Let’s first talk about Steve Wariner’s “Small Town Girl,” which was the No. 1 country song in the United States on March 8, 1987. This romantic ballad was co-written by John Barlow Jarvis and Don Cook, who would go on to write Vince Gill’s “I Still Believe in You” and Brooks & Dunn’s debut single “Brand New Man,” respectively. “Small Town Girl” was the first single from Wariner’s fifth album, It’s a Crazy World, and a relatively early production for former Emmylou Harris pianist Tony Brown, who handled the entire album. He recorded It’s A Crazy World in two places: Emerald Sound Studio, a newer Music Row facility used by contemporary lights like Reba McEntire and Randy Travis as well as Conway Twitty and Ray Charles; and Sound Stage Studio, where legendary producer Jimmy Bowen oversaw Nashville’s most state-of-the-art digital setup.
You couldn’t design a better pedigree for a commercial country song at the time, so its climb to the Billboard acme isn’t surprising. What’s strange is that “Small Town Girl” sounds, to these 21st-century ears at least, barely like a country song at all. Wariner’s voice has no twang, and the hook, played on a chiming keyboard, floats above a synth pad that perfectly matches the gated, metronome-still drum track. This song is 1987 incarnate. It more closely resembles Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love than George Jones.
Arguments about country authenticity are as old as the term “country music” itself, which emerged as marketing shorthand after the postwar collision of countless regional styles — gospel, cowboy songs, western swing and mountain string-band music among them. Nashville became the genre’s economic headquarters, but that never stopped fans, musicians or marketers from distinguishing one strain from another. Depending on your era or production style you might embody the Nashville Sound, outlaw country, countrypolitan, hardcore country, country rock, alt-country or honky-tonk. And by the mid-’80s, as “Small Town Girl” demonstrates, the genre had stretched so far that its shape was growing indistinguishable.
Mainstream country listeners in early 1987 could choose among big harmonies from The Judds, oaken balladeers like Lee Greenwood or the sleek and wispy sounds of Ronnie Milsap, all of whom had No. 1s that winter. Willie, Waylon and Dolly, to name just three older legends with their own divergent styles, were still concert draws and ubiquitous pop-cultural icons. If you had farther-afield tastes, you had your pick of progressive artists with tight connections to earlier traditions, too: Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Rosanne Cash, Kimmie Rhodes, Rosie Flores, k.d. lang and on and on. Even British punk rockers had gone country, as The Mekons’ recent output showed. But no matter who you gravitated to of the above, you could likely agree on the artist who overtook “Small Town Girl” atop the country charts. No one walked the line between Nashville gloss and old-time grit like George Strait, and no song made it sound as effortless as “Ocean Front Property,” which hit No. 1 on March 15.
Funny thing was, “Ocean Front Property” and the rest of the album that shared its name were recorded at Sound Stage, too, with Bowen at the boards. Strait was right in the center of the Nashville record-making machine, with access to the same synthesizers and digital drum sequencers that plenty of his contemporaries were using. In Bowen, he had the acknowledged master of those tools as his right hand. While Ocean Front Property sounds expensive, it never feels made to cross over. From the beginning of his public career in 1981, Strait’s superpower has been to make country feel like everybody’s music. He supplied the talent and the charm, then the audiences found him.
His biggest audience yet found him in 1987. Ocean Front Property went double-Platinum, and its title track was the first of three eventual No. 1 singles. As for Strait’s micro-genre, he was at the vanguard of the so-called neotraditionalist wing of the country world, an orchestra-free crop of Nashville newcomers like Randy and Reba who didn’t have to ask, “Are we sure Hank done it this way?” Strait never took off his cowboy hat, he played western swing joyfully and even had a sideways grin that resembled the godfather’s. Like his fellow neotraditionalists, he reclaimed old ideas with new talent and energy.
The title track was a co-write, as these things tended to be in Nashville by the mid-’80s. The song is high-concept tear-in-your-beer: the narrator spends the verses saying, “I won’t miss you, and I won’t ever take you back” and the chorus saying, “If you’ll buy that, I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona.” Three men contributed to the writing, including early Texas rockabilly road dog Royce Porter and the great Hank Cochran, whose songwriting credits went all the way back to “I Fall to Pieces.” The third was Dean Dillon, who was hardly a newcomer himself, having recorded a few solo records and written songs for others over the previous decade. He contributed three songs to Ocean Front Property, but Dillon’s greatest successes were still ahead of him. He became one of Strait’s go-to writers, giving the man dozens of songs over the decades, including many No. 1 hits, and he wrote for Alabama, Vince Gill, Kenny Chesney and Lee Ann Womack as well. He’s also been a favorite collaborator of Toby Keith, which means “Ocean Front Property” sits in the middle of an artistic lineage that stretches from Patsy Cline to “Get My Drink On.”
