Like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, George Strait does it his way.
From being the first modern country act to wear a cowboy hat to pulling the plug on concert tours in his prime, Strait calls his own shots.
At 60, the King of Country Music —who performs Friday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — will stop touring after his Cowboy Rides Away tour ends next year, but he will not cease making music. He plans to record more albums, hoping to add to his unprecedented run of 44 No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country chart.
“He does everything on his terms,” said Twin Cities country radio programmer Gregg Swedberg of K102. “He’s worried about his life, not his career. The length of time that he’s been successful is completely unprecedented. How many artists are popular for 30 years in one [radio] format? There’s nothing like George Strait.”
Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder have been making music since the 1960s but when was the last time any of them had a No. 1 single? Elton John and Bruce Springsteen emerged in the ’70s and still fill arenas but can you name either’s last big hit?
Dolly Parton, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have been stars much longer than Strait but they’ve been missing from the upper reaches of the country charts for a long time. Alabama and Ricky Skaggs both launched their careers in Nashville at about the same time Strait did, but when was the last time they made a noise on radio?
Strait keeps going strong — in 2011, he landed “Here for a Good Time” at No. 2 and “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright” at No. 3, and all of this year’s tour dates are sold out.
And he doesn’t just appeal to old-timers.
“It’s as cool at 18 to say you’re a George Strait fan as it’s ever been,” Swedberg said, “and he’s grandpa age.”
Natalie Beavers, 21, of Cannon Falls, grew up listening to Strait with her parents and grandparents.
“It’s really classic country music,” said Beavers, who also likes new stars Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert and will see Strait for the first time in concert Friday in St. Paul. “Everybody can enjoy it. You can relate to him. His lyrics are just really simple, about everyday-life issues.”
Strait writes a lot of relationship songs in a straightforward way. “He doesn’t do a lot of fluff,” said Swedberg, pointing to Strait’s “Lovebug” as one of his few lightweight hits. To be sure, the singer is fond of using the occasional cute turn of a phrase (“All My Exes Live in Texas,” “Where Have I Been All My Life”) but he usually travels the tried and true (“I Cross My Heart,” “I Just Want to Dance With You”).
While Reba McEntire (who started before Strait) tries to modernize her sound and Garth Brooks (who modeled himself after Strait) tries to experiment, Strait is about as consistent as his outfit: Resistol cowboy hat, starched button-down shirt and creased Wrangler jeans.
“He’s Gary Cooper cowboy,” said longtime country music journalist Michael McCall, now an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “You can rely on him.”
Unlike other country superstars who take a couple of years between albums, Old Reliable “puts out songs every single year,” Swedberg said. “They’re high-quality, well-written songs. He doesn’t vary much. He’s old-school.”
Home on the ranch
Ranching is the first love for the Texan who toiled as a kid on his dad’s 2,000-acre cattle spread and eloped with his high school sweetheart.
“He has an active ranch and a golf course in San Antonio,” said veteran Twin Cities country radio executive Mick Anselmo, who oversees BUZ’N Country (102.9 FM) and knows Strait personally. “His son is in rodeo.”
Plus, Strait’s first grandchild was born in 2012.
“He works his ranch,” McCall said. “It’s a big part of his life — in some ways more than country music.”
When it comes to music, the country king does it the Strait way. He doesn’t make videos anymore, doesn’t do the talk shows, and doesn’t schmooze with radio programmers or grant many interviews to print journalists. And he’s never been a king of the road, preferring to do a limited number of concerts outside of Texas.
Strait’s farewell trek comes at a time when he’s still one of the biggest attractions in country music.
If Minnesota concert promoter Randy Levy had his druthers, “I’d love to have Strait at We Fest,” the country festival in Detroit Lakes, Minn., which Strait last played in 2004. He figures the country king could return to the Twin Cities next year and fill an arena again.
Strait explained himself in September in a rare press conference to announce his Cowboy Rides Away Tour, which includes only 20 shows this year.
“I have a new grandson and so we’ll certainly be spending a lot of time with him. I’ll help try and steal him away from his parents for a while, maybe take him fishing,” he joked.
McCall was at the press conference.
“He doesn’t like talking about himself,” said the journalist, who has interviewed Strait a few times. “He’d rather talk about songwriters or his band. He’s very articulate and listens and answers your questions. He’s very humble.”
He’s had the same manager, record label and sidemen, the Ace in the Hole Band, since the 1980s. He relies on the same circle of songwriters (Dean Dillon, Gary Nicholson, Jim Lauderdale) and producer (Tony Brown).
Brown produced Strait’s current single, “Give It All We Got Tonight,” which will be included on his yet-untitled album due this year.
This retirement from the road is real. Though he may do the occasional one-off performance, no one expects Strait to pull a Garth Brooks, who took a music-biz hiatus to raise his daughters, then took up a residency in Las Vegas on weekends — or an Alabama, who are still playing a decade after their farewell tour.
Why won’t Strait change his mind?
Because, McCall says, “he has always been the least-working star in country music.”