Strait has always been a singles artist; he built his career for maximum longevity, amassing one hit after another.
George Strait has discovered that when he isn’t wearing a cowboy hat people often don’t realize that he is George Strait. In San Antonio, where he lives, he can usually visit restaurants unmolested, so long as he doesn’t smile too widely—he is famous for his smile, which is bright and crooked. One time, in Key West, where he records, he was sitting outside the studio, naked from the neck up, when a woman accosted him. She said, “My husband says that George Strait is in there, cutting a record, and I told him that can’t be true. Why would he cut a record in this little place?”
Strait’s response was not, strictly speaking, a lie. “Honey,” he said, “I was just in there, and I didn’t see him.”
He is, by some measures, the most popular country-music singer of all time and, by any measure, the most consistent. Since 1981, when he made his début, he has placed eighty-six singles on Billboard’s Top 10 country chart, and more than half of them have gone to No. 1. Everywhere that there is a country radio station, there are generations of listeners who regard Strait’s music as part of the landscape; they are intimately connected to these songs, even if they can’t quite say that they are intimately connected to the man who sings them. When Strait first emerged, he was acclaimed as “the honky-tonk Frank Sinatra,” a designation that fits him even better now than it did then. Like Sinatra, Strait is chiefly an interpreter, not a songwriter, and he is committed to the old-fashioned idea that an entertainer’s job is to entertain, and not necessarily to bare his soul. He isn’t so much a great character as a great narrator, telling a variety of stories instead of returning endlessly to his own. “I don’t think there’s anything autobiographical about my material, unless it’s subconsciously,” Strait once said. “I just look for a song I like, and when I hear it I know it right away.”
On a Friday night earlier this year, at T-Mobile Arena, a few paces from the Las Vegas Strip, nearly twenty thousand fans came together to hear Strait make his way through more than thirty of his biggest hits—a fraction of the total. “We have a lot of songs to play for you tonight, a whole lot,” he said, and then he didn’t say much more. Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them. Because he was playing in the round, there was no backdrop, and nothing in the way of pyrotechnics, with the important exception of that smile. His onstage outfit, which has barely changed in forty years, includes, along with the cowboy hat and cowboy boots, a button-down shirt and bluejeans, ironed stiff enough to form an exoskeleton. A promotional contract obliges him to wear Wrangler jeans, and decades of ranching and roping inclines him to wear them stacked—that is, long and bunched up, so that he could, if necessary, mount a horse without fear of exposing any extra boot.
Strait doesn’t believe in disappointing paying customers, so he endeavors to play every song that anyone wants to hear. Casual listeners may know him best for “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” a slightly drunken-sounding novelty song that long ago transcended its novelty status, elevated by countless bleary-eyed sing-alongs: “Texas is the place I’d dearly love to be / But all my ex’s live in Texas / And that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.” In this arena, though, people were just as excited for “Check Yes or No,” a good-natured radio perennial about a love affair that begins in the third grade and lasts well past the third chorus. One key to Strait’s success is that he is stubborn but not too stubborn. He adores the rough-hewn music and iconography of his native Texas, but he has never been too cool to sing sweeter, softer songs about suburban love gone right. He is a traditionalist, but not a revivalist: instead of evoking a bygone past, he prefers to evoke a familiar, unchanging present. The quintessential George Strait song involves a man who feels something strongly but can express it only winkingly. “If you leave me, I won’t miss you,” he declares, at the start of “Ocean Front Property,” followed by a chorus made up of declarations that are, likewise, lies. “I’ve got some oceanfront property in Arizona / From my front porch, you can see the sea,” he sings. “If you buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate in, free.”
A George Strait concert is a master class in the art of restraint. “He just stands there,” an executive once marvelled, “and people go fucking crazy.” Strait leans away from the high notes, sways gently with the up-tempo songs, and says just enough to remind fans that they are not, in fact, listening to his records; all night, he strums an acoustic guitar that no one can hear, maybe not even him.
In Las Vegas, he waited until near the end of his set for “Amarillo by Morning.” His crowds are generationally diverse, and some of the older fans had begun to sink into their seats by then. But just about everyone stood up at the sound of the fiddle overture that introduces the opening stanza, one of the most memorable in country music:
Amarillo by morning
Up from San Antone
Everything that I got
Is just what I’ve got on
The song—the stoic lament of a travelling rodeo pro—was originally recorded, in 1973, by Terry Stafford, a former rock-and-roll singer. Chris LeDoux, a real-life rodeo champion who also built a do-it-yourself career as a country act, cut a version a few years later, which found its way to Strait, who made the song his own. Stafford sang it with a crooner’s quaver, and LeDoux intoned the lyrics wistfully, accompanied by a harmonica. By comparison, Strait’s version, the only one that most people will ever hear, is masterfully plain. He occasionally approaches a syllable from above, using a mournful grace note, but he has an easy, conversational way of putting a melody across, as if he were singing to keep from talking.
