Alan Jackson and George Strait are country music's twin titans of traditionalism, but their new releases are as different as can be. Strait's "It Just Comes Natural" is, simply, more of the same. He has included more songs than usual and thrown in a few new wrinkles -- a bit of recitation on the opening track, "Give It Away"; a patina of Cajun on a cover of the Jo-El Sonnier hit "Come On, Joe" -- but this is essentially a typical, and typically fine, George Strait album.
As always, the foundation is songwriting; Strait has an unerring knack for finding, and interpreting, the cream of the hundreds of songs pitched his way, drawing equally upon material from mainstream songwriters and left-of-center sources (among the latter this time, a raucous version of Guy Clark's "Texas Cookin' " and a loping take on Bruce Robison's "Wrapped").
And, as usual, he mixes solid honky-tonk with a dollop of Western swing and poppier fare, as well as balladry such as "A Better Rain," manifesting a minor-key hint of melancholy that is quintessentially Strait's. This one sounds pretty much like the last one, but the quality is so consistent from one Strait record to the next that the title of his latest fits him as well as his ever-present Stetson.
"Like Red on a Rose," on the other hand, is like nothing that Alan Jackson has ever done. After 15 albums with the same producer, he's turned to a new one, bluegrass star A lison Krauss . To Jackson's initial suggestion that he do a bluegrass record, she offered an alternative -- a record loosely themed around a man looking back, with quiet pleasure, on the ups and downs of a life well lived -- and assembled a group of musicians built around her band, Union Station, to do it.
Many of the songs reflect aspects of that theme, but Jackson has done similar material before. The real change is in the disc's sound. There is not a single lick of pedal steel to be found; ubiquitous keyboards have replaced the defining instrument of classic honky-tonk music.
And while there is a streak of relaxed country-pop evocative of Don Williams and country with an acoustic bent, there are also more than a few instances of Krauss's well-known fondness for '70s-style soft rock (check out "Don't Ask Why," for one) and even some soul flavorings (gospelized on "Don't Change on Me," smoldering on "Like Red on a Rose").
Not all of it works, but it all coheres, due to a late-night ambience throughout and to Jackson's singing, which is strikingly effective in conveying that mood. That makes "Like Red on a Rose" a detour worth taking.