The Cowboy Rides Away: Retiring or No, George Strait Announces Last Tour
It’d be too easy to be cynical given the way legendary country acts of the last 30 years – see the Judds eternal farewell tour or Alabama’s three trips through many markets final trek – have cried wolf about “last” tours. But something about iconic Hall of Famer George Strait – known to many as “King George” – feels like his Cowboy Rides Away 2013-2014 Tour marks the end of an era.
Oddly, the man, who has always been the poster-superstar for dignity and class in a genre known for more more more, has made more of a personal investment in his music over the past year. Here For A Good Time, which featured Strait co-writes on seven of the eleven songs, may have been prescient: it included a ruminative take on Jesse Winchester’s wages of star-making “A Showman’s Life.”
Turning 60 this year was obviously a milestone. Also the seeming rush to younger, more contemporary acts saw the man who has had 59 #1 hits, including 44 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart, being shut out as a nominee for this year’s Country Music Association Awards. Speaking to a packed press conference at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the reticent Texan explained, “I had it in the back of my mind that when I turned 60 it might be the time to start thinking about [getting off the road]. I also didn’t want to book a tour and nobody came. It was important to me to pick that time, rather than go that long when something like that started happening. I believe I made the right decision.”
Always the man with dignity, he is not one to stand around begging people to look-at-me, look-at-me. Having anchored the film Pure Country, been the first country artist since Willie Nelson in the late 70s to put Country Music in stadiums and had 33 platinum or multi-platinum albums, Strait has become one of country music’s most enduring artists. Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks have both cited his kind of country, traditional, occasionally leaning into Western swing, and always grounded by his smooth vocal style as an influence. Whether it’s resuscitating a classic like “Shores of Old Mexico,” exploring the work of progressive traditionalists Bruce Robison and Jim Lauderdale or iconic songwriters like Winchester or John Prine, his focus has remained on the quality of song and strength of performance.
And up until recently, it has always set the standard for what is Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association Awards nominee material. He has won Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist, Album, Single and Event – and his performances, never big on production, just the man and his music, remained some of the various awards show’s most anticipated performances.
Maybe it is time. How many genres allow artists to have thirty-year runs of viability? Since releasing Strait Country in 1981, the man who shifted from rock to country during his time playing in a band in the Army has come to be a posterboy for the real thing. Certainly Bruce Springsteen in rock, who’s approaching 40 years as an icon, faces the same challenges, but remains as revered as ever. Mind you, Strait was quick to stress, he’s not retiring. He will continue to record, to make random appearances, to do the occasional show. But the time has come for one final two-year 40 date run – and as always he intends to leave in style.
Hard to believe someone who’s music is as timeless as the man whose given us “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” “All My Exes Live In Texas,” “Run,” “Give It Away,” “The Chair,” “Murder on Music Row,” “Carrying Your Love with Me,” and “Check Yes Or No” would ever not be a part of country music. Yet, with many older acts falling from favor, once again George Strait may be ahead of the curve. What it says in a genre where two-dimensional lyrics about truck beds, tan lines and cold beers have replaced the plain strong, silent poetry of something like “Fool Hearted Memory,” Strait first #1, is hard to reckon. But as Rodney Crowell once wrote in his “You’re Supposed to be Feeling Good”:
Your new love has made you feel better
But look out for later when she makes you feel worse
Times change, in day dreams and flashes
A taste of the past is all that I’ve seen
You’re supposed to be feeling good now
‘Cause everybody said you would
Honey, does it blow your mind
That the prophets would lie
In the rush for something newer, wilder, louder, bigger, it’s easy to write down integrity, classicism and what was. It’s not the quickest or the shiniest, but how often – as Crowell’s song explains – does it fall apart before it gets very far? And in the wake of what we wanted, how hard is it to get back to where we were?
After all, George Strait, like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, isn’t phoning it in. Country fans still make him one of the most bankable acts in the genre – and a star whose marquis value is up there with Nelson and Dolly Parton. Not that Strait will ever close the door. With the tour kicking off Jan 18 in Lubbock, Texas, there is music to make and fans to entertain. Over the next two years, he can think about what else he wants to do – beyond cowboying, fishing, playing golf and enjoying a life that doesn’t include the smell of diesel in the morning. Never say never, right? Or else like frequent singing collaborator Lee Ann Womack suggests, “Never Again, Again.”
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