Catching up with country music's king about life at home, new recordings, and his longing to play live again.
The old “needs no introduction” trope comes to mind when thinking of George Strait, the consistently brilliant troubadour who has been comfortable at the top of country music’s heap for the better part of four decades. It certainly applies when thinking of how enthusiastically C&I readers have responded to Strait over time – he’s graced five covers since the magazine’s birth 30 years ago (when Pure Country was giving the singer a much-deserved Hollywood boost).
To further speak to his longevity, it’s been 10 years since Strait’s historic Cowboy Rides Away Tour had legions of fans crying into their beers. Thankfully, the end of touring didn’t mean the end, period. In the last decade, the Texas legend has expanded his recorded catalog, performed in-demand annual concerts at Wrangler NFR and in other arenas, and launched his Código 1530 premium Tequila brand. He’s welcomed a second grandchild to the family and stayed active in his outdoor pursuits including riding, roping, hunting, fishing, and golf.
So, the first question we had for Strait when he was gracious enough to allow us a new interview was this: What’s the secret to longevity? We expected a thoughtful response, and that’s what we got.
“Staying focused and believing that what you’re doing is good is important; you have to believe in yourself,” Strait says. “I always felt like I knew what worked for me and what didn’t. That might not be the key to longevity – but who can honestly even say what might be?
“I just always knew that I wanted a career like Merle Haggard or George Jones. I wanted to still be relevant when I got older. Those guys are still relevant and always will be in my book.”
Strait may never toot his own horn, but he absolutely shares the same rarefied status as his musical heroes. He is and will always be a fixture in his fans’ lives. The music itself is worthy of such devotion, but the man behind it also has a lot of wisdom to impart.
Our recent chat with Strait touches on his life at home and what brings him joy these days. Here’s the exciting part – he still longs to take the stage and plans to do so in a string of stadium concerts this spring and fall. He also let slip that he’s beginning to plan his next album. Read on:
Cowboys & Indians: Have you ever given any thought to writing a memoir or making a movie about your own life and career?
George Strait: I have given serious thought to a documentary, although I tend to procrastinate these days so right now a thought is all it is. I have not thought about a movie though.
C&I: We always chuckle a little when we hear about the “yee-haw agenda” – the latest rise in mainstream popularity of country music, western movies and TV shows, cowboy and cowgirl style. But there have been crossover cultural moments at many points over the years – you’ve certainly experienced them time and again. What’s your take on why Western culture continues to draw new generations?
Strait: Yeah, the pendulum continues to swing, doesn’t it? When I got signed in 1981, country music was coming out of a crossover craze. Crossing over, for those that might not know, means having a country record that is also getting played on the pop stations. There was even a TV show called Pop! Goes the Country. The songs obviously got heard by more people and sold more records, so record labels loved it and pushed it. It started to change around 1981 though, and I was lucky enough to get signed during that time. Pendulum thing… Timing is everything. I’ve always loved western movies. The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of my all-time favorites. The Western way of life is a good one and I think people just want to experience that in some way. Movies may be the only way some people get to do that.
C&I: Have you watched Yellowstone or 1883, by the way? For some reason, it is strange to imagine you sitting and staring at a television …
Strait: I’ve seen both and thought they were great. Tim and Faith were outstanding in 1883 and of course, Kevin Costner is always great. I watch TV a lot, believe it or not. When I’m in the house and there’s a TV in the room, it’s on.
C&I: Fans are always interested in what kinds of things you get into when you aren’t on stage in front of them. I’ve never loved the term “hobby,” but how else do you like to spend your time away from the bright lights these days?
Strait: I love to be outside. I play a lot of golf now so, if the weather is good, I’m usually doing that. I just came back from a golf trip to Scotland and it was amazing. Prestwick is my favorite course other than the Old Course at St Andrew’s. I still fish and hunt. I think I’ve got another Africa trip in my future and hopefully, I’ll catch a few more marlin somewhere down the road. I went out and rode my favorite rope horse, Joker, on my birthday. He’s still in pretty good shape for his age.
I always felt like I knew what worked for me and what didn't. That might not be the key to longevity — but who can honestly even say what might be?
C&I: What’s new in the world of Código, and what’s something (if anything) that has surprised you about getting into the premium spirits business?
Strait: Código is really taking off. It’s becoming a top-selling tequila in a very competitive market. The cream always rises to the top as they say. What’s been most surprising about the whole thing has been how hard it actually is to get a product like this into the stores. There’s only so much shelf space and there are so many tequilas out there competing for that space. My saying is “if it’s not your favorite, you haven’t tried it.” I really believe that, so please try it. You’ll see. We started drinking it when it had no name and was just in random bottles. This went on for several years before we named it Código 1530 and introduced it to the world. It’s been fun to watch it grow.
C&I: When you think about recording music and identifying songs for a new project, what kinds of lyrics reach out and grab you? Do you look first for unique storytelling, or are you more about a sonic mood or overall message?
