strait’s voice almost bleeds into the final verse as denouement.
Dillon and Wilson provide plenty of vivid storytelling. I can almost hear the seagulls and feel the wind off the surf when Strait sings about a long-ago wedding: “Silly suits and white ties by the bay”. The song leaves the listener wondering “did she end the marriage or did she die”? While it is probably left purposely undefined, my take is that the singer is mourning a death, hinted at in the line: “I’m living, but dying, I’m laughing, but crying….I’m drowning in your love a little more each day”. On a note that is personal to Strait, he lost his 13 year old daughter Jennifer to a car accident in 1986. At the time, he made little public mention of the tragedy, and pressed on with his work, but I can’t help but hear a twinge of the singer’s own mourning in this song, and I’m not sure his reading here would have the same impact without that heart-wrenching experience 10 years earlier.
Even if you’re one of those “I like every kind of music but country” people, give this song a try at the Rhapsody link below (should be free if you haven’t used all your free plays). On a cold February night, maybe with a glass of warm red wine, see if you don’t feel like you’re rocking in the arms of some memory tonight as well.