In a rare interview, the King of Country discusses the final shows on the Cowboy Rides Away tour and his lifelong "knack for picking good songs"

By any measure, George Strait is one of the most successful, well-known country music artists in history. But, for all his achievements on the radio, on the road and at retail, Strait also, to a large degree, remains an enigma. He rarely grants interviews-an approach that in some ways adds to his popularity.

While so many lesser stars, and celebrities in general, blather on about everything from their political beliefs to what they ate for breakfast, Strait has always maintained an air of mystery under his white Resistol, a longstanding posture that is less about strategy and more about modesty.

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"He's a mystery," says Strait's tour promoter, Louis Messina. "And people want that."

Basically, Strait lets his songs do the talking-or, as he puts it, "I just don't really enjoy talking about myself that much."

But the Country Music Hall of Famer -- who will add Legend of Live to his lengthy list of accolades at the Billboard Touring Awards in New York on Nov. 14 -- did hold forth in late July for this Billboard cover package, and his insight on his lengthy career didn't disappoint, including thoughts on his pending retirement from touring (but not performing).

Along the way, he offered the revelation that he was kicked out of his first band for not being "country enough."

Strait was candid and insightful, revealing a sly sense of humor, a genuine appreciation for the fans and industry professionals who propelled him to stardom and a savvy approach to his career that kept him at the top.

I've read that your first musical group was a rock'n'roll garage band in high school. What types of songs did you play?
That story has kind of taken on a life of its own. I had a couple of friends, and we knew a couple of songs, "Gloria" and "Louie Louie." Calling us a band is really a stretch. I hadn't really gotten into country music back then. It was all rock'n'roll.

Obviously, you quickly -- and, as it turned out, very successfully -- turned your attention to country music. Was your shift to country influenced by your environment and upbringing, personal taste or a combination of both?
Growing up in a rural farm and ranch community [near Big Wells, Texas] like I did had a lot to do with my eventually coming into country music. My dad didn't really listen to music much. If he had a radio on, it was the news or farm and ranch reports. There were a few country songs on the jukeboxes around town, so I was definitely exposed to it, but I didn't fall in love with it until I got out of high school and heard a man by the name of Merle Haggard singing songs like "Okie From Muskogee" on the radio. That pretty much did it for me. Then I listened to his tribute album to Bob Wills called A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, and that's what hooked me on western swing music.

What was your first paying gig?
In Hawaii, when I was in the Army [in the early '70s]. I had auditioned with a group of guys and a girl. They called themselves the Country Kings. I played one gig with them, and I don't even remember how much they paid me. They thought I wasn't country enough, and let me go. That's really funny now, but it wasn't at the time. I didn't let it faze me much, though. I got another opportunity not long after that [in a band called Rambling Country], which became my Army gig until I got out.

You were sidetracked, so to speak, by the Army and college, yet you stuck with music throughout. What was going through your mind, if that's a fair question, when you were at these crossroads?
I joined the Army in 1972, and I have no regrets about that. In fact, I wouldn't trade those days for anything, even though they were tough at times. I wouldn't look at it as being sidetracked so much as being a steppingstone in my life and career. The Army gave me a job and structure in my life that I really needed at the time. I'm not sure I would be sitting here doing this interview otherwise. After playing in a band during my Army days, I was ready when I got out to continue my work toward eventually landing a record deal. I enrolled in college when I got out of the Army on the GI Bill. This allowed me to go to school with a small paycheck, and I was able to play music to supplement that. It made it a little easier to feed my family that way. So I wouldn't say the Army or college sidetracked me at all. In fact, it was just the opposite.

Let's talk about the early days in honky-tonks with Stoney Ridge and the Ace in the Hole Band. How did all that come about?
I got with the remnants of a band called Stoney Ridge that had broken up. I was looking for a band, and they were looking for a singer, so it worked out pretty well. When we decided we were going to make a go of it, we decided to call ourselves the Ace in the Hole Band. We played old traditional country music and a lot of western swing. Sometimes we would play all swing.

