July 2013 Cover Story: George Strait
With a historic farewell tour in progress and a new album in stores, the King of Country and his longtime producer talk life, love, and music.
PHOTOGRAPHY: TERRY CALONGE
Mid-march in Houston, and it already feels like summertime.
Could be the humidity, but it also could be the body heat: I’m in a record crowd of 80,020 folks attempting to squeeze into Reliant Stadium on the final night of this year’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Oddly, we’re not here for riding, roping, or barrel racing. We’re here to see the King of Country.
A couple of hours later — after the Randy Rogers Band and Martina McBride warm up the masses with lively sets — the Ace in the Hole Band takes to the spinning center stage and launches a swingin’ instrumental version of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” I look down to my left and there he is, entering from the floor through a parted sea of fans: George Strait.
The crowd. Goes. Wild.
Yet the country music legend doesn’t take much time to soak in all the love. Dressed in his signature Wrangler blue jeans, button-up, and black Resistol cowboy hat, Strait kicks off what will be an epic, movie-length concert with his 84th Top 10 country single from 2011, “Here for a Good Time.”
“I ain’t here for a long time. / I’m here for a good time.”
The lyrics come off as bittersweet for fans this time around. As do the biographical words to the tune “Troubadour” later on. We’re witnessing the first leg of Strait’s The Cowboy Rides Away Tour. After one more group of as-yet--unannounced dates in 2014, the King of Country will turn in his road-dog card and throw that hat out into the audience one last time before he retires from touring.
While he seems cucumber-cool for most of the Houston show, Strait confirms later in an interview with Cowboys & Indians that there’s much more going on under that hat.
“It’s impossible to describe the feeling of walking out in front of 80,000 people; there was definitely a lot of magic in Reliant Stadium that night,” he says. “It seemed very intimate for such a large place, though.”
Strait’s first Houston Rodeo experience 30 years ago made as big an impact as his latest, even if the crowd at the old Astrodome was less than half the size. The young Texas troubadour famously filled in for a sick Eddie Rabbitt in 1983 and rose to country superstardom soon after. He hasn’t slipped since. According to his longtime producer and trusted friend, Nashville veteran Tony Brown, Strait’s consistency and longevity are what make him extraordinary in the business.
“It has to eventually come to a peak,” Brown says. “I mean, it happened to The Beatles; it happened to everybody. But George, to this day, he’s still active and relevant with these young guys. It’s because he’s never really tried to reinvent himself too much. He knows what he does and he just keeps doing it. It’s all about great songs, and he’s got a real good sense of himself.”
Strait’s recently released album Love Is Everything (buy on Amazon) is his 19th with Brown at the production helm (“There’s not many people that can say they have 19 records with anybody,” Brown marvels). Their run began in 1992 with the massively successful movie soundtrack Pure Country. By then, Strait had already logged nearly a decade of nonstop radio hits that led the way for country’s growing pack of young traditionalists.
With at least two chart hits every year for the last three decades under his buckle, Strait probably faces a difficult task putting together any kind of definitive set list. But so far on The Cowboy Rides Away Tour, he’s been thoughtful about honoring his earliest highlights and telling his origin stories to fans between songs.
“I would have to say the oldies set that we are doing [is my favorite part of this tour],” Strait says. “I start with some songs that I cut the first time I went to Nashville in 1978 that I ended up putting on my first couple of records.”
During the Houston show, he rips through “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper” after telling a story about embarking on that first Nashville trip with songwriter Darryl Staedtler and a “case of Coors beer.” He also gives heavy props to his most frequently employed songwriter, Dean Dillon, when doing “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” and “Honky Tonk Crazy.” And before giving the couples on the stadium floor one of the night’s many slow-dancing moments during “Marina Del Rey,” he reveals that writer Frank Dycus first presented him with a demo cassette of the song after playing Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth.
Other sections of the set list offer nods to the crossover success of Pure Country (Strait rises from a stool to sing “The King of Broken Hearts,” because “you know Dusty doesn’t sit down.”), more modern staples like “How ’Bout Them Cowgirls” and “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright,” and even a few covers (“Jackson” and “Golden Ring” with McBride, as well as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” during the encore set).
And then there are those songs that require no setup: The classic rodeo ballad “Amarillo by Morning” brings out thousands of spirited woo-hoos with its lonesome fiddle intro, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” inspires a stadium-wide singalong, and everyone — really, everyone — feels compelled to stand after “The Chair.”