As such, the album leans pop. There’s a light bounce to it, but it’s a steady mid-tempo crooner. The emphasis is on the lyrics and melody, which means it’s all on Strait. He carries the song like he carries every other — with a voice that’s more precise than stunning. He doesn’t go for high notes, he’s not a belter. His voice had more of a heartbroken crack in it on his debut, Strait Country, but that was six years earlier. By this song, his tone was always full, always perfectly on key. Listening to him is like watching Greg Maddux paint the corners. He doesn’t seem like a superhero at first, but he’s astonishing at length. He was perfectly named. Strait never misses.
These qualities were on greater display in the following singles, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and “Am I Blue,” which are far more traditionalist than neo-. The former, still iconic and quotable, begins with a classic c’mon-in phrase from steel guitar king Paul Franklin, which gives way to a perfect lilting swing. Johnny Gimble’s fiddle slides in after a few seconds and adds just enough square-dance atmosphere to undercut the polished production. The lyrics here are pure humor to match the dance feel. It’s an entirely different challenge for a singer than “Ocean Front Property,” and Strait, of course, meets it. But the more impressive thing is that he meets it without changing the essential tone and presence of his voice. He sings pop ballads and Bob Wills homages in the same way: perfectly, and perfectly restrained. His voice is like his outfit: unchanging, unprepossessing, but never a thread out of place.
“Am I Blue” is my favorite of the three singles and the one with the most stunning vocal performance. Strait positively caresses this song, luxuriating in the bends of its melody and skipping along with his band’s Texas shuffle. It’s a blast. As these three singles went up and down the Billboard country chart between spring and summer 1987, it was as if Strait was taking the audience further away from the pop crossover with each song.
The album tracks kept that promise. “My Heart Won’t Wander Very Far From You” is a breakneck pledge, akin to Strait’s earlier statement of purpose, “The Fireman.” His studio group rips as hard as the production allows, just as his hometown group, The Ace in the Hole Band, do on “Hot Burning Flames,” Strait’s hardest-edged vocal on the record. The Aces also handle the lightly swinging “You Can’t Buy Your Way Out of the Blues,” perfect for partner dancing. The record ends on a heartbreaking note, “I’m All Behind You Now,” where the tear-in-your-beer isn't high-concept at all. Strait performs every non-single like it was destined for radio, too. He made them sound like they should have been.
Strait was a star before Ocean Front Property, but this album pushed him to a new level of success. The greatest compliment you can give him is that he never changed before or after he became a multi-Platinum institution. He is synonymous with Nashville hit-making but remains as closely associated with Texas as Flaco Jiménez or ZZ Top. He entered the business at the height of the Urban Cowboy fad, but his fundamental approach to the music is the same today as it was 40 years ago and still rooted in an aesthetic formed decades before that: songwriters, players and a voice. The search for the right combination of those elements has been the North Star of Nashville hit-making since the ’50s.
Strait never had to worry about the last one, and the others have lined up for his attention since he came to Music City. Some artists have briefly become bigger, especially in the ’90s. In the 21st century, the Nashville mainstream has incorporated other genres from hard rock to hip-hop in their songwriting. Strait isn’t above pandering; his For the Last Time: Live From the Astrodome from 2003 showcases his Dean Martin-like ability to nuzzle an audience, including a surprise onstage appearance and tribute from President George H. W. Bush. He’s played as many sepia-tinted nostalgic odes as anyone. Yet he respects this music too much to ever play it cheaply.
The question, then, is what distinguishes Ocean Front Property from the other records in the most consistent, persistent career in modern country. Why reach for this one rather than Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, a mid-’90s blockbuster like Blue Clear Sky or a latter-day record like Honkytonkville? You’ll get the same level of professionalism and commitment from each. For one, Ocean Front Property has those three singles, which stand with anything the man ever released on the radio. For the title alone, Strait will always be associated with “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.” Like his other ’80s albums, this one is filler-free as well, finishing up within 30 minutes.
And if Strait is country’s purest worker, then Ocean Front Property finds him perfecting the product he’d sell from that moment on. It’s the distillation of his whole project: Music City sheen and Texas style, presented in a starched rodeo shirt and spotless Stetson. In 1987, it must have felt like something out of 1957 in the best way. Now it feels like 1987, which isn’t always a compliment. But few other records make that year’s competing ideas about country sound so coherent, or so fun.
John Lingan is the author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk and A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, published by Hachette in August 2022. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Pitchfork, The Oxford American and other publications.