George Strait picked right up where he left off when he launched the first of his semi-retirement shows at T-Mobile arena Friday. (Courtesy Powers Imagery)
Who: George Strait, Kacey Musgraves
Where: T-Mobile Arena
By MIKE WEATHERFORD
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
So what’s changed since the last time George Strait sang in a Las Vegas arena, rotating the four corners of his diamond-shaped stage in the round and singing his ageless songs?
Well, the arena is fancier, that’s for sure. And there’s no big game to look forward to — or dicey prop bet to worry about —like the years when Strait made Las Vegas a Super Bowl-eve tradition.
And the singer has a few new songs to squeeze between hits. The “Cold Beer Conversation” album accompanied September’s announcement that the new T-Mobile Arena would be home base for the Texas country icon’s semi-retirement, hosting him for at least six dates per year after his “farewell” tour last year.
Oh, and Merle Haggard died.
Other than that, Friday’s first T-Mobile date (with the second Saturday night) was old-home week. Business as usual. Picking up where he left off. And you probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
What we all seem to like about the singer who turns 64 next month is that he doesn’t change. That both his timeless songs and their clutter-free delivery give our lives some consistency.
Strait served up more than 30 songs as he circled his nine-piece Ace in the Hole Band and two backup singers, singing two at a time at each of his four microphone stations in the center of the arena floor (creating a lot more good seats for a sold-out crowd).
Early classics such as “Ocean Front Property” led right into later hits such as “Run” from 2001, though the latter was one of several times the band sounded out of balance with the lead vocals.
Strait seemed happy to be there, too. “Oh man, you don’t know how much I appreciate it,” he said at one point.
Given his usual poker-faced cowboy stoicism, it seemed almost like a confessional on Oprah’s sofa when he noted it was “so good to be back” on a stage after the “two months shy of two years” since he packed 104,000 people into AT&T Stadium for the final date of “The Cowboy Rides Away” tour.
You had to wonder if Haggard’s death April 6 has him thinking this semi-retirement thing is for the birds. After all, the Hag refused to be sidelined by lung cancer and sang up until a few months before he died on his 79th birthday.
An hour into Friday’s show, Strait paid tribute to Haggard with a trio of classics, declaring “his music will live on forever” before singing “Mama Tried,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “My Life’s Been Grand.”
The last one is the message the Hag probably would want delivered: “My life’s been grand. You know I’d write home and tell ’em, but they wouldn’t believe how good my good luck’s been.”
Strait echoed it later, during the homestretch, in the middle of “I’ll Always Remember You.” He told the crowd “I figured I’d have maybe five good years to sing my songs for you,” and instead it’s “been over 30 now.”
“I’m not saying I’m through by any means, because there’s still things I want to say and do,” he sang as he transitioned back into the song.
Good. The title song to “Cold Beer Conversation” was not only very Haggard in its jazzy, wistful sound, but if you looked on the big screens to see Strait’s face (and for most in the audience, there was really no other way) you could see he was really selling it.
There were other songs where you wish the band could scale down to a trio or let him sing with only his guitar: “The Chair,” or “Marina Del Rey” maybe? But in others, such as encore celebrations of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” the laid-back piano and steel-guitar licks remind today’s country rockers of the power of relaxed-yet-concise country swing.
He closed the two hours with “The Cowboy Rides Away” and its lyrical threat: “It’s time to say goodbye to yesterday.” But by then, nobody, whether they were on the stage or in the audience, seemed to believe it. With or without a Super Bowl, this T-Mobile debut simply must be the start of a new tradition.
This weekend’s opener, Kacey Musgraves, proved a compatible heir to Strait’s relaxed sound and his knack for covering country classics such as “I’ve Been Everywhere.” The 27-year-old did ramp up the evening’s spectacle quotient, with some neon cactus and light-up boots for her cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.”
Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.
7 songs that prove George Strait is the King of Country
Who: George Strait
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: T-Mobile Arena, 3780 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Tickets: $75-$200 (702-692-1300)
By DAVE HERRERA
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Carving out his career in the early ’80s, well after the legends of the classic era had set the standard for country music, George Strait is someone you can legitimately say is in a league of his own.
Having sold nearly 50 million albums since making his recorded debut in 1981 with “Strait Country,” he’s one of the most successful country artists of all time. In nearly four decades, Strait has issued 28 albums, and from that daunting discography, the Texas-bred troubadour has seen 60 songs shoot up to the top the charts, almost one for every year he has been alive.