Strait released “Amarillo by Morning” in 1983, and it helped establish him as one of the decade’s first new country stars. The song was so popular that he sometimes had to play it twice in a set, back when he was playing as many as four sets a night in Texas roadhouses. “It was probably our most requested song,” he says, “but it wasn’t a No. 1 record.” Like virtually all successful country singers, Strait pays attention to the charts, and he can discuss his placements with the unembarrassed candor of an athlete recalling his career statistics. “Amarillo by Morning” peaked at No. 4. Strait’s longtime manager, Erv Woolsey, noticed that some otherwise reliable radio stations declined to put Strait’s version into heavy rotation; he suspects that, especially in the Southwest, the modest success of the earlier recordings had made the song too familiar. “It was kind of wore out in certain places,” Woolsey says. But it resonated, and it has endured. Last year, a twenty-year-old contestant on “Mongolia’s Got Talent” became a viral video star because of his uncannily Strait-like rendition of “Amarillo by Morning.” And in Las Vegas “Amarillo by Morning” worked as well as it ever did. When it was over, Strait looked out at the crowd and gestured toward the roof with both hands—jokingly asking for more applause, as if he needed it.
Strait recently turned sixty-five, and he is officially semiretired. In 2012, he announced that he was quitting the touring life, and, after a two-year sendoff tour, he played a final show at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, in front of more than a hundred thousand people. He didn’t quit recording, though, and in 2015 he announced a series of weekend concerts in Las Vegas. Louis Messina, Strait’s promoter, likes to point out that this is not a traditional Vegas residency: a washed-up star imprisoned in a casino theatre, entertaining a few hundred fans and gamblers, night after night. Strait is an arena headliner, not a lounge act, and every night the preshow playlist pays subtle tribute to his staying power. Concertgoers hear a selection of recent country hits: “Take a Back Road,” by Rodney Atkins; “Girl in a Country Song,” by Maddie & Tae; “Rewind,” by Rascal Flatts; “Might Get Lucky,” by Darius Rucker. What they have in common is that all of them mention Strait. Rucker sings, “Dance around the kitchen to a George Strait song”— hoping, like the others, to borrow some of Strait’s unimpeachable country credibility.
When Strait goes to Las Vegas, he flies from Texas in the plane he owns, and stays at the Mansion, a semiprivate hotel hidden next to the MGM Grand. But his bus comes, too, and remains parked behind the arena, allowing him to enjoy, in small doses, the life of a touring musician. It was Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, and Strait was incognito on his bus, wearing a light-blue baseball cap and lightweight Nike running shoes. In the early decades of his career, he spent his downtime on horseback, turning himself into a decent competitor in the sport of team roping. He is still fit and trim, but these days he prefers fishing and golfing, and he enhances his year-round tan with frequent trips to the Bahamas and Mexico. In person, he is warm but watchful, and surprisingly shy; he seems like a man who does not crave attention, even though he has spent most of his life courting it.
“We had some rough edges last night, and I’ve already talked to my guys,” Strait said. Some members of his band have been playing with him since the nineteen-seventies, and they know him as an easygoing but exacting leader who wants his songs to sound just the way fans remember them. “A lot of times, maybe I’m the only one that notices,” Strait said. “But sometimes not.”
He has always been a singles artist, and even people who have worked closely with him sometimes struggle to name a favorite album—they like all his songs, especially the hits. Without quite planning it, he built his career for maximum longevity, amassing one hit after another, never allowing himself a year off or a radical musical departure. In the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, he helped inspire a wave of cowboy-hat-wearing country singers who were known as “hat acts,” including Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. Strait became a beloved elder statesman without giving up the role he values more: hitmaker. And then, around the beginning of this decade, something happened that was both inevitable and shocking: Strait’s songs stopped making their way up the country chart. “Radio’s not playing me anymore,” he said. “Which is a hard pill to swallow, after all these years.” His last album, “Cold Beer Conversation,” was released in 2015, and it was the first major release of his career that did not spawn a Top 10 hit. “I hung on for dear life, for a lot of years,” Strait said, chuckling softly.
