George Strait in 1992's 'Pure Country' (Image via YouTube)

Actually, George Strait’s 1992 Romance ‘Pure Country’ Is Peak Awkward and Totally Amazing

At about the twenty-minute mark of Pure Country, the 1992 musical romance starring George Strait as a disillusioned country superstar, the curious legacy of the critically-panned cult classic hits you square in the face: In his first film role as the slack-jawed but mesmerizing crooner Wyatt "Dusty" Chandler, George Strait, King of Country, pioneered — no, invented — the modern-day "awkward king." 

Strait's character is stiff as a board and more than a little bit dim, but somehow transcendently so. For a film shot-through with hokey clichés, often incomprehensible writing and close-ups that last five seconds too long, there's something undeniably fun about it all. It's time we, like the road-weary Dusty Chandler, face the music: Pure Country is pure camp, and we ought to bask in it. 

The film follows Strait's Dusty "I'm tired of all the smoke and the lights" Chandler, an uber-famous country star who ditches his bedazzled jackets and chops off his ponytail (gasp) when the smoke and the lights get to be too much. He's looking for that, er, pure country sound, and Vegas-style arena shows just ain't it. So he does what any self-respecting artist would do: Abandons the tour, gets beat up in a small town and falls in love with Harley (Isabel Glasser), a darling, but still highly capable rancher's daughter who's adorably naive to his celebrity status. If it sounds like a Hallmark movie, that's because it basically is. It's no accident Pure Country has lived a second life all these years on cable TV despite a sad box office take of only $15.1 million. It's essentially family-friendly programming. 

The face that launched a thousand ships. George Strait as Dusty in Pure Country. (Image via YouTube)

Oscar nominee Lesley Ann Warren (Victor/Victoria) co-stars as Dusty's overbearing manager Lula Rogers, and even she can't make good on a lackluster script. A baby-faced Kyle Chandler (this was 14 years before Friday Night Lights) is mostly insufferable as the villainous wannabe Buddy Jackson, who masquerades as Dusty while the superstar is on the lam. Detractors might argue that the only good thing to come out of Pure Country is the soundtrack, which includes hits like "Heartland" and "When Did You Stop Loving Me," and remains the best-selling album of Strait's storied career. But there's plenty to recommend this mawkish tale of a man yearning to return to his roots. 

For starters, Pure Country is garishly '90s. You can practically hear Brooklynites screech with sartorial delight when Strait appears in a chunky pair of New Balance dad shoes to rehearse for a show. And Lesley Ann Warren's Lula is a particularly delightful girlboss, long before girlboss was a thing. She parades around in a rainbow of enviable, all-leather skirt suits; she tells a man at a urinal to "put that thing away!" and repeatedly shouts "more smoke!" into a walkie-talkie from backstage. Oh, and she carries out a problematic affair with Chandler's young Buddy, promising to make him a star like she did Dusty. "I got him there, and I can get you there, too," she says before kissing him. Different time, and all that. The camera lingers on her every nervous smile and weird lip-bite — fatal for any woman wearing a bright lip color. (When did women stop getting lipstick on their teeth? Definitely wasn't before this movie.)

Lesley Ann Warren as Lula in Pure Country. (Image via YouTube)

Pure Country would make for pleasant casual viewing if it wasn't for the near-unhinged screenplay by Rex McGee. Do yourself a favor: Do not fold laundry while watching this movie. It demands so much more of us. Take the film's central metaphor, for instance. Dusty says his high-octane arena tours make him feel like a chicken who's made to dance by having his feet scalded. Later on, he accidentally throws a horse brush at a chicken and says, "excuse me" to the poor creature because, as we know, he identifies with chickens. See what they did there? It's not subtle, but you wouldn't want to miss it. If that doesn't float your boat, consider this line from Old Hollywood gunslinger Rory Calhoun (River of No Return), who plays Harley's aged father: "You know, it's a funny thing about that little white speck on top of chicken shit," he tells Strait's character. "That little white speck is chicken shit, too." Is it nonsense? Probably. Does it make you lean in? Absolutely. That's the absurd majesty of this movie.

As for George Strait's leading-man debut? Pure Country is, not for nothing, maybe the best he's ever looked. We're talking disarmingly handsome. The film may not be doing anything revolutionary, but every shot of Strait walking away with the coolest limp-kneed gait you've ever seen plays like a revelation. You get the sense he was told, "Just smile," every time the script failed him; ergo, he whips out that winning grin a lot. When he repeatedly locks eyes with fiery redhead Harley at a line dance. Smile. When he unsuccessfully shimmies up to said line dance. Smile. When he falls out of his chair, Little Miss Muffet-style, while watching Harley walk by. Smile. And when he's not flashing those pearly whites, he's dazzling crowds of rapturous fans across the film's many concert sequences. For the final scene in Las Vegas, the audience was actually made up of George Strait fan club members. 

It's a delightfully offbeat performance that may leave you wondering whether this whole acting thing was a good idea for the country legend — that is, until you realize that George Strait pulled off one of the most convincingly awkward turns in movie history. It doesn't matter how he got there. There's no use arguing the level of intention with this one. Pure Country is the real thing in an entertainment landscape littered with fool's gold. 

Stream Pure Country on Max (formerly HBO Max), or rent it on Prime Video.

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