George Strait Tapped for Billboard's Legend of Live Award

In retrospect, how good was that band?
We were a good honky-tonk band, and developed a pretty good following after a while. Our first gig was at a place in San Marcos, Texas, called Cheatham Street Warehouse. It's still there today. It sits right up against the railroad track. When the train came through, you just had to ignore it and try to play louder. We later played most every honky-tonk in South and Central Texas. Those were fun days, and I believe that gave me a good foundation for what would come later.

When did it occur to you that you could make a living in music?
The very first time I got onstage with the band that fired me. I knew after that night that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. That's how I was going to make my living. That was my dream, and that was what I worked toward from that night on. Country music was on my mind from the time I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night. Nobody wanted it more than me. I was constantly working on learning new songs, and had also started writing some.

Talk about meeting your manager, Erv Woolsey, and how that relationship has flourished and lasted.
I met Erv in San Marcos around 1978 or so. He had opened up a little club in town called the Prairie Rose. We played it, and that's how I met him. He had been working in the record business [in Nashville] for years, and had gotten out to come back to Texas. I think he missed the old record business too much, so he decided to go back to Nashville and work for MCA Records. He thought I had a chance at getting a record deal, and started trying to get some of the execs to come down and hear me sing. That eventually led to me getting a chance to make a record.

Shortly after I was signed in 1981, he quit the MCA job and became my manager. We've been friends and business partners ever since. We've had one contract that expired back in the '80s sometime. We're still together, even though we've never signed another contract.

With MCA you released the single "Unwound" in 1981, which was a hit out of the box. How did that change your life?
1981 was a big year in my life. We had our second child, our son George Jr. [aka Bubba], and I signed with MCA Records. "Unwound" was top five in the charts, which allowed me the opportunity to do an album. Those were sort of the conditions we had with the record company, so a lot was on the line with that record. That changed everything for me. I was hearing myself on the radio, which I could not believe. My dream was starting to come true, I guess you could say.

You really haven't had a dry spell since. Let's talk about songs: What makes a great single for you? What must the song have?
I've always had a knack for picking good songs for myself. I've always said that it's hard to put my finger on what it is exactly that tells me that a song is right for me, but it comes down to the melody first. You can have a really well-written song, but without a great melody it's probably not going to go too far. On the other hand, a great melody can do a whole lot toward making a lyric better. Great songs have both great lyrics and a great melody. They're hard to find when you're not writing them, but they're out there. You just have to look hard. I've now started writing again, and I love it. It's my only regret, if I have one, that I quit writing for all of those years. Thank God for all the great writers whose songs I've been fortunate enough to find and record.

How do you carry your style to a song that might not sound like something you'd do as written? For example, "I Just Want to Dance With You," written by Roger Cook and John Prine, wouldn't be a song I'd hear and immediately think, "George Strait ought to cut that." What do you hear on the demo that maybe other people don't?
It's hard to remember all of the specifics, but on that particular song, I felt it had such a great laid-back melody and groove, if you will, and I also loved the lyrics. Especially the line "That's what they intended dancing for." I think I changed it to "That's what they invented dancing for," but end up saying both in the song. It's little things like that-little things that are so simple, but yet so clever-that really make a song.

Everyone has their list of favorite George Strait songs. I bet the ones you're doing now, written by and with your son, are particularly rewarding. What songs are particularly special to you, and why?
The songs that I'm writing now with my son definitely are some of my favorites right now. For sure I have others, like "Amarillo by Morning," "Troubadour," "Unwound," "Give It Away," "I Saw God Today," just to name a few. There are certain songs that I can't not do at a show. I'm afraid of rotten eggs and tomatoes. It sometimes gets hard to make a set list because of that, but I really still enjoy doing them all.

NEXT PAGE: "Yes, me and the whole band are going to be dancing onstage next year. Wait till you see the little outfits"