There is, of course, life beyond the Billboard charts. Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, for instance, remain two of the most revered and beloved stars in the country-music galaxy, even though they stopped making hits in the nineteen-eighties. But Strait has always resisted becoming a legacy act—indeed, his legacy is inseparable from his miraculous ability to stay current, reigning as the defining voice of country music throughout the eighties, the nineties, and the aughts. He is, by all accounts, intensely (if quietly) competitive: he wants to win, and radio spins and chart positions are an objective way of keeping score. On that Saturday night in Las Vegas, with those undetectable rough edges smoothed away, Strait and his band cruised through an even longer set, and he permitted himself to take some satisfaction in the fact that, once more, tens of thousands of fans had driven or flown into the desert just to watch him stand there and sing. “This is our eighth show in this building,” he said. “Sold out every one of ’em.”
George Strait grew up in Pearsall, Texas, near the interstate that runs south through Laredo to the Mexican border. His parents split when he was young, and Strait was brought up by his father, a math teacher who also became the proprietor of the family’s cattle ranch, down the road in Big Wells. Strait developed a lifelong obsession with ranching, although he also had other interests: after high school, he married his girlfriend, Norma, spent a few semesters in college, and then joined the Army, which assigned him to the 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks, in Hawaii. The soldiers had to be ready to ship out to Vietnam at a few hours’ notice, but the call never came, and in his downtime—for no good reason that he has ever been able to articulate—Strait bought a battered guitar and some old songbooks and taught himself to play and sing. When the division put together a country band, Strait was chosen to lead it, and by the time he returned to Texas, in 1975, he had resolved to pursue a career in music.
It wasn’t an absurd idea: Texas was full of small bars where unpretentious country bands could bash out a living. Just to be safe, though, Strait enrolled at Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos, where he studied agricultural education, and where, one day, he came upon a bulletin-board notice from a group in search of a singer. He auditioned with “Fraulein,” a country classic from the fifties, and was hired as the lead singer of the group, which was called the Ace in the Hole Band. One of the members was a pedal-steel player named Mike Daily, who has performed with Strait ever since. Daily’s grandfather was Pappy Daily, a legendary country impresario who discovered George Jones, and his father ran an independent label, which issued three Ace in the Hole Band singles in the late nineteen-seventies—Strait’s first recordings. Daily remembers that Strait wasn’t planning on staying local forever. “I’m here to try to make it,” Strait told the musicians, and Daily knew that making it would probably entail going to Nashville, where talent scouts typically signed singers, not bands.
In the late seventies, some of the most successful country singers were gentle balladeers like Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell, and the executives who initially heard Strait’s demos thought he would likely remain a local favorite. His prospects may have improved with the release, in 1980, of “Urban Cowboy,” in which John Travolta and Debra Winger do battle with a mechanical bull in a honky-tonk called Gilley’s. (The film was not, despite its plot, a comedy.) “Urban Cowboy” glamorized rowdy Texas bars and all the creatures that called them home, and it created a new demand for singing cowboys like Strait. He got a record deal the next year, and had success with his début single, “Unwound,” a brisk drinking song built on a long-winded complaint: “That woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound.” He recorded it with session musicians but continued to use the Ace in the Hole Band when he was on tour, as he almost always was. Strait was happy to go around the country promoting “Unwound,” but Woolsey, his manager, remembers rebuffing the record executives who wanted Strait to dress up, taking off his cowboy hat and trading his stacked jeans for slacks. “You don’t understand,” Woolsey told them. “Where he’s from, that is dressing up.”
From the beginning, Strait was marketed—and celebrated—as an avatar of “real” country, at a time of anxiety about country’s identity. The genre was getting popular and, not coincidentally, going pop, growing a bit more glamorous and a lot harder to define. In 1981, the year Strait emerged, Mandrell topped the chart with “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” a charming ode to country authenticity (flannel shirts, the Grand Ole Opry, “puttin’ peanuts in my Coke”) that seemed both defiant and defensive—its piano-driven arrangement was practically soft rock. Strait, whose music was sometimes described as “hard country,” espoused a more uncompromising aesthetic. News accounts invariably mentioned that he was “a real, live cowboy,” and headline writers rarely resisted the urge to connect his name to his style (“some real strait-forward country”; “playing it strait”; “country music served strait up”). After a string of hits, Strait parted with his original producer, Blake Mevis, telling one reporter that Mevis “was looking for more mass appeal, middle-of-the-road stuff,” while he wanted to record “basic country music.”
