George Strait is 62. Damn! Can this possibly be true?
Yes it is. True since Sunday, when I also learned that Strait is near the end of a 47-date farewell tour, called “The Cowboy Rides Away,” that will conclude June 7 in Dallas. (He’s in Baton Rouge on Friday, Foxborough, Mass. on Saturday.) I would have learned about the tour sooner had I not long ago stopped listening to country stations. Too many rock riffs, mindless commercials, and manic DJs. (Gooood Morning, all you crazed country fans!! — this is Wild Man Booger Bob, jumping at you from WKRAP, right here in downtown Pagosa Springs…”) I take my Strait straight, and on CDs. Sorry, Booger Bob.
Fortunately, while Strait will abandon the tour bus this year, he has not closed off the possibility of more recording — and perhaps the odd, one-off live performance — in his long career that has led to more number-one singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart than any other artist. That’s right, more number one country songs than George Jones, more than Hank Sr., more than Elvis, more than anyone. It’s a comfort that he’ll still be around, because this is not a voice country fans want to lose.
Strait first performed in country bands while in the Army, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in the mid-seventies. His first hit was 1981’s “Unwound,” an uncomplicated, traditional country song about a man whose woman has put him out for the simple reason that she caught him cheating on her. He’ll deal with this heartache by getting wide at his local. A standard country dilemma, well executed by a 29-year-old Strait.
In a career that not only yielded an unprecedented number of hits, but every award in the country music industry, some of them multiple times, Strait never wavered from the traditional country sound, no matter how many toxic trends invaded Nashville’s Music Row. When he said goodbye to rock and roll as a teenager, it was goodbye for good. In fact, Strait joined with Alan Jackson, another country traditionalist, in 2000’s “Murder on Music Row,” where the two tunefully lament the pop influences on country music — drums and rock guitars replacing fiddles and steel guitars. The song compares rock’s invasion of country to a capital crime. Many country traditionalists agree.
Strait’s songs deal with the standard country themes of lost love and yearning, and the triumphs and disappointments of life. His songs are (pardon the unavoidable pun) straight-forward stories — no tricks, few nuances. His voice is clear and relaxed, comfortable, never-hyper, never overwrought. He can produce the desired emotion in his listeners without wringing the last ounce out of it. Without histrionics, his voice projects power and grace.
For the next 30+ years Strait perfected his craft through a steady stream of hits, including but not limited to some of my favorites: “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together,” “If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger,” “Fool Hearted Memory,” “The Chair,” “You Look So Good in Love,” “The Fireman,” “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” “Check Yes or No,” “You’re Something Special to Me,” and “Amarillo by Morning.”
The last one in this list, probably my favorite, is a haunting tune about the tough life of a rodeo cowboy who doesn’t make it to eight seconds often enough. This one and others like “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?” and “The Cowboy Rides Away,” place Strait on the western side of the country and western divide, though his songs are as popular in the Eastern Time Zone as in the Central or Mountain.
Raised on a small farm/ranch south of San Antonio, Strait is more Texas than Nashville, as comfortable on a horse as in a tour bus. His son George Jr. is a competitive rodeo cowboy. His cowboy skills are demonstrated in a very watchable 1992 movie, Pure Country, featuring a more than watchable Isabel Glasser as well as New York native Lesley Ann Warren looking more like a sweetheart of the rodeo than you might think she could.
As a performer, Strait has charisma, but it’s of a quiet variety. He connects with his concert audiences through his warmth. He seems to be having a good time when performing, and he clearly respects those he is singing for. He’s a handsome dog, so many of the women want to go home with him. The men want to be him. You can see some of these qualities in his 2002 Astrodome concert, which is available on DVD.
Strait achieves all of this while being (another pun alert) a straight arrow. No blue language in his concerts, no bizarre clothes — just starched cowboy shirt, jeans, and cowboy hat, no stage full of smoke. Strait married his high school sweetheart at 19, and they’re still together. There has never been a breath of scandal about him. Not a single trashed hotel room on the road. His stage patter doesn’t include politics, but he’s clearly a patriot. He came by the last name honestly.
To the surprise of no one, Strait’s farewell tour is playing to packed houses, in places like Tulsa, where you would expect it to, but also in places like Newark, New Jersey, where you wouldn’t. The reviewer of that concert said there were more cowboy hats on display in Newark on March 1 than ever before in this city’s history. (Urban cowboys of the world, unite?) Strait is most popular in flyover country. But he also has bicoastal appeal.
Though Strait makes use of many white-blues country themes, his approach is not mournful. So the sadness of his story never overpowers. It can even uplift. As a music-savvy friend of mine put it, “You hear one of his songs and right away life feels better.” Just so.
Many happy returns, cowboy. And please keep singing.
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