For me, the most reliable indicator that a piece I’m working on will resonate with readers is if I catch myself crying while I’m writing. That’s happened a number of times, like when I wrote about my dad’s funeral. And about my childhood best friend’s reunion with his wife and kids after a deployment in Iraq. And about an older Black man named Pug who took me under his wing when I worked at the Capitol during college. And, perhaps weirdly, it happened when I profiled George Strait.
The hook for the piece was Strait’s 2012 announcement that he would retire from touring after a seventeen-month, 48-show “Cowboy Rides Away” victory lap, culminating in a final performance in front of some 105,000 fans at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, on June 7, 2014. Note, though, that the story’s emotional weight didn’t come from the prospect of bidding Strait adieu. History has shown that the retirements of old rock stars are about as “final” as those of old boxers—see Sugar Ray Leonard and the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour. And Strait had already confirmed that he would continue to record and play occasional one-off shows. So no George Strait fan thought he would actually ride off and disappear.
But for his two biggest fans at Texas Monthly—former creative director T. J. Tucker and me—Strait’s transition was an opportunity we’d been waiting for our entire careers. T.J. and I were extremely close, with a friendship forged on deadlines. We shared a tendency to work late, and we’d spent long hours as the only staffers in the office well after midnight, often with beers in hand and always with country music playing. And while some people like to daydream over drinks about the bar they’re going to open one day and what CDs they’ll put in the jukebox, T.J. and I liked to muse aloud about our brass ring story ideas—the one piece we’d each always wanted to do. For both of us, that story was Strait. But given King George’s well-known reluctance to sit for interviews or have his portrait taken, it had never come to pass.
The farewell tour changed that. This was a monumental moment in pop culture, a chance to take stock of one of the seminal figures in country music history, and it required big-time coverage regardless of whether Strait would talk to us or let us take his picture. In early 2014, T.J. and I started working on the big Strait cover story we’d been dreaming of.
We wound up with an unusual amount of autonomy over the article. Our boss was editor in chief Jake Silverstein, and about the time we got going, word spread that Jake was in the running for the top job at the New York Times Magazine. Jake was great to work for, a deeply creative thinker inclined to respond to outside-the-box thoughts by asking “Why not?” rather than “Why?” He said grace over our idea to create a two-page chart examining Strait’s sixty number one singles, and he assigned a companion piece by noted country music historian Craig Havighurst. But for the anchor story itself, Jake essentially left T.J. and me to our own designs. In March, just over six weeks before the package went to press, Jake announced he was taking the Times job. The Strait cover would be the last of his six-year tenure at Texas Monthly.
While working on the piece, T.J. and I were constantly in and out of each other’s offices, bouncing ideas off each other and sharing old images and videos we were finding. On a flight to Missouri for a Strait show in Kansas City, we traded stories about growing up George fans, me in an Austin suburb in the eighties and T.J. on a cattle ranch in tiny Baird in the nineties. We talked about our first Strait concerts and the Strait albums we listened to in high school and college, and then we went to the show, sitting in VIP seats provided by Strait’s publicist.
That was where T.J. had the breakthrough that would make our Strait package one of Texas Monthly’s all-time iconic issues. Understanding that we couldn’t take Strait’s picture for the cover, he and I had brainstormed a number of ideas for an illustration. But during the show’s last song, T.J. took note of a brief moment when Strait, overwhelmed by the audience response, had put his hand over his heart and bowed his head to the crowd. That was the image T.J. wanted on the cover. Knowing it was likely futile, he sent Strait’s publicist a heartfelt email—he referred to it as “a bended-knee plea”—describing how powerful that gesture had been and asking if we could shoot Strait in a similar pose. As detailed in a web story that accompanied the reveal of our June 2014 cover, Strait’s team acquiesced. And the resulting image, shot before a show in Tulsa by one of T.J.’s favorite photographers, Joe Pugliese, went on to grace one of Texas Monthly‘s best-selling covers at newsstands in the last ten years.
But while all that accounts for my warm memories of working on the “The Last Ride of King George,” it doesn’t explain my tears. Country stars have a different relationship with their fans than rock stars do. It’s more personal, especially with someone like Strait, who really does seem to be part of his audience. When he runs through songs about family and faith, he’s not singing to his fans, he’s singing with them; at times, it seems he’s singing about them—or, rather, us. To make that point in the story, I pulled from my own life, identifying which Strait songs had mattered most to me during significant times. The one that brought the sobs was in the last two paragraphs, when I described the first Strait show I attended with my wife, Julie.
What I wasn’t quite conscious of in that moment was that the whole Strait project—my reimmersion in his music, the walk down memory lane—had been, in a sense, an exercise in nesting. Julie and I had started trying to have kids almost as soon as we married in April 2011, and it hadn’t been easy. Finally, in the fall of 2013, we’d contracted with a young woman from Lamesa to carry our first child. On May 17, 2014, three days after the Strait issue went to press, Willie Mo Spong was born in Lubbock. The first song Julie and I played for him in the hospital was George Strait’s “You Look So Good in Love.”