Many of Strait’s early records were produced by Jimmy Bowen, who was smart enough not to interfere too much. “I once told George Strait he might try to liven up his stage act just a touch,” Bowen has recalled. (Strait says that he does not remember the conversation.) “He did: he waved his cowboy hat a few times during the show. But George could get away with just standing there looking and sounding terrific.” Strait’s popularity was driven by his status as a sex symbol. Women deluged the stage with flowers, so many that disposal became a serious problem. At first, the bus would stop by a dumpster on the way out of town; later, the crew devised a system for donating them to local hospitals. Reba McEntire, who was also conquering country music at the time, once recalled a show that she played with Strait in Oklahoma. “The girls was gettin’ after him so bad,” she said, “that the club had to stack bales of hay in front of the stage.” (She added her own honest appraisal: “He’s a sexy little rascal.”) When Strait toured in the mid-eighties, he brought along, as his opening act, Kathy Mattea, who was then a rising star. Onstage, she made a habit of calling Strait “the Mark Harmon of country music,” by way of acknowledging his appeal. “He was handsome, and he was low-key, and he was charming,” Mattea says now. For her, the Mark Harmon line was an act of professional self-defense, a way of winning over his female fans by endorsing their fandom. “I had to relate to those women,” she says. “I had to show them that I could feel what they felt.”
Strait didn’t brag about his heartthrob status. (“I don’t know what it is, but I hope it doesn’t stop,” he told one reporter.) He did, however, find canny ways to capitalize on it. One of his most popular songs is “The Fireman,” the sly chronicle of a ladies’ man who serves as a kind of first responder in local bars, “making my rounds all over town, puttin’ out old flames.” And, in 1992, he starred in a feature film, “Pure Country,” playing a moodier, more reckless version of himself: a country singer named Dusty, who grows disillusioned with the music business and its compromises. Strait was reluctant to make a movie, but he was persuaded by the producer Jerry Weintraub, and by Colonel Tom Parker, the former manager of Elvis Presley, who was a friend of Weintraub’s. After a concert in Las Vegas, Parker told Strait how important Hollywood had been to Presley. “Elvis hated making those movies,” he said—but they transformed him from a pop star to an icon. Strait read a script and agreed to make the film, with some caveats. In the part where Dusty, having absconded from his own tour, takes refuge at a ranch, Strait wanted to do his own roping. And although the script had him falling in love with a humble woman from his home town, he thought that a proposed kissing scene was unnecessary (and potentially embarrassing), so he and his co-star, Isabel Glasser, made do with meaningful looks.
“Pure Country” was released in 1992, and attracted middling reviews—“Fans of the star will enjoy it more than dispassionate observers,” Roger Ebert said—and worse than middling returns, earning only fifteen million dollars at the box office. But the movie, which borrowed its plot from an old Presley vehicle, had an easygoing charm that encouraged repeat viewing. (Strait wears a white hat, and on two separate occasions he vanquishes a bad guy wearing a black hat.) “Pure Country” became one of the biggest home-video hits of the nineteen-nineties, and it has been a cable-television staple ever since. Near the end of the film, Dusty rejects sinful pyrotechnics, and recommits himself to the path of musical righteousness. “I’m going to play the guitar and sing,” he tells his manager. “No more smoke, no volcano blasts, and no more light shows.” In other words, Dusty finally sees the wisdom of conducting himself like George Strait. The film’s soundtrack inverted this process. “Heartland,” the movie’s energetic, rock-influenced opening song, marked a modest departure for Strait. “It’s about as rocked up and popped up as you can get and still pass it along to the country market,” he said at the time. At first, he hesitated to record it, until he realized that he could sing it in character, as Dusty. The song went to No. 1, and the soundtrack sold more than six million copies—it is the best-selling album of Strait’s career.
George Strait might be “pure country,” but country music has always been a mixed-up genre. As it happens, Hawaii, where Strait learned to sing, is one of the genre’s many wellsprings: it was there, in the late nineteenth century, that a guitarist named Joseph Kekuku figured out that he could bend pitches by laying the guitar on his lap and sliding a steel bar along the strings. In the early twentieth century, mainland musicians adopted the steel guitar, including Leon McAuliffe, a Texas virtuoso who played with one of the region’s most popular acts: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills was a fiddler, and in the nineteen-thirties and forties his group pioneered a style known as Western swing. This was dance music, fusing the lively rhythms of jazz to the lonesome sound of Western ballads, and Wills liked to call his group “the most versatile band in America.” (Among his big hits was “San Antonio Rose,” which was later recorded by Bing Crosby and Patsy Cline.) Wills had begun his career as a blackface minstrel, and most of his musical heroes were black jazz musicians, although his band was all white. His biographer, Charles R. Townsend, reported that Wills once, on a bender in Tulsa, asked a black trumpeter to join the group. “When Bob sobered up,” Townsend wrote, “he decided Oklahoma was not ready for an integrated band.”
