In October 1988, the morning after the prestigious Country Music Association awards, a glum-faced George Strait sat slumped in his chair in a Nashville pancake house looking like someone who'd lost the national lottery by one number. Randy Travis had just topped him as the CMA's Male Vocalist of the Year for the second year in a row, and Hank Williams Jr. had again taken home the top Entertainer of the Year trophy. Strait had come up empty-handed.
For Strait, this moment was the artistic crossroads of his career. While his 1986 album, Ocean Front Property, had debuted on the charts at No. 1, and all of his previous records were gold or platinum, Strait seemed to be stuck in a country rut. Now he had a choice: to record consistently good, but not exceptional, albums that kept him high on the charts, or to buckle down and make the kind of records that would establish him in the lofty boast of his producer, Jimmy Bowen as ''the Sinatra of this era of [country] music.''
Five years and five albums later comes Chill of An Early Fall, the album George Strait was born to make, and the first one to show the 38-year-old Texan in complete control of his idiom: The record is a sublime refinement of all the ballads, honky-tonk, and hot Texas dance music he's done before. We get to hear all the different facets of his musical personality; he's no longer just the handsome, capable cowboy singer we used to think he was.
When Strait arrived in Nashville in 1981, he sang honky-tonk and romantic ballads, but he later broadened his music to include the jazzy sounds of Western swing. This devotion to traditional country, and the vast popularity of his easygoing performances, helped to inspire such performers as Clint Black, Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson all of them called ''hat acts'' because they never perform without Western chapeaus. By the end of the decade, however, Strait seemed to be repeating himself while these newer performers were putting a fresh spin on the old sounds. With Chill of an Early Fall, he quietly retakes the lead thus pulling off the ultimate hat trick.
Strait has never shown a well-rounded personality on records, but now he seems to have been inspired by the competitive heat from Brooks and Black. In the supremely droll ''You Know Me Better Than That,'' he shows he can handle comic songs, like Brooks' huge hit ''Friends in Low Places.'' He's grown tired of a sophisticated girlfriend, he sings, and longs for the less complicated ways of an old flame: ''You've seen me lose all my charm/You know I was raised on a farm.'' Black tried to evoke the big-band era on his No. 5 hit tune ''Put Yourself in My Shoes,'' but Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band really capture the swing spirit with a slow, stretched-out version of ''Milk Cow Blues.'' Elvis Presley recorded a famous version of this Kokomo Arnold classic, but here Gene Elders' fiddle summons up a far more sensual kind of musical foreplay than the King ever did.
Elsewhere on the album, Strait continues to find new inspiration in familiar songs and old styles. He's right on the money with a revival of Hank Williams' ''Lovesick Blues,'' giving the lyrics a far less morose reading than Williams' original. Strait's version of the perfect Texas shuffle ''I've Convinced Everybody But Me'' seems effortless. His supple baritone glides over the notes as easily as a championship skater takes to the ice.
There's a new confidence to Strait these days he no longer sounds so unassuming. Maybe that's because in 1989 he finally won that elusive CMA Entertainer of the Year award and repeated the honor last year. Strait hasn't become the Sinatra of country music yet, but he's now more than just an imitator of his obvious idols. Through hard work, he's made the most of his talents and become a modern master.