George Strait has always been more at home in dusty rodeo ovals and team-roping arenas than in the huge football stadiums and concert venues where he has played out his remarkable run in the music business.
Calf-roping turf is where I believe I first saw him perform informally, in San Angelo in the 70s on the college rodeo-ag show circuit.
He and the Ace in the Hole Band would become regionally popular at the dance halls and clubs from there, but my next connection with the name was like most peoples: in 1981, when Unwound became a country hit, and Straits first single out of the chute for a major music label.
My laid-back editor at the time, at a five-day-a-week community newspaper in Irving, would incessantly sing Unwound around the small office. Recently divorced, his mantra was: That woman that I had wrapped around my finger just came unwound. It was infectious, and Strait had that hangdog whine of regret that fit his mood.
George was hitting his stride in late 1981, when I signed on at the Star-Telegram.
Billy Bobs Texas had opened earlier that year, and it was there where I saw him occasionally during the early to mid-80s. By then he had a nice set of hits, including Fool Hearted Memory, You Look So Good in Love, Right or Wrong and, of course, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.
When he sang his self-penned I Cant See Texas From Here, with a hatful of homesickness, I connected as a fan and fellow Texan.
But as a reviewer for the paper one night in 1984, I totally missed the tape and wrote something really shortsighted, to the effect of Strait is wonderful at interpreting Western swing, but what a shame that theres no big market for traditional music like this anymore.
The next time I reviewed him, he was headlining Reunion Arena in Dallas.
Over the decades, Strait became country musics undisputed if reluctant king, with 60 No. 1 hits, sold-out arena tours and a shelf full of country music awards and gold records. He even starred in a movie, Pure Country, that was filmed in and around Fort Worth.
In 2009, when Jerry Jones unveiled his glittering, billion-dollar football stadium in Arlington, Strait headlined the first event there. On Saturday, Strait returns to what is now AT&T Stadium for the final date in his Cowboy Rides Away tour.
The 62-year-old Country Music hall of famer has said it will be his farewell to big-time, nationwide touring. He has said he will continue to record, and maybe do a small-scale show every now and then.
Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Alan Jackson are just a few of the stars who will honor their hero as he rides off into the sunset.
But dont expect Strait to say much about himself or his place in country music Saturday night. As always, the cowboy from Poteet will let his music do the talkin.
A singer, not a talker
George never did like doing interviews and still keeps them to a minimum.
When Texas Monthly did a huge cover piece on him this month, the writer disclosed that Strait turned down an interview and would only answer questions by email.
That wasnt an option (or even a technological reality) when Strait and I talked in the early 80s. We did a quick phone interview as he came home from a tour, and I asked him why he didnt like doing media interviews.
He said, Well, its not that we dislike anybody [in the press], its just that when were not working, we like to rest and be with our families and get our mind off of it.
In other words, anything not directly involved with the product, music, was extra and unnecessary work, and an intrusion on his private life.
I could buy that.
But if he was guarded in private, he seemed perfectly comfortable onstage in front of 20,000 adoring fans.
His New Years Eve concerts at Reunion Arena became a good-luck tradition, like eating black-eyed peas and cornbread. I welcomed many a Jan. 1 there with him.
The Texas Stadium shows in spring and summer were over-the-top, 10-hour affairs with maybe a dozen acts. It was a marathon just to get there, sit through all the guest sets and leave in the dark with tens of thousands of people, all of them in the afterglow of beer, hot dogs, sunscreen and, yes, traditional Texas music.
Many of them would just sit in their cars (make that trucks) for awhile as traffic cleared out, playing Georges music on their sound systems and singing along in voices hoarse from a long day and night of screaming.
I sometimes dreaded working those shows. One year I almost had sunstroke, from my perch high up in the bleachers at Texas Stadium; another year I had primo floor seats under the famous hole in the roof. Ended up in an all-afternoon downpour and watched Tim McGraw through strands of wet hair and a haze of humidity rising up from the ground. But by the time Strait came on in the evening, you could see stars through the roof and people waltzing through puddles on the tarp-covered field. It was all good after all.
Other times I watched from the press box, filing stories live from my computer. Looking down on the well-lit stage and the many thousands of happy people, it was a comforting, good time to be alive and in Texas.
But for me as a reporter and a fan, nothing topped the summer of 1992 and the monthlong local filming of Straits movie debut, Pure Country.
Traditional but new
Strait played Dusty Wyatt Chandler, a country singer who is disillusioned with the hype and disappears, beard, ponytail and all. The movie co-starred Lesley Ann Warren and Kyle Chandler.
I actually got to interview Strait in person, on his tour bus parked outside of the vintage (and still there!) Western Kountry Klub, then in Midlothian, now annexed to Grand Prairie.
The story spread around the set before my turn came up that a reporter before me had supposedly been hastily ousted from the bus for mixing up the nicknames of the Straits son, Bubba, and their beloved Boston terrier, Buster.
When I boarded the bus, George, his wife, Norma, and Buster were there, and as we got started George busied his hands with tying slipknots in a piece of rope as we talked.
We discussed taking risks and making music for the long run.
I was just kind of interested to see if I could do it, Strait said of the movie project. I dont see what possibly could be risky about it. When this movies all over, Ill still be able to sing.
He spoke of the difficulty of continuing to pick songs over a long recording career even then, and how typecast an artist can become if he doesnt stretch.
Theyre not just out there lying around. Youve gotta dig for them, he said. There have been quite a few of my songs that a lot of people Ive worked with have said, I cant believe youre doing this song.
Marina del Rey was the first one like that. They [music publishers] wouldnt even play me that song. And The Chair, which I think is a great song. Its not like a traditional country song, Id say, would you?
Straits stretches have always been sensible, ultimately based on his love of the song.
Melody catches my ear first, he had said. Then he listens to lyrics, and thats when the deal is sealed. Ill do it if I think [the lyrics are] good and I dont think theyre too hokey.
(His track record is pretty good. Strait has more gold and platinum albums than any other artist, except for Elvis Presley and the Beatles.)
But he never seemed entirely comfortable with the traditionalist mantle.
People talk about traditional this and traditional that, he said. Ive had out some traditional-sounding records, but then again, I think Ive had some pretty contemporary-country-sounding records, too.
I thought about that, years later when I heard one of his new singles. It was a wistful, transportation-themed love song called Run, released around 9-11. The line about cutting a path across the blue sky still gives me chills.
Strait said at a recent awards show that Saturday nights show in Arlington likely will be emotional and bittersweet.
Its finally time to let himself go and cowboy up, or indulge himself in newer passions like deep-sea fishing and golf.
Hes a grandfather now, there are probably still a few calves to be roped on the family ranch in South Texas, and Im betting he has kept up those knot-tying skills.