By the time Wills died, in 1975, he was esteemed as a founding father of country music, even though he never thought of himself as “country,” in style or in sensibility. The term, as it is now used, is an abbreviation of “country and Western,” a category generally associated with rural white communities and meant to corral a wide range of styles that flourished from Appalachia to the Southwest. These styles were jammed together by a transformative technology: radio, and the “barn dance” variety shows that flourished on the airwaves. The most influential of these was the Grand Ole Opry, a Nashville show that began to be broadcast nationwide in 1939; it was so popular that it altered America’s musical economy, pulling in enough musicians and entrepreneurs to make Nashville the unquestioned home of country music. (Nowadays, hardly anyone stops to wonder why a city not known for ranching is synonymous with cowboy hats.) But a certain amount of tension between Nashville country and Texas country is built into the relationship, dating back at least as far as 1944, when Wills came to town to play the Opry and was nearly thrown out. The organizers were accustomed to string bands, and Wills insisted on performing with a drummer.
In an odd way, the rise of rock and roll strengthened country music’s sense of identity—after Presley, young people who chose to be country fans were also choosing to resist the hegemony of rock and pop. Strait was born in 1952, and by the time he got to high school he and his friends were listening to the Beatles and other rock-and-roll bands. Although the old country songs were part of the local environment, Strait didn’t start paying close attention until after college, when he encountered some albums by a brilliant and mercurial singer-songwriter from California: Merle Haggard, a country “outlaw” who was also obsessed with the genre’s history. In 1970, the same year as his anti-antiwar hit “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Haggard released “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills),” which helped Strait discover the Texas classics that became the foundation of his first live sets. Strait, like many of his peers and most of his successors, is in some sense a convert to the genre: he is country by birth, but also by choice.
The early Ace in the Hole Band recordings featured some songs written by Strait, including a wonderfully mopey lament, “I Just Can’t Go on Dying Like This.” But after Strait got his record deal he decided that he had neither the time nor the inclination to compose. “I was finding what I thought were better songs than what I was writing,” he says now. “Maybe I was intimidated, a little bit.” As Strait grew more successful, he became especially popular among Nashville songwriters, who like nothing better than a reliable hitmaker who always needs material. When Strait came to town to record, songwriters would lie in wait outside the studio, carrying demo tapes with the most stereotypically George Strait songs they had: songs about cowboys, songs about Texas, songs about the Alamo. What Strait really wanted, though, was memorable and interesting melodies. His string of hits is in large part a result of his ability to identify a great tune. He would review hundreds of demos himself, often deciding within thirty seconds whether a song sounded like something he might want to cut. Occasionally, he asked to alter a word or two; in “All My Ex’s,” a reference to the Brazos River became a reference to the Frio River, which flows closer to his home town. Often, though, Strait learned each song quickly and sang it much the same way it sounded on the demo.
The songwriter whom Strait relied on most was Dean Dillon, who co-wrote his début single, “Unwound,” and whose songs have appeared on nearly every one of his albums since then. The two met a few years after Strait cut “Unwound.” (The song was originally pitched to Johnny Paycheck, who excelled at both singing and raising hell. “He was in jail, so they gave it to me,” Strait recalls.) Dillon had grown up in Tennessee, in love with country music but also with singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King, who inspired him to experiment with unusual chords and structures. Dillon was once a recording artist, too, but he eventually decided that, since Strait was having so much success with his songs, he might as well become a full-time songwriter. Where Strait is polite and self-effacing, Dillon is a big, ornery personality: when Strait asked Dillon to put out his cigarette during their first meeting, he responded by exhaling a mouthful of smoke. “I didn’t give a shit, and I didn’t care who knew it,” he says. Their partnership has provided Strait’s music with a welcome dose of subversion, helping to keep him from becoming predictable. Dillon co-wrote “Marina Del Rey,” an early hit that upended listeners’ expectations of Strait: it was distinctly unrustic, a piano ballad about a man on an airplane, daydreaming about the woman he left behind on a Los Angeles beach. And “The Chair,” also co-written by Dillon, became one of Strait’s signature hits and a staple of his live sets, despite having nothing that could be considered a chorus. (It is a wry, lilting account of a man chatting up a woman in a bar.) Strait realized that, because his identity was so firmly fixed in fans’ minds, he could permit himself some latitude. “People looked at me as a traditional country singer,” he says. “So those songs were thought of as ‘Well, those are traditional, because George did it.’ ”
