One can learn a lot about someone in a seven thousand word article. And thanks to a just-that-long piece in The New Yorker, a whole lot is exactly what we learned about the incredible life and career of George Strait. Here are the most amazing highlights of the man and the music. A look at the last true cowboy of country, before he rides away.
Not By Accident
Part of the reason that George Strait has maintained such an intense popularity is that he planned it that way. There were many artists who began their careers in the 1970s and 1980s. Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson certainly come to mind. Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire are a few others. But none of them has remained as relevant as George Strait. Nor Parton or Nelson have made new music for decades, and Gill and Jackson have certainly slowed. McEntire continues to record new albums, but her last project was a faith-based album. A pretty far cry from her earlier hits of the 1980s.
And even artists who followed Strait, such as Toby Keith and Carrie Underwood, have taken long breaks. But Strait never had his sights on becoming a legacy act. Certainly he puts his classic hits into his setlist. But he has had chart-topping singles in every decade since his career launched in 1981. As the author noted, “He is, by all accounts, intensely (if quietly) competitive: he wants to win, and radio spins and chart positions are an objective way of keeping score.”
And he has. With hit albums and singles in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Strait continued to produce record-breakers. He semiretired in 2012, but continued to record. (He actually also still plays a few dates a year, despite the fact he doesn’t tour anymore).
But it isn’t just his long history of hits that make him such a success. It’s his entire influence on country music,
The George Strait Look
One thing about George Strait is that not much about him has changed in his 40 years of producing hits. Looking at his stage wardrobe, there’s hardly any difference between now and when he started.
He still wears a cowboy hat, button-down Oxford shirt, skin tight jeans, and cowboy boots. His contract requires him to wear Wranglers, but it is his decades as a true cowboy that created the look. They are pressed to stand up on their own with extra fabric wrinkled on the bottom (which is called wearing them stacked). Those extra inches of denim allows him to jump on or off a horse without any extra boot being exposed. He is a mix of a country music artist and a true cowboy. So much so that if he had lived in the 1800s, it wouldn’t be difficult to see him siting around a campfire, guitar in hand, singing songs from the trail.
And he capitalized on that look. When his career began in the early 1980s, he was billed as a true cowboy.
“Basic Country Music”
Even at the beginning of the 1980s, country music was finding its way. The artists of the two decades before never enjoyed the popularity that their successors would. Even George Jones couldn’t have conceived of a country artist like Garth Brooks. And so as country music began to become more popular, it began to crossover into pop and rock. The influence of pop increased its popularity, but the growing popularity also increased its inclusion of pop. Strait had no interest in that, and decided to play to his strength. Being an actual cowboy.
“Strait, whose music was sometimes described as “hard country,” espoused a more uncompromising aesthetic. News accounts invariably mentioned that he was “a real, live cowboy,” and headline writers rarely resisted the urge to connect his name to his style (“some real strait-forward country”; “playing it strait”; “country music served strait up”). After a string of hits, Strait parted with his original producer, Blake Mevis, telling one reporter that Mevis “was looking for more mass appeal, middle-of-the-road stuff,” while he wanted to record “basic country music.””
Creating The Next Generation
Because George Strait was so consistent with his look, his sound, and the the types of songs he chose (the “basic country music”), he became one of the anchors of a genre that continues to define itself. As The New Yorker article described it, “In the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, he helped inspire a wave of cowboy-hat-wearing country singers who were known as “hat acts,” including Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. Strait became a beloved elder statesman without giving up the role he values more: hitmaker.”
And more than that, new artists began to capitalize on his work by serving as his openers. “A wide range of singers, from Martina McBride to Taylor Swift, first faced big crowds by serving as Strait’s opening act. When he moved up from arenas to stadiums, in the late nineties, he booked enough opening acts to create daylong mini-festivals, boosting the careers of Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn.”
Fast-forward to today and you’ll also see new artists doing covers of his songs. Artists like Luke Bryan, who is about as far away from George Strait as one can get and still reasonably be called a country singer.
Though there are some aspects to George Strait that make his success a bit surprising, one thing that has definitely helped is his sex appeal. And it’s not because he is a Luke Bryan or even a Tim McGraw. He doesn’t make his presence known with dance moves or chiseled muscles bursting from his shirts. There is instead a quiet sexiness to him, like a Sam Elliott. He seems like the guy who knows how to be around a woman and make her feel like the only one in the room.
And his sex appeal isn’t a small thing. As the article noted, women threw so many flowers onstage and left so many on his tour bus that finding a way to dispose of them became an actual problem. Sometimes they would stop at funeral homes on the way out of town and donate them. When Kathy Mattea was opening for him, she used to call him the “Mark Harmon of country music.” She later said, “He was handsome, and he was low-key, and he was charming.” And Reba McEntire recalled how they used to have to put hay bales in front of the stage to keep the women away from the “sexy little rascal,” as she referred to him.
Never one to brag about his ability to charm women, you couldn’t say he minded it, either. “I don’t know what it is, but I hope it doesn’t stop,” the author recalled him saying in another interview.
A Slow Fall
Despite the fact that he is still recording, it has been some years since he has enjoyed a major hit. In some ways this is surprising, but in others it seems inevitable. For one, radio play just isn’t a thing now. So getting music on the airwaves, where George Strait really made his mark, is gone. “Radio’s not playing me anymore,” he said. “Which is a hard pill to swallow, after all these years.”
In fact, his last album, Cold Beer, released in 2015. And it was the only one of his career to not spawn a Top 10 single.
But it isn’t just radio that is the issue. When George Strait was making his mark on country music, the genre was only beginning to feel the mark of pop and rocks. All of the big-name artists in the 1980s (and even 1990s) were including fiddles and steel guitars. But now he represents what was. George Strait will never be bro country. And this is what makes older country music fans love him and newer country music fans ignore him.
Besides that, country music fans now expect an all-out production at shows. Luke Bryan shakes his ass. Garth Brooks gives an all-out spectacle. Tim and Faith have light shows and a jumbo screen. Pyrotechnics are common. But George Strait was always low-key. Even in his early days, he was a guy on stage with a guitar. But in the early days, that’s all he had to be. “He just stands there,” an executive once marvelled, “and people go fucking crazy.” Now people go crazy, but it’s because they like that he makes them nostalgic. Not that he seems innovative.
A Lasting Legacy
George Strait has enjoyed a hell of a long ride. Even without his new music reaching the top of the charts, he still sells out shows. And new artists still cover his music, despite the fact that only about half the audience recognizes the songs. And he has more number one hits than any other country music artist. In fact with 60 No. 1 hits, he actually has more than any performer in history.
Now at nearly 66-years old, George Strait is riding into the sunset of his life. But he isn’t off his horse yet. Of course we hope it will be some time before this cowboy actually rides away. But when he does, he can rest easy knowing that his legacy is something that few can only dream about. Because it is unlikely that any of his newer contemporaries will go down in music history as anything other than someone who knew how to sell records. George Strait knew how to sell music. “Basic country music.”