On the heels of Twang, George Strait talks about songwriting, roping, and ranching
After dominating the record charts and selling out concert venues for the better part of 30 years, what can you do for an encore? If you're George Strait, you just keep doing what you've always done.
After dominating the record charts and selling out concert venues for the better part of 30 years, thereby establishing yourself as the uncontested King of Country, what can you do for an encore? If you're George Strait, you just keep doing what you've always done. All you need is a little Twang.
Courtesy MCA Nashville
The latest in a seemingly endless line of immaculately crafted crowd-pleasers released by the 57-year-old Texas-born living legend, Twang — Strait's 26th studio album and an instant No. 1 smash hit — underscores what every fan already knows: The reign of King George will continue unabated for as long as Strait keeps making records.
This time out, Strait is delighting fans and impressing critics with an ambitious diversity of songs and styles, ranging from the boot-scooting country classicism of the title cut (co-written by Grammy winner Jim Lauderdale) to the loose-goose honky-tonk of "Same Kind of Crazy" (co-written, and originally recorded by, Delbert McClinton), from the outlaw balladry of "Arkansas Dave" (the first solo songwriting credit of Strait's son, Bubba Strait) to an en español perfecto rendition of the mariachi standard "El Rey."
"All the songs are different," Strait agrees. On the other hand, "I think all my albums are different enough to where I don't ever feel I did this the last time. Sure, it's country music. I'm not trying to change that. But each song that you do is different."
Which may be the key to explaining why the hits just keep on coming for George Strait: his song-selecting savvy. Quite simply, he knows what he likes and what other folks will like as well. "And that," says veteran Music Row tunesmith Dean Dillon, "is one of the things that has made him the King of Country. He has that innate ability to look at a song, listen to a song, get inside that song — and deliver it the way it was written in a way that you can relate to."
Strait has charted yet again with his 26th studio album, Twang.
Dillon vividly recalls a fateful afternoon back in 1981 when he and fellow songwriter Frank Dycus were kicking back after a productive morning of collaboration. "We'd walked out on the porch," he says, "and pulled the tabs on a couple of beers, when Blake Mevis, who was George's first producer, pulled up to the curb and rolled down his window and said, 'Hey! I got this kid from Texas, and I'm looking for some songs for him.'"
That new kid was George Strait, then freshly signed to MCA Records and hard at work on his first album for the label. "Like just about everyone else in Nashville at the time," Dillon says, "I'd never heard of the guy. So I asked Blake, 'Well, who's he sound like?' Because back then, everybody sounded like somebody. Everybody imitated Merle Haggard or George Jones or somebody. And Blake said, 'Well, he really doesn't sound like anybody else. He's kind of got his own thing going on.'"
Impressed and intrigued by Mevis' description, Dillon and Dycus pitched their latest composition, a tune titled "Unwound," even before they actually met Strait. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when he visited the studio where Strait was recording the song, that Dillon fully realized what a smart move he and Dycus had made and what a lucky break it was for all parties involved.
At that first meeting, Dillon recalls, "My first impression was — well, I thought he was a cowboy, for darn sure. And I thought we were an odd match: He was pretty quiet, and I was this crazy old songwriter." Right from the start, Dillon thought Strait had a great voice. "But I also thought he was going to have a rough way to go because during those days, I knew that nobody was going to pitch their top stuff to him because he was new."
Dillon, however, heard opportunity knocking. "Yeah," he admits, "I pitched him everything I had but the kitchen sink after I heard him record that first time."
Dillon co-wrote six tracks (five of them with Dycus) for Strait Country, Strait's platinum-selling debut album. Twenty-eight years and more than 50 songs later, he and Strait remain good friends and frequent collaborators. Indeed, Dillon was the tunesmith Strait summoned to join him and his son, Bubba, while father and son were working on songs for Twang. Dillon eagerly accepted the invitation but with no small amount of surprise, since his good buddy hadn't tried his own hand at songwriting in decades.
"For a lot of years I put songwriting on the back burner," Strait says. "I've had so much luck and have been so successful finding material from other writers that I really got lazy about it. Writing, for me, is not easy. It requires a lot of time and can be pretty intense."
On the other hand, the creative process also can be quite a bit of fun — provided that you have the right collaborators. "I really enjoyed being able to write with Dean and Bubba," Strait says. "Dean has been a big part of my recording career, and we've been friends for many years. And seeing my son writing on his own, and being able to write with him, was just the greatest thing."
To hear Dillon describe it, the songwriting sessions at Strait's South Texas ranch were no-sweat, low-pressure, highly productive experiences. For example, working on "Living for the Night" — the first No. 1 single from Twang — entailed nothing more strenuous than fleshing out a long-considered scenario. "George told me pretty much the story around the song that he'd had in his head for a while," Dillon says. "And then he and Bubba and I just sat there for a while. I came up with a little melody, and we got to cranking on that. And a couple of hours later, we had a song ... a pretty darn good one, actually."