In 1986, Strait’s daughter, Jenifer, was killed in a car accident. She was thirteen, and although Strait resolved to keep working, he couldn’t bear to grieve in public. “I just kind of shut down,” he says. “I just didn’t feel like talking about it, so I quit doing interviews.” In 1988, he released an aching lament called “Baby Blue”: “Like a breath of spring, she came and left, and I still don’t know why / So here’s to you, and whoever holds my baby blue tonight.” Strait never explained why he chose to record “Baby Blue”—in the liner notes to his 1995 boxed set, he said only that it was a “pretty song,” and that Aaron Barker, who wrote it, cut such a good demo that Strait was hard-pressed to improve on it. Over the years, Strait’s temporary solution evolved into a permanent way of working, and of living: he stayed productive, and he stayed mum. Friends describe him as kind but quiet, and not easy to get to know. Messina, Strait’s promoter, has been working closely with him since the nineties; their relationship is close, but not overly familiar. “I tried never to cross the line,” Messina says. “We don’t talk about personal things.” Tony Brown produced nineteen of Strait’s albums, beginning with “Pure Country,” and he deserves as much credit as anyone for Strait’s longevity. But in 2014, when Strait decided that he was ready to work with someone else, Brown received the news not from Strait but from Erv Woolsey, his manager.
Successful country singers typically move to Nashville, but Strait never did. He lives outside San Antonio, and although he used to visit Nashville to record, he found that the climate exacerbated his allergies, which is why he now records in Key West, at a studio that belongs to his friend Jimmy Buffett. In Texas, Strait keeps a low profile; he has adopted the life style of a contented, golf-obsessed businessman without ceasing to represent, for many fans, a connection to an older, more rugged way of living. He emerges once a year for the George Strait Team Roping Classic, which he created in 1982 and has presided over ever since. Team roping is one of the seven events included in a rodeo competition, and, like many sports, it is based on a useful skill honed well past the point of usefulness. A steer—a castrated male—is released from a pen and pursued by two riders on horseback: one, called the header, throws a loop of rope around the steer’s horns, and the other, the heeler, ropes the steer’s hind legs, immobilizing the animal. Strait was a pretty good roper, and he used to compete in his own tournament, although he never won. He sometimes worked in partnership with his son, George, Jr., known as Bubba, who roped full time for several years, until a wayward loop nearly severed his index finger, prompting him to consider anew the sport’s punishing ratio of reward to risk.
This year’s roping event, the thirty-fifth, was held at the San Antonio Rose Palace, a dirt-floor arena on the northern edge of the city, largely untouched by time or technology. (It is down the road from Tapatio Springs, a golf resort that Strait and a partner recently bought and renovated.) A couple of announcers called the action, their voices both amplified and distorted by an antiquated public-address system. In the venders’ area, next to the arena, stands sold T-shirts, cowboy boots, jewelry, cattle feed; near the entrance, some kids were learning to heel by tossing loops at a dummy on wheels. More than five hundred teams competed over two days, creating an agreeably repetitive spectacle. A top roping team can finish its work in less than five seconds, after which the steer is released to trot back to the pen, and the next team gets ready. No less than Nashville, perhaps, the sport rewards perfectionism and patience: everyone is trying to solve the same problem, over and over again.
On Saturday morning, championship day, Strait made his grand arrival on horseback, taking a ceremonial lap around the arena as fans hung over the railings, angling for selfies. A cowboy preacher asked for protection: “We pray that no harm, in any form or fashion, comes near the horses, the steer, or the cowboys.” (In fact, many of the steer were destined to become steak, just not quite yet.) Strait watched with his family, from a box next to the announcer’s booth, descending when the action was finished to present the prizes—more than a hundred thousand dollars apiece for the two winners, along with new trucks and trailers. All weekend long, the loudspeakers played nothing but George Strait songs, and it is a testament to his legacy that some attendees might not have noticed. His music is so synonymous with the genre that a selection of his hits might simply sound, to the casual listener, like a classic-country playlist.
