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.
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.
In January of this year, 18,000 of them filled the Sprint Center, in Kansas City, Missouri; and as a longtime fan myself, I was among them. Tickets had been snapped