Strait: I like making records and plan on doing another one soon. I’m narrowing down my song choices now. I’ve always said I’m a melody guy. A great melody can sell a song the best. A great lyric with a lousy melody maybe not so much, but a great lyric along with a great melody is obviously what you’re looking to create. That’s why I’ve had such a great relationship with Dean Dillon. I think he’s the best melody guy in the business. His lyrics are great as well, so there you go. There is no specific message or mood that I’ll be shooting for. I just want to put together a bunch of good songs that stand out individually.
C&I: Chances to see you live are fewer and further between – by design – after the historic farewell tour ended in 2014. Does that make taking the stage now all the more precious to you? Are there other ways that you view performing live differently than you did before?
Strait: It really does. It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation for me. I miss it sometimes, but I know if I went hard like I used to, then I would wind up burning myself out. I think I’m on the right pace now, but I do love playing live shows. There’s nothing like it and words can’t describe the feeling you get playing for a big audience. I’ve got great fans and I count my blessings that I’m still able to do that. I’m going to do some stadiums with Chris Stapleton this year and I can’t wait for that. I love doing shows with Chris. He’s such a huge talent and a really genuine, down-to-earth person.
C&I: Your son has proven himself to be a great songwriter – are you seeing any other musical talents develop in your family? Do you tend to encourage it with your grandchildren?
Strait: It’s been great to see Bubba get into songwriting, guitar, and performing. I love writing with him and we’ll have some new things for the next record. My grandson played drums for a while and will probably go back to it at some point, but right now it’s baseball for him plus hunting and fishing. I’ve heard a little singing from time to time from my granddaughter. She sounded pretty good. It’s way too early to predict something like that, but I’ll encourage them in whatever it is they decide to do.
Honky Tonk Time Machine
Look back at George Strait’s previous C&I cover stories.
C&I’s first George Strait cover story, penned by Reid Slaughter, caught up with the superstar’s career to that point and focused on his Texas individuality and its relation to the Nashville country machine:
Perhaps the most important part of the Strait history occurred during those first heady days in Nashville. Faced with a chance to launch the career he had dreamed of, he was told to “lose his Western look, especially the hat.” He refused. “I said ‘what you see is what you get’ or words to that effect,” he laughs. “The minute you start changing yourself, you’re on the road to screwing up completely.” In a town where so many starstruck kids arrive and say “mold me into whatever you want me to be,” it was a dangerous move; “ornery” as they say in South Texas.
Margaret Brown interviewed George Strait on the eve of his return to perform at Houston’s Livestock Show & Rodeo, 20 years after his historic debut there when he “rode in on a song”:
…. One of the rodeo’s most legendary performances took place 20 years ago when a just-out-of-the-chute singer by the name of George Strait came to town. “At the time I just couldn’t believe I was actually playing at the Houston rodeo in the Astrodome — the eighth wonder of the world,” says Strait. “It was a far cry from the honky-tonks and small venues I’d been working. To put it plainly, I was scared to death.”
When Strait’s son, Bubba, joined his dad and Dean Dillon to write for the Twang album, writer Joe Leydon asked the proud father about it:
“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.”
Strait graced our 20th Anniversary issue with an interview by Hunter Hauk, who’d just witnessed the historic The Cowboy Rides Away Tour in Houston. The singer was in a reflective mood, giving insight into the early experiences that made George Strait who he is:
“My dad believed in hard work. He did it all his life and he made my brother and I do it when we were young. We didn’t really want to at the time, but at the end of a long day, you did have the feeling of accomplishing something, and it’s a great feeling. I think that working hard does build character. The Army did that for me also. ... I just love being out on the ranch — hunting, roping, or just riding around checking things out. I also have gotten to where I like to drive a dozer. It’s instant gratification. Once I start a project on my dozer, it’s hard to quit. “
In advance of the King of Country’s marquee Las Vegas shows at NFR in 2018, we asked rodeo stars and fellow country musicians to speak on their favorite George Strait songs. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel – one of the collaborators who perhaps knows Strait best – talked about “Troubadour”:
“George and I go way back, doing shows together since the late ’70s in Texas. George had us open his final tour show in Cowboys Stadium in front of 100,000-plus people, which was one of the most amazing nights in my life. Watching him sing ‘Troubadour’ that night was an emotional experience. To see my friend and the King of Country music transition to a new chapter in his musical career and life was bittersweet. There was a video that accompanied his performance that night with old pictures and footage from his career, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!”
See Strait Live
Late last year George Strait announced a string of spring and fall stadium shows with supporting acts Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton. Find out more about tickets at georgestrait.com.
May 6: State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
June 3: American Family Field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
June 17: Lumen Field in Seattle
June 24: Empower Field at Mile High in Denver
July 29: Nissan Stadium in Nashville
August 5: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida
Back issues are available at cowboysindians.com/shop.
Get your very own George Strait issue here.