Searching the face of George Strait for raw emotion was a futile task Saturday.
No one among the record-setting crowd of 104,793 was expecting the stoic singer-songwriter, returning to the venue he helped christen five years ago, to become overwhelmed and sob uncontrollably.
But even the famously easygoing Strait couldn't hide what were surely some turbulent feelings inside all night.
"I hope you won't forget me," Strait sang, late in the 190-minute set, "because we've shared a lot of things."
The song, I'll Always Remember You, seemed like a burst of pathos, notable only in that it was emanating from a performer who has built a formidable career on even-keeled consistency.
(In a nice bit of serendipity, the previous record for the largest indoor concert in North America — 87,500 at the then-Louisiana Superdome — broken by Saturday's show at AT&T Stadium, was achieved by the Rolling Stones in 1981: the same year Strait released his debut album, Strait Country.)
The years have passed, but like the San Jacinto Monument or Big Bend National Park, George Strait has existed as a given in Texas (and beyond), unchanging, taken for granted and indifferent to the march of time.
Like traveling to those fixed, venerated sites and paying homage to an indelible element of Texan life, Saturday's show felt akin to making a pilgrimage.
Fans jammed the parking lots surrounding the venue, songs spilling out of trucks and campers, tents pitched with food spread out and chatter filling the air around AT&T Stadium.
The atmosphere was celebratory, despite the tinge of sorrow underpinning everything.
For all Saturday was — a sprawling showcase, spread across more than three hours and over 40 songs, encompassing much of Nashville's past, present and future — it felt, appropriately, like a culmination, a completion and a decisive punctuation mark, delineating the end of an era in country music that exists now only in memory.
Outright burial, however, is a tad premature: Strait is done touring extensively, but he’ll remain an active recording artist, having recently signed a deal with RCA Nashville for five albums, and will likely continue to perform one-off dates as they arise.
Austin Western swing stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel offered up a fine, hour-long opening set, itself a band as constant and reliably entertaining as the headliner.
“What an honor and a pleasure it is to be with our old friend George Strait,” said Ray Benson, before easing into some more Bob Wills sides.
Strait mixed his own hits with those of his predecessors, backed, as always, by the Ace in the Hole Band and inviting a rotating series of high-wattage guest stars to the ceaselessly moving stage (the lazy Susan-style set-up allowed Strait to give every corner of AT&T Stadium the sense it was front row for a moment).
From Vince Gill, Martina McBride and Alan Jackson to Eric Church, Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean, the nine guests held their own with Strait, to varying degrees, as the man himself provided continuity.
Often, such extravaganzas have a ragged, start-stop feel to them, but Saturday's concert hummed along with all the efficiency of the man at the center.
Each guest made sure to thank the 62-year-old troubadour: "This is the coolest country concert that's ever been," Jackson said, as he raised a glass to Strait. "You're one of the reasons I came to Nashville and made country music."
"The very first stadium show I ever did was with this man right here," said Kenny Chesney, the evening’s final duet partner.
Even Aldean, whose style is effectively the antithesis of Strait's, acknowledged that the native Texan has influenced "every country artist who's ever sung into a microphone."
Apart from the Titanic-sized screen looming overhead, Strait's staging was a remarkably stripped down affair, somehow managing to make a concert with over 100,000 people feel intimate.
Some of that closeness might be attributable to Strait's direct delivery, wringing nuance out of others' songs with the practiced skill of countless other nights like this one.
More likely it was the overwhelming sense that Strait’s dispassionate mien — he knuckled away a tear as The Cowboy Rides Away wound down, and confetti and balloons began to blanket the room — functioned like a blank canvas for the hundred thousand souls singing and swaying along throughout the night.
These were men and women who grew up and grew old listening to George Strait songs, the simple, direct music weaving itself into the stuff of life — birthdays, funerals, graduations, vacations, date nights — and providing a fixed, ever-sturdy place upon which to project all of their hopes and dreams and wishes and regrets.
Saturday, then, felt somewhat paradoxically close and familiar, because that’s the connection Strait fosters, and always has.
All of the gob smacking statistics reeled off by Ray Benson’s booming baritone as he introduced Strait Saturday — the countless awards, the staggering sales figures, honorifics like “legend” and “giant” — none of it seemed to make the man from Poteet any more or any less than he already was.
Strait is, although it may not seem readily apparent (and you certainly don’t have to look too far to find detractors), one of a kind.
His is a brand of music we need more of, not least because the mainstream, over which he once held effortless sway, is now captivated by the lowest common denominator, mired in a morass of muddin’ and misogyny.
Indeed, country music has undergone a sea change or four since Strait first swung onto the scene in the early days of the Reagan administration.
Nothing is constant, not even in Nashville, where, arguably, tradition is more deeply rooted than in most music-centric cities.
And so, the time has come for Strait to unhook his acoustic guitar from its strap, doff his cowboy hat one last time, and stride back down the red carpet, away from the flashing lights, adoring screams and the feeling that comes with a good story, well told.
Perhaps, in private, George Strait will allow himself to feel the full weight of what he’s accomplished.
Perhaps, weeks or months from now, some tears — rightly earned — will be shed.
“When I first set out,” Strait said, near the conclusion of Saturday’s performance, “I figured I had five good years. ... When I walk off the stage for the last time, I’ll still hear your screams and cheers in my mind.”
Long may they echo.
1. Check Yes or No
2. A Fire I Can’t Put Out
3. Lovebug (feat. Vince Gill)
4. Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind (feat. Vince Gill)
5. River of Love
6. Lead On
7. Fool Hearted Memory (feat. Jason Aldean)
8. Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her (feat. Jason Aldean)
9. Arkansas Dave (feat. Bubba Strait)
10. I Saw God Today
11. Cowboys Like Us (feat. Eric Church)
12. Easy Come Easy Go (feat. Eric Church)
13. The King of Breaking Hearts
14. Marina Del Rey
15. Here For A Good Time (feat. Sheryl Crow)
16. When Did You Stop Loving Me (feat. Sheryl Crow)
17. I Can Still Make Cheyenne
18. Drinkin’ Man
19. Jackson (feat. Martina McBride)
20. Golden Ring (feat. Martina McBride)
21. Give It Away
22. I Got A Car
23. A Showman’s Life (feat. Faith Hill)
24. Let’s Fall To Pieces Together (feat. Faith Hill)
25. I Believe
26. Blame It On Mexico
27. Amarillo By Morning (feat. Alan Jackson)
28. Murder On Music Row (feat. Alan Jackson)
29. The Chair
30. Give It All We Got Tonight
31. How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls (feat. Miranda Lambert)
32. Run (feat. Miranda Lambert)
33. You Look So Good In Love
34. I’ll Always Remember You
35. Ocean Front Property (feat. Kenny Chesney)
36. The Fireman (feat. Kenny Chesney)
39. All My Ex's Live In Texas (feat. Ray Benson, Vince Gill, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney)
40. Folsom Prison Blues (feat. Ray Benson, Vince Gill, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney)
41. The Cowboy Rides Away (feat. Ray Benson, Vince Gill, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney)