George Strait is leaving the concert trail.
The iconic country star announced plans for his last formal tour, the Cowboy Rides Away Tour, during a press conference Wednesday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The tour, featuring opening act Martina McBride, kicks off Jan. 18 in Lubbock, Texas.
"Don't think I'm retiring," Strait insisted, "because I'm not."
He has recording sessions booked for October and expects to have his next MCA album completed by the end of the year. Even after 2014, Strait still expects to do some dates when appropriate, but not a "structured tour."
"The old road-warrior days are just going to be over," he told Billboard exclusively.
Strait unveiled 20 Cowboy Rides Away dates through April 13, though more markets will be revealed in the coming months. The itinerary includes a March 17 date at Houston's Reliant Stadium that sold 40,000 tickets during a special pre-sale before it was announced to the general public. The Randy Rogers Band is listed as a special guest, and Strait indicated during the press conference that Miranda Lambert will also be on the bill. And Strait hinted at a June 1 performance at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
The tour aptly draws its name from a 1985 hit, "The Cowboy Rides Away," which employs silver-screen imagery. Strait made only a brief foray into film, starring in the 1992 movie "Pure Country," but he continued the tradition established by the likes of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, building a career on cowboy imagery and strong material that ultimately led to membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame. "The Cowboy Rides Away" has been used as a closing number at Strait's concerts for years.
"I can't think of another song title that would be better" for a tour name, he told reporters.
Strait accrued 44 No. 1s on Billboard's Hot Country Songs, setting a record among all acts in the 68-year history of the country charts. Last month marked 30 years since the first of those, "Fool Hearted Memory," reached the chart summit. Strait has also placed 85 titles in the top 10 on Country Songs, putting him second on the all-time list to Eddy Arnold, who had 92.
In the process, Strait tallied 38 gold albums and 33 platinum albums, both of those setting records for a country act, according to the RIAA. Strait also amassed 13 multi-platinum albums, a figure topped only by Garth Brooks' 15.
Strait's decision to put tours behind him comes at an interesting juncture for Universal Music Nashville chairman and CEO Mike Dungan, who joined the company in May.
"As a record label, you always look to a tour to help sell records and help keep the machine rolling," Dungan said. "So it's not the greatest news in the world. But the truth is, he's not going to stop performing."
But it was important to Strait to make a formal announcement of the decision to abandon structured tours. The announcement alerts fans in the heartland that, should they want to see him on their home turf, this is likely the time to do it.
"The grind of getting on a bus and going from city to city on a regular route like he's done for the last however many years, he's done with that," Dungan said. "He'll continue to do shows. Whether he's ever gonna go back to Dayton, Ohio, I kind of doubt it."
Meanwhile, comparisons with Brooks are inevitable. Brooks announced his retirement from touring in 2000, but he has continued to release periodic albums and do occasional charity concerts. He's currently in residency at the Wynn Las Vegas.
"He's the hardest working retired man I've ever seen," Strait told Billboard. "And more power to him."
Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill also have Vegas residencies beginning in December. While Strait is leaving the door open to performing in the future, an ongoing relationship with a Nevada casino is not in his plans.
"I don't want to be committed like that," Strait said. "If I did, I'd just keep touring."