Strait, No Chaser?

The Academy of Country Music Awards show is one of the industry’s annual pageants of who’s on top. It vies for stature with the Country Music Association Awards show, and it gives a solid indication of where the business is heading and what’s preoccupying it at the moment. Case in point: the charged night of May 3, 2000, when George Strait stood onstage in Los Angeles in front of every gatekeeper and power player in the industry who made his epic career possible, strummed his acoustic guitar, and sang a scathing indictment of the system. “Someone killed country music / Cut out its heart and soul / They got away with murder / Down on Music Row.”

At that point in the song, Strait’s fellow country-music traditionalist Alan Jackson strolled out, so slowly that he juuust reached his microphone in time to sing the second verse. “The almighty dollar / And the lust for worldwide fame / Slowly killed tradition / And for that, someone should hang.”

The song was the handiwork of writers Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, traditional musicians who lamented the decline of the real country sounds. It likely would not have gotten much attention, but the perennial argument over country music’s sound, style, and integrity was unusually heated at that  moment. Research showed that country radio’s long-standing, heartland audience was abandoning the format in droves, to be replaced by younger, more suburban fans. Some of the disaffected had taken to sporting hats with the slogan “CMA = Country My Ass.”

Strait, never one to make too big a fuss, saw “Murder on Music Row” as a lighthearted protest. It was never released as a single, but renegade deejays played it enough to nudge it into the top 40. A few months after Strait’s and Jackson’s performance at the ACM Awards, they won the award for Vocal Event of the Year at the CMAs. The song had hit a nerve. It cleaned up in the fan voting at the 2001 TNN/CMT Country Weekly Music Awards, and that fall, Cordle and Shell took Song of the Year honors at the CMA Awards. It was the most popular tune in all of country music, and its unambiguous message was that country music in its current state sucked. As the chorus asserted, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and other country legends “wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio.” And it seems likely that Strait was hinting to the industry that the same might well be true of himself. As a giant of the format, he could safely sing this cri de coeur, but young artists who embraced his classic sensibility were being rejected in 2000 as “too country” for country radio. 

It’s unsettling to think of what would happen if Strait, one of the most successful recording artists of all time, in any genre, were to try to break into the business nowadays. Where would he fit in a country scene distinguished (if that’s the word) by the cranked-up party anthems of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line? Is there a “next George Strait” out there, struggling to be heard and make it past the hurdles and hoops of commercial country circa 2014? And if an artist of that ilk and talent did get established, could today’s industry, with its many competing interests, support him over thirty years? 

These questions invite a brief review of the music business over the past thirty years. When Strait’s recording career began, in 1981, country radio was loaded with easy-listening pop music, but it still had variety and the capacity to surprise. Strait’s spare honky-tonk was part of a movement the scholars called neo-traditionalism. At that time, the business still retained some of the folkways and institutional memory of its golden age, when historic, multi-decade careers weren’t at all unusual (think of Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, or Loretta Lynn). Radio stations and record companies had a special synergy that was largely isolated from the larger media world. That changed about a decade into Strait’s career, when Garth Brooks started filling arenas and selling albums on par with Michael Jackson. A new generation of managers, label executives, music publishers, and lawyers rushed to Nashville and remade the city’s ethos. 

Then, in 1996, the Telecommunications Act was passed, lifting the limits on how many radio stations a single company could own. This soon led to “cluster” strategies that assigned specific genres to different stations pursuing target demographics in major markets. Country radio—once a fairly guileless cultural product that appealed to farmers, truckers, and factory workers—became a corporate media machine geared to the tastes and consumption patterns of suburban families, especially moms. Hence the blowup of soft-pop bands like Lonestar, the perky sunshine of SHeDAISY, and the power ballads of Faith Hill.  

Yet, at the same time, in contrast to rock and pop radio, which splintered into a dozen or more micro-formats, country radio remained steadfastly cohesive. This limited the labels’ options for breaking new artists with unique sounds and led to radically smaller playlists that featured hit songs more often and over more weeks. The top complaint on Music Row was not that radio was too pop but that it was too slow to add new records. Songs could take nearly a year to reach number one. 

And then there’s the money. Old-school payola (i.e., playing a record for cash or gifts) was outlawed years ago. But corporate radio made a market out of the scarcity of slots and access to its shrinking pool of executives who had power over programming. It’s a bit like campaign financing; you don’t pay for a vote—you pay for the chance to make your case. The major labels have always had the deepest pockets, and they dominate the charts. (Industry insiders say that now, by the time a single has reached number one on country radio, its label will have spent at least a million dollars promoting it.) 

All of this led to a backlash. In the mid-nineties, disaffected but idealistic label executives and radio people banded together to create a new format and promotion base for artists whose music drew on traditional American sounds and styles, the imperfectly named “alt-country” or “Americana” genre. This category included acts with rock roots like Son Volt and Ryan Adams, as well as exiled forebears like Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. Americana has evolved in complicated ways since then, but these days it’s inarguably the more welcoming radio home to neo-traditionalists. 