When Strait first emerged, he was sometimes grouped with other old-fashioned country singers, such as John Anderson and Ricky Skaggs, but he soon became the singular example for a generation to follow: the “hat acts,” they were called, and not always fondly. The most consequential of the hat acts was the one whom the term fit least well: Garth Brooks, who idolized Strait, also managed to succeed by refusing to follow Strait’s example. Where Strait was stoic, Brooks was eager and emotive, straining for high notes, quavering or snarling, amplifying his Oklahoma accent or diminishing it, doing whatever it took to make fans love him. In the nineteen-nineties, Brooks changed the genre, roaming stages with a wireless microphone, singing about ending racism and domestic violence; he also feuded with executives, retired for much of the aughts, and briefly tried to reinvent himself as a brooding rocker named Chris Gaines. Strait, by contrast, instinctively avoided controversy; in fact, he avoided anything that was likely to interrupt the smooth functioning of his hit-making machine. He is friendly with both Bush Presidents, but he has never made a public political statement, and he has gone out of his way not to criticize his fellow-singers, or the industry more generally.
For a long time, the ups and downs of Brooks and other country innovators only underscored Strait’s position as the genre’s most dependable act. A wide range of singers, from Martina McBride to Taylor Swift, first faced big crowds by serving as Strait’s opening act. When he moved up from arenas to stadiums, in the late nineties, he booked enough opening acts to create daylong mini-festivals, boosting the careers of Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn. For the shows earlier this year, in Las Vegas, his opening act was Kacey Musgraves, who is twenty-eight; when she was growing up, in East Texas, Strait was already a well-established star. After her own set, she reappeared with Strait to perform a duet on a song called “Run,” dancing a bit and adding some new harmonies while he stood still, singing it just like the record. “He’s the steady train,” she said, after the show. “And I can flit all around him.” Musgraves is a mischievous singer and songwriter, known for tweaking old country traditions. (“It’s high time to slow my roll, let the grass just grow,” she sings, with a knowing smile.) Even so, she was enjoying the challenge of trying to win over a George Strait crowd, not to mention the challenge of trying to get to know Strait himself. “I’ve gotten to hang out with him a little,” she said. “We mainly just talk about horses.”
Strait flew to Nashville recently—not to sing but to promote one of his newest projects, Código 1530, a “sippin’ tequila,” as he calls it, that he grew to love during golf trips to Mexico, and which he is helping to launch in America. (One of his partners is Ron Snyder, the executive behind Crocs.) There was a tasting in RCA Studio A, the same building in which Strait recorded his first album, and, despite having spent decades avoiding publicity events like this one, he seemed cheerful. “I’ve never been one to like to talk about myself a lot,” he said, nursing an añejo-tequila cocktail. By comparison, talking about his favorite drink wasn’t so bad.
Ever since 1981, Strait has been recording for the same label, MCA Nashville, outlasting virtually all the executives, to say nothing of his fellow-artists. The label is now part of Universal Music Group Nashville, whose chairman is Mike Dungan, a wry and garrulous music veteran from Cincinnati. Dungan became chairman in 2012, and one of his first trips was to San Antonio, to meet with Strait and his wife, along with Woolsey. “Let’s deal with reality,” Dungan told Strait. “There are some key radio guys that are ready to be done with you. It has nothing to do with you as an artist—it has to do with the fact that they played you in the eighties, they played you in the nineties, the two-thousands, and here we are in 2012, and nothing else in culture has held on that long.” Dungan remembers that Strait seemed both alarmed and fascinated. “I don’t think anyone had ever said those words to him before,” he said.
What Dungan proposed was not acquiescence but insurgence. He and his executives put together a campaign called Sixty for Sixty, in which they recruited fans and fellow-performers to urge radio programmers to play Strait’s latest single, a warm love song called “Give It All We Got Tonight.” The idea was to get Strait his sixtieth No. 1 hit before his sixtieth birthday, and, if Strait was too proud to beg, many of his fans were not. Some of the genre’s biggest names recorded testimonials: Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Eric Church, Little Big Town. The campaign came around the same time as Strait’s announcement that he was retiring from full-time touring, which gave the effort a valedictory aura. No one said that this would be Strait’s last No. 1 single, but his music had been growing more wistful over the years. (In 2008, he went to No. 7 with “Troubadour,” a late-career statement of purpose: “I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song / And I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone.”) With Sixty for Sixty, the implication was hard to miss: a man who once topped the charts effortlessly now required one last collective push to get to No. 1.
