Soundtracks of Significance: “Pure Country”
After being persuaded by Col. Parker that a movie would be a good career move, George Strait agreed to make Pure Country for release in 1992. It was a surprising move, given “King” George’s reputation for shying away from attention off stage. Unlike nearly every other mainstream country artist, Strait never made the move to Nashville, preferring to go back home to Texas when his tours conclude. There’s an amusing anecdote that survives to this day that when he was introduced to a woman at Warner Bros. who worked in publicity, he replied, “Hi, I’m George Strait and I don’t do publicity.” Even if said tongue in cheek, his notorious resistance to interviews must have appeared entirely sincere and surely gave her pause!
The film, a rather paint-by-numbers affair helmed by Christopher Cain, follows Strait in the role of a country music singer named Wyatt Chandler (“Dusty”) whose career has gotten out of hand. He eschews the larger-than-life stage production and takes off on a personal quest to get back to his roots. It’s hokum, but it knows it’s hokum and tries to have some fun along the way. It’s entirely a vehicle for Strait to showcase his talents as a stage performer, though the film’s opening title sequence was certainly jarring for longtime fans as The Cowboy appears with a beard and ponytail with a much more energetic stage show behind him than anyone had ever seen in any of his actual concerts. Twenty years earlier, and it would have been a B-movie direct for the drive-in circuit.
It opened at #6 during the week of 23 October 1992, driven entirely by Strait’s popularity. (Knock it if you want, cinephiles, but know that it easily bested Reservoir Dogs, which also opened that week at #15!) Its box office performance was disappointing; Box Office Mojo reports a cumulative take of a little over $15 million. The soundtrack album, however, was a different story entirely. It hit #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums and #6 overall. Two singles, “I Cross My Heart” (Steve Dorff, Eric Kaz) and “Heartland” (Steve Dorff, John Bettis), were #1 hits on the Country Singles and Airplay Chart. A third single, “When Did You Stop Loving Me” (Monty Holmes, Danny Kees), hit #6 in 1993. The Recording Industry Association of America has certified the album 6x Platinum for six million units shipped, easily the best selling album of Strait’s 31 year long career.
In his Strait Out of the Box liner notes, “King” George remarks that, “We were really, really rushing this album because we didn’t have a lot of time to do it. It’s amazing this album came out the way it did because we put it together faster than any album I have ever put together. I thought it was a great album once we got it done, but I didn’t think we would find the material like we did.” How little time was there? The album was recorded in April, 1992 and dropped 15 September that year! The credit for finding that material and completing the work on time belongs to co-producer Tony Brown.
Pure Country was Strait’s 17th release (including three hits collections and a Christmas album). Beyond being a commercial success, the album is notable for being the first time that Strait collaborated with Brown. There are noticeable differences in the sound of this album versus Strait’s previous recordings, meant to represent the aesthetics of Strait’s character, Dusty. Brown has co-produced every Strait album since (23 in all, including hits collections). Strait reunited with director Cain for his 1997 music video, “Carrying Your Love with Me.”
Dusty’s arena rock-styled brand of country quickly gives way to more familiar territory both within the film (as he rediscovers himself) and on the album. I don’t have any data to prove it, but I’m certain that “I Cross My Heart” has been played at every wedding reception in the South for the last 20 years. I think it’s actually required by law in Texas. Simply put, it is a significant line of demarcation in The Cowboy’s discography. It pushed Strait’s music just enough to be noticeable, and subsequent Strait/Brown collaborations have built from this new paradigm.
Incidentally, the Ace in the Hole Band play behind Strait in the film with the lone exception of John Doe as drummer Earl since that part required acting experience.