A military veteran with a degree in agriculture, Strait paved the way for a succession of country stars who came after him, everyone from Garth Brooks to Kenny Chesney to Tim McGraw to Blake Shelton to Justin Moore, among countless others. Looking at the early images of those artists, many of whom have become icons in their own right, it’s not hard to see the shadow Strait cast with his crisp cowboy hats, freshly pressed button-downs, Wranglers and boots.
Ironically, the 63-year-old Strait, who’s set to perform two shows this weekend at T-Mobile Arena — the first of eight (followed by return dates in September, December and February) — made his mark singing songs of heartbreak with such conviction, you’d never know he’s been happily married to his wife since 1971.
Among the lengthy list of Strait’s songs, which have been staples of country radio for the better part of 40 years, he’s released some serious gems, including “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” “Amarillo by Morning,” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.”
Here’s a rundown of those ringers, along with some other highlights from his catalog, songs that stand out for either their expressiveness, their earnestness or their wordplay.
‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’
Written by Sanger D. Shafer and Linda J. Shafer, this song is, ahem, pure country from the opening notes played on the pedal steel guitar and fiddle. Although Strait sings of all the ladies left in his wake, the song’s central theme can be summed up simply in the opening quatrain: “All my ex’s live in Texas / And 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.” (Bonus points to the songwriters for squeezing in a line about transcendental meditation in a mainstream country song.)
‘Amarillo by Morning’
“Amarillo by Morning” is one of many tunes that Strait made popular. A down-tempo ditty, the song, written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, somehow succeeds in being timeless while also evoking an erstwhile era, one that couldn’t be more removed from contemporary times. Wistful words from the perspective of a rodeo cowboy who’s endure broken bones and broken hearts to pursue his passion precede sanguine sentiments like, “Amarillo by morning, up from San Antone / Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on / I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine.”
‘I Can Still Make Cheyenne’
This tune, written by Aaron Barker and Erv Woolsey, finds a guy who’s spent far too much time riding bulls and too little time at home. Exasperated and expressing regret for his neglectful ways, he calls and says he’s heading back. Too little too late, apparently. She’s found somebody else who’s not obsessed with rodeo. Eh, well, “There’s so much about you that I’m gonna miss,” he tells her. “But it’s all right, baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.” And with that, the protagonist makes his way back to the fabled rodeo town.
‘She Let Herself Go’
Country music, more than any other genre, is known for its double entendres, and this Dean Dillon and Kerry Kurt Phillips song holds its own in the pantheon of perfect twists. Similar in tone and texture to the tune above, “She Let Herself Go” starts off with a couple calling it quits, wondering how his significant other would handle the breakup. “When he said he didn’t love her no more, she let herself go,” Strait sings, before listing the ways she let herself go: “On a singles cruise / to Vegas once, then to Honolulu.” Oh, she also let herself go “on her first blind date” and “to the beach he always said was too far,” and, well, you get the picture.
‘Give It Away’
This track, written by Jamey Johnson, who’s since become a big name in country himself, along with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, could easily be a companion to “She Let Herself Go.” Here Strait pulls out a picture of another couple cutting ties. Rather than sifting through their shared belongings and dividing up who gets what, the wife says, “There ain’t nothing in this house worth fighting over” and tells him to just get rid of it. “That picture from our honeymoon, that night in Frisco Bay / Just give it away / She said, give it away / And that big four-poster king-size bed, where so much love was made / Just give it away / She said, just give it away.”
‘Check Yes or No’
While Strait didn’t pen this tune, Danny Wells and Dana Hunt, the song’s authors could’ve just as easily have written this one about Strait and Norma, his high school sweetheart whom he wed more than 40 years ago. “Check Yes or No” starts off with two classmates innocently passing notes and transitions to a time 20 years later with the husband reflecting: “Now we’re grown up and she’s my wife / Still like two kids with stars in our eyes / Ain’t much changed, I still chase Emmylu / Up and down the hall, around the bed in our room.”
Of all the songs Strait’s sung over the years, “I Believe,” which he wrote with son George Strait Jr. and Dean Dillon, is perhaps his most earnest and poignant. Inspired by the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, Strait acknowledges the lives lost in the first few lines (“The night’s as clear as a big desert sky / But it’s hard to see the stars with these tears in my eyes / Yeah, it’s hard not to cry / There’s 26 reasons why”), before bringing a sense of optimism to the grieving with his belief that “There’s 26 angels looking down from above / resting in his mercy, grace and love / Time may never heal / The sadness that we feel.”