Whether he made it is a matter of some debate. In the old days, when Strait emerged, the Billboard country chart operated according to an unwritten code: record labels pestered and fêted program directors, and program directors helped arrange an orderly succession of No. 1 hits, with a new song claiming the spot just about every week. In the past decade, though, the country chart has decelerated, as hits make slow progress through a big but diffuse musical marketplace. In 1981, when Strait made his début, there were forty-eight different No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country chart. Last year, there were nine. Billboard’s main country chart includes data from online streaming services, which means that crossover hits do especially well. (Country charts traditionally reflected the tastes of the country audience in particular; online, everyone who listens to a country song counts equally.) According to the Billboard chart, “Give It All We Got Tonight” was only a No. 7 hit, despite all the special pleading. But, according to the promotional materials, the Sixty for Sixty effort was a success: the song topped a different, more radio-oriented chart just after Strait’s sixtieth birthday. For his current Las Vegas concerts, Strait is playing these sixty songs over two nights, which required some extra rehearsals: many of these hits had long ago fallen out of his set lists, even though they were once among the most popular country songs in America. “Some of those songs, I forget about,” Strait says. “They just kind of go away after so long.”
Some people think that Strait’s trouble on the radio is simply a function of age. Perhaps his legacy bought him an extra decade or so: Toby Keith and Garth Brooks, who are fifty-five, as well as Alan Jackson, who is fifty-eight, have also largely disappeared from country-radio playlists, with the exception of so-called country-icons stations, which make a point of playing the old stuff. (Earlier this year, when a radio station in Corpus Christi adopted the icons format, it announced itself by broadcasting nothing but George Strait for an entire weekend.) Strait’s decision to stop touring was probably a factor, too: radio stations love playing songs by singers who are coming to town.
Among radio executives, conventional wisdom holds that old listeners have more patience for young singers than young listeners have for old singers. Tony Brown, the producer, thinks that Strait has hit a generational wall. “He could cut ‘Amarillo by Morning’ today, for the first time, and they wouldn’t play it,” Brown says. “It’s not because of his voice or the song. It’s because they want to play a younger demographic.” But it’s true, too, that the genre has evolved in a way that makes Strait seem like an outlier. Hat acts have given way to what Brown calls “cap acts”: younger, more frolicsome singers like Sam Hunt, whose latest single, “Body Like a Back Road,” has been Billboard’s country No. 1 for most of 2017. Many of these songs hint at hip-hop, through thumping beats or added syncopation in the vocal line—the next phase, perhaps, of the country-rhythm revolution begun by Bob Wills, in 1944.
As radio stations have lost interest in Strait, Strait is trying to figure out how he feels about them. He has started writing again, often with his son, Bubba, who quit roping so that he could settle down and join the other family business. Last year, Strait released an unusually acerbic song called “Kicked Outta Country,” which he co-wrote. The song pays tribute to George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash, singers whose legends endured even when their radio careers did not: “They lived what they wrote, and they wrote what they sang / And getting kicked outta country didn’t hurt a thing.” (During concerts, Strait sings it with a smile, as if to reassure fans that the whole thing is just a misunderstanding.
Strait’s country heroes were, virtually without exception, outlandish characters, going all the way back to Bob Wills, who once reconciled with one of his many wives in the middle of a court hearing during which they were supposed to be discussing an annulment. “Kicked Outta Country” is in part a chronicle of the kind of bad behavior that captures fans’ imaginations. “Cash stomped out the footlights,” Strait sings, evoking the famous moment, in 1965, when Cash threw a tantrum on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Nowadays, just about everyone venerates Johnny Cash, even people who can name only a few of his songs. (If a rodeo played nothing but Johnny Cash for a whole weekend, people would definitely notice—and possibly object.) Strait, by contrast, is beloved both in theory and in practice. His brilliant, steady career was surely enabled by his disciplined disinclination to live out his music, and by his methodical approach to finding and recording great material. The result is a relative paucity of memorable stories, and an absolute surfeit of memorable songs—more, surely, than would exist if Strait had been less single-minded.
When Strait performed in Las Vegas, earlier this year, he made a point of including a recent single, “Goin’, Goin’, Gone,” a breezy account of how to lose a weekend, which failed to conquer the airwaves. “This next song was actually released on the radio,” he said. “I never heard it.” It was a complaint, delivered in good humor. But, for anyone skeptical about the abiding power and relevance of radio, this moment provided proof. Most of the people in the arena showed no signs of knowing the words; radio hadn’t played it, so they hadn’t memorized it. No matter: there were more than a dozen hits left for Strait to sing before he departed the stage, only and inevitably to be brought back for an encore. “Thank you very much,” he said, when he returned. “I think we got a few more in us.” ♦
George Strait: Uncharted Territory
Eighty-six of George Strait's songs have reached the Top 10 on Billboard's country chart. Here are some of the best of the rest.