Technology plays an enormous role in what entertainment succeeds at any given time.
When recordings evolved from an experimental novelty to a mature business during the 20th century, both sound and visual recordings changed to accommodate those advances. Where actors made large gestures on Broadway stages in the 19th century to affect customers in the back row of the auditorium, film and TV actors learned to be more nuanced for the camera, which caught much more of the subtle details. When music likewise moved onto records, it was Bing Crosby who ultimately led a similar transition away from projected Rudy Vallee voices to create a warm, personal sound that reached the listener in a more intimate way.
It’s telling that as George Strait played Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on March 21 during the Cowboy Rides Away Tour, which is billed as his last formal concert trek, he relied on that same brand of Crosby-like intimacy. Ironically, that style is now considered old-school -- old “hat,” if you want to consider it in terms of the cowboy’s trademark Resistol headgear -- though Strait is one of the artists who helped propel the genre to its current big-ticket stature.
Strait emerged in 1981, at a time when crossover recordings by Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbitt ruled the day, and when only a handful of acts dared play a venue larger than, say, 10,000 seats. Now, the genre’s leaders -- such as Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton -- sell out New York’s Madison Square Garden or Los Angeles’ Staples Center several times annually. And, thanks to Strait, who launched a series of stadium tours in 1998, stadiums and ballparks are increasingly prominent concert sites for the likes of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift.
The larger venues have often been accompanied by large-scale production values, be it the dancers in a Swift show, the hologram singing partners in a Brad Paisley concert, the multiple costume changes in an Underwood outing or the pyrotechnics and blow-up stage props that were de riguer for Brooks & Dunn before their 2010 split.
When done well, those add-ons are all fine, though Strait reminded the concert-goer on March 21 that at the heart of it all, it still comes down to songs and the believability of the artist. The cowboy won the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award last November in the very same Bridgestone Arena. While many considered that victory a one-last-time recognition of his career accomplishments, his concert underscored the fact that his simplicity is the heart of his artistic success.
Crosby’s traditional-pop peer Frank Sinatra is one of Strait’s vocal idols, and the cowboy plied nearly three dozen three-minute roles with the same sort of understated emotion that Sinatra and Crosby used in their recordings and their on-camera work. And layers of video screens used frequent close-ups to connect fans at every tier of the arena with both the sonic and visual pieces of Strait’s emotional puzzle.
He never offered the outstretched arms of a histrionic Garth Brooks or the dramatic power of a belting Martina McBride. Instead there were smaller gestures -- the tilt of his head during a pointed line in “Marina Del Rey,” the teeth-flashing grin as opening act Sheryl Crow joined him in the enthusiastic “Here for a Good Time,” the lick of his lips as he delivered a street-philosopher observation in “I Saw God Today” -- that showed the crowd in those tight close-ups that Strait was still feeling the sentiment in every one of those songs as he sang them. That despite the fact that he’s been singing a few of them -- including “Unwound,” “You Look So Good in Love” and “The Fireman” -- for at least three decades.
Strait welcomed a couple of surprise guests during the show, the last that he’ll play during a formal tour in the city where most of his recordings were made. Eric Church brought a fiery dynamic to the renegade attitude of “Cowboys Like Me,” and Kenny Chesney -- who played at least one of Strait’s stadium tours on his way to headlining NFL venues on his own -- added a sense of camaraderie to the rodeo road-warrior tale “Amarillo by Morning.”
Intended or not, it lent a passing-the-baton feel to the night. Strait’s already housed in the Country Music Hall of Fame -- literally across the street from the Bridgestone -- and as he travels toward the June 7 conclusion of his final tour at the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium, the two surprise guests were telling. Chesney has frequently said that he found his niche in the business when he finally stopped trying to mimic Strait and found his own artistic identity. Church, meanwhile, has fused some of the same influences that informed Strait -- Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, whom Strait covered with a performance of “Folsom Prison Blues” -- but blended them with more recent rock influences, including Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.
Strait will continue to work -- he signed a five-album extension with Universal Music Group last year -- but his March 21 show also left a lesson for those who would follow him. The next generation may desire bigger props or use different instruments, but they still have to have an authentic emotional connection to the material to succeed. That’s how an artist creates the emotional bond with the audience, as Strait did that night. That’s really what spurs them to open their wallets in the first place.