The King of Country performed at the legendary Gruene Hall this week.
The publicists were polite but emphatic: Please do not spread the word beyond this building — not in Tweets, not on Facebook, not through Snapchat, nowhere at all — that George Strait will perform a private concert here tonight.
Truth to tell, the press wranglers had every right to be concerned, since The King of Country Music would be playing Wednesday evening at the storied Gruene Hall, deep in the heart of New Braunfels, Texas, a venue large enough to accommodate the guest list of journalists and VIPs, but not nearly large enough to include hundreds (if not thousands) of other fans who might show up at the front door and demand entry if they knew what was going on.
As it turned out, the concert was streamed live on the Internet, allowing folks anywhere and everywhere to be part of the fun when Strait took the stage with his Ace in the Hole Band for a 90-minute concert of familiar hits, homages to other country greats — The King tipped his Resistol to Johnny Cash with “Folsom Prison Blues,” and to Merle Haggard with “Mama Tried” — and two brand-new songs.
But for the 300 or so of us actually inside Gruene Hall, where Strait had not performed for 34 years, the concert was more than entertaining, and pretty dang close to magical. It wasn’t just that Strait was there, live and in person, to run the gamut from rowdy celebration (“Here for a Good Time,” his opening number) to melancholy closure (“The Cowboy Rides Away,” his grand finale) while the audience responded with thunderous applause, spontaneous boot-scooting, and full-throated roars of approval. The overall elation was amped by Strait’s obvious enjoyment of this opportunity to return to his roots.
“I remember the first time when we played here,” Strait told journalists during a press conference three hours before the concert. Gruene Hall owner Pat Molak “gave us the opportunity to come in on a Sunday afternoon. We were eager to play anywhere, you know? We were just trying to get ourselves heard and get a night gig here, you know? On a weekend, preferably, but any night was all we were trying to do.
“He said, ‘You guys can come in on a Sunday, I’ll listen to you, we’ll charge like 25 cents at the door.’ Or 50 cents, I don’t remember exactly.” What Strait does remember, quite vividly: “We made seven bucks for the show.”
Even so, the Sunday afternoon set paid off in other, more important ways.
“After doing that,” Strait said, “Pat gave us a shot to come back and do a weeknight. As it ended up, we were doing Friday and Saturday nights [as headliners]. And as I remember, it was pretty packed outside and inside. It was our favorite place to play, for sure.”
Thirty-four years and 38 gold records later, Strait continues to record and perform, despite his much-publicized retirement from touring.
“I’m still doing shows now,” he said. “Like I said at the press conference that I had when I announced the end of the touring days: I still wanted to do shows and still wanted to make records, but I just didn't want to do a structured tour.” He’s currently under exclusive contract to perform periodically at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. “I’ve done four shows there this year, I’m going to do two more in December, and then a couple more in February.”
But wait, there’s more. “Since we’re exclusive to the MGM next year — we kinda wanted to something a little exclusive.” So he has big plans for an unprecedented presentation April 2017.
“What I'm going to do is — well, you know, you can't do all your songs [at every concert]. It never fails, you always don't play something somebody wanted to hear… So I decided that we're going to do all my 60 number one records. Obviously, I can't do all 60 songs in one night, so the way we’re going to do is, the first night I want to do 30 songs, and then part two, the next night, another 30 number ones. That's something that I've never done before. And, I don't know, I may never do it again. But it's going to be fun.
Of course, Strait added, “There are songs that I’ll have to also do that weren't number one records. “Amarillo by Morning” and a few others — if I didn't do those songs, I'd get stuff thrown at me. So it's going to be a long show, but a lot of fun. Looking forward to it.”
Meanwhile, faithful fans and newly inspired admirers of The King can content themselves with Strait Out of the Box, Part 2, a three-disc, 56-song collection released Friday exclusively through Walmart. It covers the two decades since Strait’s first box-set, the phenomenally popular Strait Out of the Box (1995), and contains 36 hit singles, 18 of Strait’s favorite album cuts, and two new songs — “You Gotta Go Through Hell” and “Kicked Out of Country” — that he performed Wednesday at Gruene Hall.
Strait co-wrote “You Gotta Go Through Hell,” a rousing, gospel-flavored number that charts a circuitous route to heaven, with his son, Bubba Strait, and longtime collaborator Dean Dillon. It’s a chart-ready tune, to be sure, but not quite as much sheer fun as “Kicked Out of Country,” which gives Strait and co-writer Jamey Johnson the chance to honor such icons as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and “the great Johnny Cash” while taking some well-aimed potshots at the tastemakers who prematurely declare the commercial deaths of country artists.
The song came about after Strait and Johnson jammed last year during a benefit concert for the Troops First Foundation. “I came off the stage,” Strait said, “and Jamey says, ‘When are you going to go to the studio? I've got some songs I want to send you.’ I said, ‘Well, that's great. You know, I’d love for you to send them. I don't know if they're going to play them [on the radio], but you can send them.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you know, they kicked me out of country music too.’ I just laughed. I thought that was pretty funny that he said that.
“But the next day, I got to thinking: You know, ‘kicked out of country’ — that's a pretty catchy little something that should be written. I texted him and said, ‘Jamey, either you’re going to write it, I’m going to write it, or we can both write it together.’ So we started texting ideas back and forth, and we wrote the song.”
Judging from the audience reaction at Gruene Hall, George Strait doesn’t have to worry about getting kicked out of country anytime soon — not when The King has so many loyal subjects. Strait has come a long way since the last time he performed at the New Braunfels venue. Indeed, even he sometimes has a hard time believing his good fortune.
“It’s just been incredible,” Strait said. “I never would have dreamed back in those days that I’d get this far. And it’s still pretty incredible for me to think about now that it's been 34 years since I played here. That just doesn't seem right. It just seems like a short time ago. A lot has happened in those 34 years, but the success that I've had in the music business is way beyond what I ever dreamed of.
“Walking in MCA Records for the first time, even before I was signed to the label, you know, I would see gold records on the wall and think, ‘I'd love to have one of those.’ That dream came true.”