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.
By Cowboys & Indians contributor, Hunter Hauk
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 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.”
What’s amazing about hearing Strait deliver his classic songs from the early days is that they don’t sound any different now. At 61, Strait sings like a man in his 20s. Brown’s noticed that, too, and he’s got a theory.
“He didn’t kill his body over the years. I think he drinks Jack, but I’ve never really seen him trashed,” Brown says. “He still looks awesome, he takes care of himself, and he and [his wife] Norma are just always together. He’s a good example for younger artists.”
That bodes well for Strait’s post-touring career. He’s promised he’ll keep recording and releasing music. But he’ll also take plenty of time to tend to his favorite outdoor activities — golfing, hunting, fishing, and ranching — as well as his new role as a first-time grandfather to George “Bubba” Strait Jr.’s 1-year-old son, George Harvey Strait III.
“It’s the most wonderful thing,” the singer says of his new namesake. “Everyone that has a grandchild told me how great it was. They were right!”
While Strait is determined to achieve a better balance between work and home life, Brown expresses no fear that the musical output will taper off or be any less exciting than it’s been for three decades.
“When George told me about his plan to stop touring, I said, ‘You know, you could cut a Western swing record, not even thinking about singles,’ ” Brown says. “He’s at the point in his career [where he can do that] as opposed to always going into the studio and thinking about chasing those radio hits.”
A Western swing album would be a brilliant choice for Strait in the future, since he’s done so well to bring elements of that sound into the mainstream over the years. But, for some reason, it’s hard to imagine him not reaching for radio play. For country fans of every age, Strait’s voice goes hand in hand with the radio. It’s a voice that consistently elevates melodies and lyrics. It’ll do so even when the day comes that we can no longer buy tickets to hear it in person.
“I won’t miss all the traveling,” Strait says. “I’m sure I will miss the performing, but like I said, I will still do a few things.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment for me for sure. We’ll see how it goes.”
We talked to the King of Country about his storied career, his final tour, his latest album, and his life away from the stage.
Cowboys & Indians: This is your final tour, but you aren’t giving up music altogether. Tell us about the new album, Love Is Everything.
George Strait: I still want to do a few events throughout the years, but just no more touring. I will still be making records. I thought Love Is Everything was the perfect title just because it is everything, isn’t it? My son and I, along with my friend Dean Dillon, wrote a few of the songs on the record. I also redid a song that I wrote around 1976 [“I Just Can’t Go on Dying Like This”]. I think it turned out great.
C&I: Who are some go-to artists that you can always count on to improve your mood?
Strait: I listen to all kinds of music, not just country music, which might surprise some people. But at the end of the day, I gotta have some Hag, Jones, or Wills. Merle Haggard was my hero and may be the biggest influence on my career. While I was in the Army stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, he came and played at Conroy Bowl. I was playing at an NCO club that night, but I managed to slip over and see his show. That did it for me. What a band and what an artist! Merle, you are still the man.
C&I: While you were serving in the Army, you also played in a country band. What do you remember most about those days?
Strait: It makes you grow up fast, that’s for sure. It was hard, but I wouldn’t trade those days for anything. I was fortunate that I got to play country music for the Army the last year I was in. There wasn’t a big demand for country music in Hawaii at the time, but we played all of the military bases and NCO clubs on the island. Whenever the Army wanted someone to play a company party, we were the band.
C&I: After you left the Army in 1975, you headed back to Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos (now Texas State University), where you finished an agriculture degree and started the Ace in the Hole Band. Your first trip to Nashville quickly followed in 1978. What was your first impression of Music City?
Strait: I was in total awe the first time I went to Nashville. I mean, I knew if I was going to make it in the music business, the road ran right through there. I believed in myself, and you have to if you want to make it in this business. There were some hard times for sure, and it took me a while to convince them to give me a shot, but I doubt if I would ever have given up. I started to a time or two, but just couldn’t. It was my dream and, I feel, my destiny.
C&I: The late ’80s and early ’90s were a prime era in your career when you hit a new level of fame. What was that time like?
Strait: It was just a lot of hard work. I know that sounds funny when you think of singing as work, but I guess it’s the road that makes it feel that way. The shows are always fun. I was on the road constantly in those days doing 100 or so dates a year, at least. I did the movie Pure Country in the early ’90s, and I think that gave my career a huge shot in the arm. It was a lot of fun filming that movie — something different for me. The way it happened was Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, came to see me do some shows in Vegas. He kept telling me, “Son, you have to make movies.” He called Jerry Weintraub, who was a friend of his and who promoted Elvis for years, among others, and who also made some great movies then and now. He came out to see a show and decided to produce the movie. He basically had it written for me, and the rest is history, as they say.
C&I: How do you plan on spending the extra time you’ll have when the final tour ends next year?
Strait: I’m not totally sure yet. I guess watch my son and his wife raise their son. I’ll definitely be doing a little golfing and fishing.
C&I: Where are some of your favorite places to cast a line?
Strait: I’ve been very fortunate to be able to fish a lot of really cool spots. My favorite place to fish for marlin is Piñas Bay in Panama. I love to catch billfish the most, but I also like inshore fishing on the Texas coast. We have some of the best redfish and speckled trout fishing there is. I also love to bonefish in the Bahamas.
C&I: You’ve been on ranches your entire life — working with your family as a kid in South Texas and eventually owning and running your own near Laredo. How has that experience contributed to your character?
Strait: 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.
C&I: Do you play favorites with your horses, or do you love them all equally?
Strait: Everybody who has horses has their favorites, I’m sure. Mine is a quarter horse named Joker. He’s about retired like me now, but I still ride him occasionally.
C&I: You host and compete in the George Strait Team Roping Classic in San Antonio every year. What do you enjoy most about the million-dollar event?
Strait: The thing that brings me the most joy out of the team roping is handing out those checks and prizes. It really is a life-changer for some of those guys, and I love being a part of it. When my brother and I started it years ago, we had no idea it would become what it is today.
C&I: You’ve become universally known as the King of Country, a living legend still on top of his game. Do those kinds of accolades make you feel any extra pressure, or do you just enjoy it at this point?
Strait: I don’t feel any pressure from it; I just am humbled by it. It is something that I never dreamed anyone would say about me.
C&I: “The last goodbye’s the hardest one to say. This is where the cowboy rides away … .” You put out that song in January 1985 and have been closing your performances with it for years. Any chance you’ll get choked up singing that line on the final encore of the last concert of the farewell tour?
Strait: Yes, a good chance.
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