In the spring of 1981, a previously unknown Texan named George Strait released his first single, “Unwound,” and entered the hearts and minds of country music fans.
He never left. Across more than three decades, Strait has become one of country music’s most consistent and enduring artists, and a mainstay on radio, at retail and on the road.
On May 14, Strait released his 40th album on MCA Nashville, “Love Is Everything,” which became his 25th No. 1 title on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. On June 3, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Strait played his last show of 2013 of what he has described as his final full swing of concert dates, on a tour that aptly takes its name from his 1985 single “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Soon he’ll annnounce the balance of those tour dates, in 2014. And on Nov. 14, Strait will be honored with Billboard’s Legend of Live award at Billboard’s Touring Conference & Awards in New York.
Strait was neo-traditionalist before being neo-traditionalist was cool. He immediately settled into a style of hook-laden, heartfelt ballads and Texas swing-influenced midtempos and waltzes that worked equally well on the airwaves and honky-tonks, then later in arenas and stadiums.
An unabashed Texan who eschewed Music City for the ranching life in the Lone Star state, Strait is the quintessential strong, silent type, a trait that has endeared him to fans and added to a mystique unequaled in country music.
Mostly, Strait did and does what he does: sing songs people love, with an added charisma and confidence that gets hold of the ears and doesn’t let go.
“George Strait knows songs, great songs and what to do with them,” says Kenny Chesney, who toured with Strait early in his own career. “He’s into his fourth decade of making great songs matter. People fall in love and find their way in the storm. As a college kid in Johnson City, Tenn., I played a whole lot of ‘The Fireman’ and ‘Marina Del Rey,’ and those songs sound as good to me today as they did back then.”
“A lot of people can just sing,” says Dean Dillon, a longtime songwriter for Strait. “But to get behind a microphone in a recording studio and to deliver that emotion is truly a gift. There’s not a lot of people who can do that, especially for 35 years. George Strait has always had the innate ability to do that.”
And still does. Now known as the “King of Country Music,” Strait has shown remarkable staying power, having notched a top 10 hit in 30 consecutive years with this year’s “Give It All We Got Tonight,” from “Love Is Everything,” produced by Strait and Tony Brown.
Much of Strait’s success has come from staying true to his musical nature, according to Brown, who has produced 19 albums with Strait. “Some artists, just when you get to like them, they try to reinvent themselves,” Brown says. “I love the fact that George has never had to do that, or wanted to do it, and he’s still relevant. That says a lot right there.”
As Strait’s longtime manager Erv Woolsey says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and it clearly ain’t broke.
Counting his latest single, “I Believe,” penned by Strait with his son George Jr. (aka Bubba) and Dillon, Strait has 119 entries on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, among them 86 top 10s, including 44 No. 1s. But Strait’s fans also buy his albums, even in this digital age. On the Top Country Albums list, Strait has charted 46 albums, including 25 No. 1s and 12 other top 10s.
Strait has been impervious to trends in country music, both musically and business-wise. Consider the other acts during the past three decades who, like Strait, have won the Country Music Assn. (CMA) entertainer of the year award: Hank Williams Jr., Alabama, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift.
All of these artists have enjoyed hugely successful runs, spurred musical shifts on Music Row and packed major venues coast to coast. Yet none of them has knocked Strait off the airwaves or distracted his fans enough to keep them from flocking to his shows. He is a rock in country music.
Brown, whose studio partnership with Strait is the most prolific and commercially productive in country music, says many artists are only as good as their last song, but Strait’s fans are committed to the artist, not just the latest single. “When I first got into music, I’d go buy the latest Elton John, Jackson Browne or Eagles record because I loved their music, not because there was a song on the radio,” Brown says. “I knew there was a new album by the Eagles and I had to have it. George Strait is one of the last of those kinds of artists. His fans love his music, and of course he cuts his kind of songs.”
ROLLING OUT OF TEXAS
After getting fired from the first country band he joined during a stint in the Army for “not being country enough,” Strait found a musical home with the Ace in the Hole Band, which still boasts members in Strait’s current touring band. The outfit built a following across Texas, playing for hard-to-please crowds in dancehalls and honky-tonks. It eventually landed at the Prairie Rose in San Marcos, Texas, where the proprietor was Erv Woolsey.
A former record executive who had briefly left that business to try his hand at running a country joint, Woolsey fortuitously booked the Ace in the Hole Band around 1976. He liked what he heard.
“I was standing with my back to the stage by the bar, and they were doing sound check,” he recalls. “I heard him sing, and I had to turn around and see who it was. He was great. We kept in touch.”
Woolsey eventually found the bar business not to his liking (although, ironically, he is now a partner in Losers Bar & Grill near Nashville’s Music Row) and he returned to the label world and ABC Records, first in Chicago and then in Nashville. MCA acquired ABC, and Woolsey, now an MCA VP of promotion, remembered Strait and hauled a group of MCA Nashville honchos to Houston to see Strait perform with Ace in the Hole in 1979. Strait signed to MCA Nashville as the ’80s began.
