George Strait At Frank Erwin Center
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By Lynne Margolis
By the time George Strait won a GRAMMY for Best Country Album in 2008 for Troubadour, he'd already racked up 43 of his 44 No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart — more than any other artist in the chart's history (he'd also racked up 11 of his 16 GRAMMY nominations to date). If he wanted to, Strait could have turned the two-hour- and-20-minute show he delivered on Friday, Jan. 10, at Austin, Texas' Frank Erwin Center into a set consisting of only No. 1 hits, and still not had enough time to perform them all.
As it was, he managed to squeeze 11 No. 1 hits into a 33-song night rippled by an undercurrent of melancholy. Before he began his current tour — billed as The Cowboy Rides Away — Strait announced it would be his farewell go-around. After 15 performances at the Frank Erwin Center, this would be his last. Knowing that Strait had started his career at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, just 30 miles outside of Austin, and built it in Austin's famed honky-tonk, Broken Spoke, made it even more bittersweet for Strait and those seated in the sold-out arena.
Loping onstage to the strains of the country standard "Deep In The Heart Of Texas," the tall Lone Star State native looked every inch the cowboy in his pressed Wranglers, boots and black hat, waving and pointing to friends as he made his way to each corner of the stage.
"It's a little sad for me," he admitted after the audience joined him in singing "Check Yes Or No," one of many tunes they serenaded back to him as his smooth, mellow baritone filled their ears. Backed by an expanded, 11-member Ace In The Hole Band, Strait strummed a black acoustic guitar while pulling pearls from his vast song catalogue, putting many in context with a brief introduction.
In classic country tradition, Strait's songs are filled with references to places ("Ocean Front Property," "Marina Del Rey," "Blame It On Mexico," "Amarillo By Morning," "I Can Still Make Cheyenne"), alcohol ("Drinkin' Man," "80 Proof Bottle Of Tear Stopper") and Western imagery ("Cowboys Like Us," "How 'Bout Them Cowgirls" and of course, the tour theme song, "The Cowboy Rides Away"). But his songs don't seem at all contrived or formulaic; his stage presence never comes off as posed. When he sang memorable lines such as, "You'll always be a fire I can't put out" from "A Fire I Can't Put Out," the ache felt real. And when he sang "I Saw God Today," about the birth of his first child Jenifer, the moment was moving. And learning she died in 1986 at age 13 in a car crash made it even more poignant.
Strait's country is the kind worth respecting and upholding; the kind that might veer toward Jimmy Buffett-like good-time tunes such as "Easy Come, Easy Go" or "River Of Love," but don't stoop to conquer. And songs such as "Drinkin' Man," written with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon, are grabbers — the kind you hope aren't autobiographical, though they sound awfully convincing.
"Cowboys Like Us," which Strait called "a song about my motorcycle-riding days," was one of many accompanied by video, in this case clips of midlife thrill-seeking steel horse jockeys, which segued into men wheeling on motorized scooters, vividly suggesting that even as time takes its toll, life can still be fun.
At 61, Strait doesn't look old enough to ride off into the sunset, regardless of his transportation method. But if he wants to soak in the applause and wave farewell, who could blame him for slipping in a maudlin moment with "I'll Always Remember You"?
"I wanted to say something about how much y'all have meant to me," he said. The song's lyrics note how Strait never dreamed he'd be singing to audiences more than 30 years after his career began. But when he honky-tonked his way through an encore featuring "Same Kind Of Crazy," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and the GRAMMY-nominated "All My Ex's Live In Texas," followed by "The Cowboy Rides Away," one could only hope it wasn't really his last goodbye.
"Check Yes Or No"
"Ocean Front Property"
"Marina Del Rey"
"Blame It On Mexico"
"A Fire I Can't Put Out"
"Easy Come, Easy Go"
"Here For A Good Time"
"Fool Hearted Memory"
"Nobody In His Right Mind Would've Left Her"
"River Of Love"
"You Look So Good In Love"
"How 'Bout Them Cowgirls"
"I Saw God Today"
"I Can Still Make Cheyenne"
"The King Of Broken Hearts"
"Give It Away"
"80 Proof Bottle Of Tear Stopper"
"Amarillo By Morning"
"Cowboys Like Us"
"I Got A Car"
"I'll Always Remember You"
"Give It All We Got Tonight"
"Same Kind Of Crazy" (Delbert McClinton and Gary Nicholson cover)
"All My Ex's Live In Texas"
"Folsom Prison Blues" (Johnny Cash cover)
"The Cowboy Rides Away"
To catch George Strait in a city near you, click here for tour dates.
(Austin-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis contributes regularly to print, broadcast and online media including American Songwriter and Lone Star Music magazines. Outlets also have included the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com and NPR affiliates. A contributing editor to the encyclopedia, The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists.)