There’s also a parallel ecosystem to Americana: the Red Dirt scene. This is where you’ll find western swing and sawdust shuffles still alive and well. Red Dirt music is regional, centered around Texas and Oklahoma and the Western states. And it’s built on a foundation of live performance and a network of radio stations with their own charts. Well-known practitioners include people like Jamie Richards, a Shawnee, Oklahoma, native who’s landed a dozen top-ten singles on the Texas Music Chart. He’s a “honky-tonk singer with a bit of an edge,” according to his website, and a believer in a “cradle to grave” approach to music. Another example is Aaron Watson, an old-school stylist who’s recorded with Willie Nelson, landed a sponsorship with Tony Lama Boots, and accumulated 250,000 Facebook fans by touring widely as an independent artist.

The Last Ride of King George

George Strait’s eyes are green, somewhere between the color of a Granny Smith apple and pool table felt. He’s got the bright-white, worry-free smile of a country club golf pro, somebody who makes his living flirting with older women. His face is quietly handsome and friendly, and he usually looks like he’s enjoying himself. His expression often suggests he’s open to a little mischief, nothing too dramatic, maybe a beer or two too many. He’ll always leave room to charm his way out of trouble. In truth, none of that is too terribly extraordinary. He probably reminds you of someone you had a crush on or looked up to in high school.  

So move on to his music. In the 33 years he’s been a major-label recording artist, he’s released 28 studio albums, every one a collection of old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes country music. The songs are barroom weepers and cheaters, balanced with others about true love, family, and faith. He delivers them with a warm, expressive voice that is more comfortable than remarkable, keeping to the straightforward style of Merle Haggard rather than the vocal acrobatics of George Jones or the vibrato of Ray Price. The melodies are often poppy and sometimes they swing, but they always come dressed in fiddle and steel guitar.

That sound was distinctly out of favor when Strait started recording in 1981. As that decade wore on, he managed to pull traditional country music back into vogue, and he’s stuck with it through every trend that has surfaced in the meanwhile. Improbably, it has made him the most successful singles artist in history, owner of more number one songs than any other artist in any genre—44 on the Billboard country chart or, if you use his record label’s math, which adds in Mediabase’s measure of country radio airplay, an astounding 60 number ones. There’s no hyperbole in saying that his loyalty to the old sound is the single most important reason it stayed alive and on the radio.

Those qualities and accomplishments make comparisons to other artists difficult. All of Strait’s hits were on the country charts. He never enjoyed the pop-crossover success of Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift, or the music snob credibility of Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. If you expand the parameters outside the country world, a different problem arises. Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett are both as closely associated with a place and sound as Strait is with Texas and country. But New Jersey gearheads and beach-loving parrotheads consider Springsteen and Buffett their poets. Though Strait had one songwriting credit on his second album, he only recently resumed writing. Strait is first and foremost a vocalist. 

The comparison should be, then, to another pure singer, and there’s a temptation to think of Strait as our Sinatra. In certain ways the reference is apt. Both built long careers interpreting other people’s songs. Each man’s instrument was his voice, and the artistry was in locating the emotion in someone else’s words and communicating it believably. But there’s a key distinction in the way listeners connect with their music. Frank Sinatra made his audience come to him, and the world in fact knew him as Mr. Sinatra. Strait, on the other hand, may be King George to the press, but fans know him simply as George. He seems to actually be a part of the crowd that loves him. Sinatra’s career gets broken into periods, like his early swooning-bobby-soxer years, his post–Ava Gardner alone-in-a-bar years, and the later-in-life Chairman of the Board years. Strait’s career can’t be divided that way. Viewed as a whole, his catalog is monolithic, and that’s a compliment. It is one big, rock-solid block. His fans supply the shadings—Right or Wrong was the only cassette in the pickup on a spring break trip to the beach; Ocean Front Property played nonstop in the dorm during sophomore year in college; Livin’ It Up was a solace during a divorce; Carrying Your Love With Me was the go-to CD for rocking a firstborn to sleep. 

CLICK HERE to see the reign of King George in historial context.

So maybe the place to start with Strait is at his concerts, where the songs roll out of his Ace in the Hole Band, one after another, for two and a half hours. None of his fans come expecting surprises. All of them know how a George Strait show goes. The stage will be a square in the center of the arena, with a mike at each corner for Strait to sing into. First the band will come on and kick into “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” with Strait waiting in the wings. Then he’ll walk out, wave to the crowd, slip on his guitar, stand at a mike, and sing. No choreography will follow, no elaborate video show, no fireworks, no jumping around. Strait won’t do one thing to distract from the songs. And fans will respond as if he’s singing about their own lives.

Which explains why those same fans greeted the September 2012 announcement that Strait would be retiring from touring like they would the news that the family dog had to be put down. The Cowboy Rides Away Tour, which began on January 18, 2013, in Lubbock and will end this month, on June 7, in Arlington, is being billed as his last as a regular touring performer. For Strait it’s been a seventeen-month, 48-date victory lap around the United States. But it’s been something different for his audience. He’s promised to continue releasing new music and playing occasional one-off concerts. But for fans, many of whom grew up attending a Strait show every couple of years, the Cowboy Rides Away Tour represents the last chance they’ll likely ever have to see him play live.


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