Another longtime collaborator with Strait, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale worked on two tunes for Twang, including the title cut. His relationship with the King of Country dates back to 1991, when Strait selected two songs from Lauderdale's album Planet of Love — "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "King of Broken Hearts" — for Pure Country, the 1992 film in which Strait portrayed a glitzy country music star who goes AWOL from a concert tour to return to his down-home roots. Since then, Lauderdale — a two-time Grammy Award winner for his bluegrass recordings — has worked profitably as a tunesmith for Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks, Donna the Buffalo — and, repeatedly, Strait.
"I owe my career as a recording artist as well as a songwriter to George Strait," Lauderdale says. "Writing songs for him has really kept me afloat during the years. It's allowed me the freedom to cut bluegrass records and traditional country records — and other things that are more off the wall. If it wasn't for George Strait, I wouldn't be able to do that."
After all these years, Lauderdale continues to be impressed by Strait's talents as singer, musician, and showman. "It's not just because he's successful," Lauderdale says. "In this business, there are people who are successful, and sometimes super-successful, but they don't have longevity. But George — I think he's still really evolving. He's not just making the same record year after year. And I think this new record shows continued growth and evolution as a recording artist."
Dillon readily agrees. "I know this for a fact: George is singing better now than he's ever sung in his life," the songwriter marvels. "And he transcends generations. I go to his concerts, and there's 40,000 people out there, anywhere from 8 years old to 80. He is a constant deliverer of great music."
The big difference now, Dillon believes, is the variety of that great music. "It seems to me that in the past 10 years, George has just knocked the fences down. I mean, who would have thought George Straight would have recorded a Spanish-language song? And who would have thought that George Strait would have recorded a Delbert McClinton song like 'Same Kind of Crazy,' like he does on Twang? But he did. And here's the thing: He made them his own. He took them, studied them, recorded them, and made them his own."
With characteristic modesty, Strait downplays the notion that he's blazing trails or expanding horizons. As he sees it, he's still doing what he's always done, even when what he does takes other people by surprise. "Same Kind of Crazy," for example, is included on Twang simply because "I just love the feel of that song," he says. In fact, "We recorded it in one take in the studio. That hardly ever happens."
Straight with his wife, Norma
So what does Strait think is the secret of his continued success? "If I knew the answer to that," he replies, "I could have a whole new career selling it. I've just tried to do what I do the best I can do it — from picking songs to making records to playing shows."
And while he says he can foresee a day when he rides off into the sunset to spend his golden years on his South Texas ranch, Strait isn't quite ready to give up his crown. "It's a little late to be talking about long-term goals for me," he says. "Every year I get to do it now is another year I didn't think I would have."
And he's determined to make every minute count. "I still feel as excited about it as I always have. I had a great tour this year and enjoyed every minute of it — and I'm looking forward to my upcoming tour next winter."
Strait says he's also looking forward to making many more records in the future. "It's great to be able to do something you love for a living. And believe me, I'm loving it."
The 28th Annual George Strait Team Roping Classic is scheduled to take place Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, 2010, at the San Antonio Rose Palace in San Antonio, Texas. For more information about George Strait's upcoming concert tour and team roping events, check www.georgestrait.com.
King of country music
The King of Country is a genuine cowboy: proud owner of a South Texas cattle ranch and occasional competitor — along with his son, Bubba — as a team roper. All of which explains why, when he's not performing on tour or in the recording studio or enjoying himself while fishing, hunting, or sitting courtside at a San Antonio Spurs game, chances are good you'll find George Strait back in the saddle again.
Cowboys & Indians: While you were growing up, your father had a cattle ranch near Big Wells, Texas. Do you think of yourself as carrying on a family tradition in South Texas?
George Strait: My father was a schoolteacher as well a rancher. He grew up ranching and so did I. Although I grew up living in [Pearsall, Texas], a lot of my weekends and summers were spent working on the ranch, especially after my grandfather passed away and those responsibilities became my dad's. He still goes to the ranch and does all he can at age 87. It's what keeps him going. He bought some cows and a new bull the other day, so he's still very active. I guess from growing up in that environment, it made me want to own my own ranch. I love the life and I love South Texas. It's nice to be able to own a piece of it and continue that tradition.
C&I: How much time do you get to spend on your ranch?
Strait: I don't spend as much time there as I'd like, but I plan to spend more there in the future. It's always been my plan to settle there when this is all over — and I hope that's a way's away. It will still be there when I'm done.
C&I: How many cattle do you have there?