“[Producer] Blake Mevis cut some sides on George. The first single was ‘Unwound,’ and as soon as George got in the position that he really needed somebody up here in Nashville — because he wouldn’t come to Nashville — I left MCA,” Woolsey says. “And I’ve been working with George ever since January of 1982.”
Through most of those years, the two have worked without a contract. Asked the secret of the longevity of the relationship, Woolsey replies simply, “George is a good person. To me a manager/artist deal shouldn’t be like a bad divorce: If one isn’t happy with the other, shake hands and go your separate ways. But we’ve never had any problems.”
Others have enjoyed similarly long-lived relationships with Strait, including Dillon, whose credits appear on Strait’s first and most recent albums, along with most in between.
Dillon says meeting Strait changed his life forever, a point that would be hard to argue. Strait has had incredible success with lots of songwriters, none more so than Dillon, who has either written or co-written many of Strait’s biggest hits, beginning with “Unwound” and including Strait standards like “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Famous Last Words of a Fool,” “I’ve Come to Expect It From You,” “If I Know You,” “Easy Come, Easy Go” and three on the latest record with Strait and his son: “Living for the Night,” “The Best Day” and “I Believe.”
“I was sitting on a porch in 1979 with [songwriter] Frank Dycus, popping tops on a Budweiser, and this ol’ boy by the name of Blake Mevis pulls his car up to the curb and says, ‘Hey, I’m cutting this kid from Texas. Name’s George Strait,'” Dillon recalls. “It was a life-altering day. Me and ol’ Dycus wound up with about six songs on that first album, and when I heard the final mixes of the stuff, I was pretty well blown away by it all.”
The hits flowed like water, year after year. Strait became a favorite of Nashville songwriters, not only because he generally stayed perched at or near the top of the chart, but also because he brought life to the songs in ways some singers could not.
“I liked the way he interpreted my songs,” Dillon says, “and that’s not always the case.”
BEYOND URBAN COWBOY
As the ’80s wore on, fans, weary of the Urban Cowboy movement, were ready for a real cowboy. Strait was on the leading edge of what eventually was recognized as a “neo-traditionalist” movement, populated by somewhat retro-sounding production and songs by such no-frills artists as Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. As Billboard country charts director Wade Jessen notes, Strait was on the chart a year before the bluegrass-tinged Skaggs, and several more years before Travis and Yoakam hit the scene. Each of these artists brought something unique to the format, Jessen says.
“Strait brought back the swing and cowboy sensibilities before the others broke and, my God, did we ever need it,” he says. “Strait kind of gave country music fans — the legacy fans, not the ones that flocked in because of Urban Cowboy — hope that the music was safe in his hands, and the others that came along actually built the coalition that rolled us out of the AC sound that Urban Cowboy brought in.”
Country music found its real cowboy in Strait, and there wasn’t anything “urban” about it. Strait was raised on a ranch and knew how to rope and ride. A member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. and a skilled competitor back in the day, Strait still hosts the George Strait Team Roping Classic in San Antonio. Strait not only talked the talk, but he rode the horse, as it were, and always looked comfortable on horseback, even at his shows.
But perhaps where Strait has been most comfortable through the years is in the recording studio. Soon songwriters were delivering Strait songs that were perfect for him, if not written specifically for him. “They write right at him,” Brown says.
But Dillon says melodic and lyrical compatibility led to their lengthy partnership. Asked if he wrote specifically for Strait, Dillon says, “I’ve been accused of that, but never really did that. It just seemed that the stuff I liked to write he liked to sing.”
Where many artists are only as good as their latest single, Strait’s fans wanted the whole album, a situation more akin to the rock stars of yore than the single-driven world of country music.
It helps that Strait’s albums are deep with “his” songs. “We put great songs on the album — we don’t just put two or three that are going to be singles,” Woolsey says. “That ‘Pure Country’ album, every cut on that album could have been a single.”
By the time Brown got around to producing Strait for “Pure Country” in 1992, the artist was already a well-established superstar, enough so that he starred in the movie of the same name. Brown ended up on that Capitol Nashville album almost by default.
“[Jimmy] Bowen was at Capitol and I just sort of got [‘Pure Country’] because I was the sitting guy in A&R and Bowen’s [in-house producer] — which I’m proud of. I owe him my career,” Brown recalls. “So I got that album, and it sold 6 million records. That movie was not a big success at the box office, but with cable and rentals it was huge. I’ve seen it on CMT so many times I can almost do the dialogue.”
That’s when Brown and Strait entered “the gilded age,” as Brown calls it, from around 1989 until 1997, before the digital era and singles-driven musical culture.
“Every record we did sold 3 or 4 million [copies],” Brown says, “and the boxed set [‘Strait Out of the Box’] sold 7 million.” Even the three Christmas records Brown did with Strait went platinum.
“The majority of work that I’m most proud of as a producer was with George Strait,” says Brown, who adds that working with Strait in the studio is “easy” compared with many artists.
