Every year about this time, pure-country crooner George Strait releases an album very similar to the satisfying new One Step at a Time: 35-plus breezy minutes, 10 tight songs (all penned by someone else), mostly ballads, but with a few uptempo numbers tossed in to keep the dust from settling. Some may consider Strait and longtime co-producer Tony Brown’s fear of change somewhat yawn-inducing, yet there’s much to be said for their crisp display of consistency. While more and more of his Nashville peers are being tempted by crossover promises and bigger bucks, Strait and his vastly underrated Ace in the Hole Band have remained true to their corn-fed hearts for more than 20 easy-goin’ albums. One Step at a Time differs slightly from Strait’s previous first-class efforts such as Blue Clear Sky and Carrying Your Love With Me in its instrumentation: The usually subtle Ace in the Hole boys are given a bit more room to strut and show off here, keeping most of the album fresh and fun. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle-playing on the good-time swing of “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This” is dizzying, while Paul Franklin’s weeping pedabro in “Remember the Alamo” and “Maria” gives sweet, smart edges to otherwise vanilla love songs. But in the end, it all comes back to relaxed, handsome George, who would probably be just as happy bagging the singing cowboy act and hanging out with the fam at his Texas cattle ranch. In fact, when the singer takes to some sly, Roger Whittaker-like whistling at the end of “I Just Want to Dance With You,” it’s not hard to picture him kicking back, grinning widely, and watching with pleasure as his bedraggled country brethren scamper for survival.—Sean Daly