Strait: My dad and grandfather "Pappa" always taught me to never ask a rancher how much land he owned or how many cattle he had. They said it was like asking someone how much money they had. I'll just say I've got enough to keep us busy.
C&I: What's a typical day at the ranch like for you?
Strait: Mostly a lot of finger-pointing these days. I check out things we're doing and it seems I come up with a never-ending list of things I want to do. There's always something that needs fixing and there's always improvements to make.
Bubba and George Strait have been a roping team for many years but have only recently turned their sights on making music together.
C&I: Where do you like to hunt and fish?
Strait: I spend most of hunting season at the ranch. We all love to hunt whitetails, and we have a pretty good supply in South Texas. I also love to hunt elk in Arizona, mule deer in Utah, and I've been to Canada to hunt caribou. I'm going on my third safari in Tanzania in October. I was raised hunting and fishing, and I can't imagine not doing it. I love to fish offshore for billfish and have fished all over for them from the Bahamas, St. Thomas, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, to the Texas gulf. I haven't made it to Australia yet, but someday I'm going. I'm getting to where I pick the calm days to go out, though. I've had enough of the rough stuff. There's nothing like hooking up to a big marlin.
C&I: Last March, you hosted the 27th annual George Strait Team Roping Classic. How active are you and Bubba on the PRCA circuit these days?
Strait: Not very much right now. Bubba pretty much quit going, for a while anyway, and I don't go anymore either. We still practice and still enjoy roping and have fun at it but just not professionally. We're still members of the [United States Team Roping Championships] and will continue to go to some of those. In years past we have been able to win as a team a few times, and that is what I consider to be my greatest team roping accomplishment.
Bubba Strait: son and songwriter
Courtesy Front Page Publicity
Remember, folks, you read it here first: "Bubba Strait is a good songwriter — who's going to be a great songwriter."
That's the verdict of no less an expert than veteran country tunesmith Dean Dillon, who has written or co-written more than 50 songs for George Strait, Bubba's dad, going all the way back to "Unwound" (1981), the elder Strait's very first hit single. Dillon collaborated with George and Bubba on two cuts that appear on Twang and raves that Bubba is well on his way to continuing the Strait tradition of chart-topping, attention-grabbing musical excellence.
Bubba himself sounds appreciably more modest, but unmistakably enthusiastic, as he talks about his relatively new career. Born in 1981 and educated at Texas A&M University, the young man indentified on his birth certificate as George Strait Jr. first made his mark as a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) team-roping competitor. But while he's still fond of ridin' and ropin', he's already demonstrating potential as a prize-winner in another arena.
Cowboys & Indians: You've earned your first solo songwriting credit for "Arkansas Dave," one of the choicest cuts on Twang. What was your inspiration for this outlaw ballad?
Bubba Strait: I love stories about outlaws and gunslingers, and I always thought it would be cool to write an outlaw song. One day I thought of the part about a "streak-faced bay." [Real-life outlaw "Arkansas Dave" Rudabaugh] fit with it, so I loosely based the song on his life. I thought my dad would like it, but up until the day he cut it I never thought he would put it on an album.
C&I: How would you describe your experience writing songs with your father?
Bubba: It's awesome! We like all the same stuff, so we seem to agree on music, too, for the most part. I'm writing a lot more than him, though, because sometimes he'd rather go play golf. But you can't blame him. Besides, he needs the practice!
C&I: Tell us a little bit about your collaborative process with your dad and Dean Dillon while writing "Living for the Night" — the first hit single from Twang — and "He's Got That Something Special"?
Bubba: It was great writing with my dad and Dean. Dean's a songwriting genius. It would be any songwriter's dream to write with one of them, much less both. I haven't been writing long either, so I consider myself very lucky to have that chance.
Courtesy Front Page Publicity
Strait with (left to right) his wife, Norma; his father, John Byron Strait; stepmother, Anna Strait; and son George Jr. (Bubba) at the 2004 Country Music Awards.
C&I: What are some of your favorites among the other songs your father has recorded?
Bubba: It's hard for me to pick favorites because there are so many. Also, they change every time he records a new album.
C&I: Regarding songs and songwriting, what do you think is the best piece of advice your father ever has given you?
Bubba: I can't pick one piece of songwriting advice, either. I think he is probably the best at knowing a good song when he hears one, so I listen to all his advice.
C&I: You've had a great deal of experience as a PRCA team roping competitor. Indeed, you and your father have been partners in some competitions. What are some of your proudest achievements?
Bubba: Any time we get to rope together is great. When I used to heel a lot, we did pretty well together, and that always made me proudest. We try so hard to do our best for each other, so it means a lot when we do well together.
C&I: Do you see yourself eventually recording your own songs?
Bubba: Not unless I learn to sing. I got my mom's singing voice! But that's okay, I don't know if I could sing in front of a lot of people anyway.