“A year ahead we were picking songs out, so we go into the studios with the songs. We use the same rhythm section, the same guys, the same engineer, so it’s a comfort zone,” Brown says. “The songs happen in like two or three takes. The players know what George wants. I use a nine-piece rhythm section, and the only overdubs are background singers and if I put strings on it.”
Brown points out that most records aren’t made that way today.
“Normally, with records you hear today, there’s a lot of layering on it,” he says. “You’ll have like three more electric guitars on top of the one that’s there, and percussion, and all kinds of stuff. We go in with a big rhythm section, and once you put the backgrounds on it, it’s finished. It happens fast, it happens on the floor, and it’s really the way John Q. Public envisions how a recording session happens, like the old days.”
A high level of familiarity in the studio comes during the course of nearly 20 albums. “I know when he’s not liking it, if it’s the wrong key or wrong tempo,” Brown says. “He trusts me and I trust him and it’s a really comfortable situation. I’ve worked with a few that I’ve made good records with that I couldn’t say the same thing about-it was like pulling teeth. But with George, it’s always been a fun experience in the studio, and I won’t ever take it for granted.”
If there has been a criticism of Strait, it’s that he doesn’t venture far from said comfort zone, which Dillon believes isn’t a totally accurate assessment. “He stretches it every now and then. He’ll take chances on some stuff, but not too far out of the box for him,” he says. Still, “He’s going to sing what’s comfortable to him, and if he doesn’t feel like he can do it justice, he’s not going to do it.”
Those times that Strait veers a little off course are some of Brown’s treasured moments.
“Some of my favorites — like ‘Run,’ ‘River of Love,’ ‘I Want to Dance With You’ — were just a little different for George, but they did not stretch it too far,” Brown says. “That was his intuition, and he could do it.”
Yes, Strait could do it. The legacy of his studio magic is astounding.
With 33 albums that have gone either platinum or multiplatinum, according to the RIAA, Strait has earned the second-most certifications of any artist in any genre, behind only Elvis Presley.
Strait has received more than 60 major entertainment industry awards and countless nominations, and his tours are among the most consistent, for any genre.
Strait’s impact hasn’t been lost on his peers in the industry. He has been nominated for the CMA’s entertainer of the year award 17 times and up for the CMA’s male vocalist honor 25 times. Strait currently holds the record for most CMA wins with 22. He’s also the most nominated artist in CMA history, with 81 nominations. He was the CMA male vocalist of the year five times, the only artist in history to be so honored in two different decades. Strait has also won the CMA album of the year five times across three different decades.
RIDING AWAY, BUT HERE TO STAY
So a taking stock of Strait’s career is a natural at this point, though Strait himself wants the music industry and fans to know that he still has plenty more studio work to do.
But those who work with him can’t help but reflect on his career as Strait prepares to park the tour bus. “He’s just stayed at such a high level,” Woolsey says. “It’s been a wonderful run. He’s singing better now than he’s ever sang in his life. He knows songs that are good for him, that fit him, and that’s a big part of his success.”
Historically, Strait has released an album about every year, which has contributed to his consistent chart history.
“You just play it by ear,” Woolsey says of Strait’s recording strategy. “For instance, for this [new] album we had a single that was top five and we were a little slow getting the album done for a lot of reasons. Radio’s different now-with the life of a single, it takes a lot longer. But it’s always changing.”
Indeed, and Brown believes that the evolution of the charts will make Strait’s record of success difficult to break. “I don’t know if anybody will have [that many] No. 1s again,” he says. “For one thing, the charts take so long. Back in the day, the length of a record [on the charts] was 12-13 weeks. Now it’s like 30-50 weeks. You could have three singles a year; now you can have like one-and-a-half. I actually have enjoyed being involved with someone with George’s longevity at the right time. It was the perfect time to be involved with an artist like that.”
Brown receives a steady stream of reminders in the mailbox regarding the power of their collaboration. “I produced at MCA for over 25 years. I produced at least 20 or 30 acts — Steve Earle, Trisha [Yearwood], Wynonna, Reba, Vince,” Brown says, “and when I get my royalty statement for all those years, it’s a big stack of paper, and about three-quarters of it is George Strait. His catalog still sells amazingly well.”
But Strait is still a current artist, with contemporary hits, and one that has found renewed vigor as a songwriter with his son Bubba. Whatever he does in the future, it will still be readily definable as George Strait, and history will regard the Hall of Famer as one of country’s elite artists, one that means as much to his genre as do standard bearers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley do for theirs.
“Everyone always compared George’s singing style as a country artist to Sinatra, and I never quite got that until the last few years, when I started studying Sinatra’s records,” Brown says. “Basically, when they both sing it’s like conversation. When Sinatra sang, it sounded natural, and George is the same way. Sinatra also stuck with a certain kind of song. He never tried to become Elvis after Elvis got big, and neither has George tried to do a Southern rock thing when it got big. He just keeps doing what he does, and he does it really good. His voice still sounds great.”