For anyone who harbored insane thoughts about George Strait having his best years behind him, the release of Honkytonkville makes you certifiable. While it may be his 27th album - not counting greatest hits and Christmas records - Strait sounds hungrier than ever here.
Produced by he and Tony Brown, the tough, barroom ballads and breakneck dance tracks are back with a vengeance, and the material, written by the more imaginative tunesmiths in Nash Vegas, is his strongest in a decade. A quick for instance is the opener "She Used To Say That To Me," penned by Jim Lauderdale and James Scott Sherrill, is a jukebox breaker. Done is a slick 4/4 with a Wynn Stewart-esque melody line and a lyric that's as tender as it is tough, Strait wraps that voice of his around all the pain in it and comes out still standing.
The title track written by Buddy Brock, Dean Dillon (who is well represented here) and Kim Williams," is a fiddle-laden traditionalist anthem to the ghosts of people and places gone yet ever present. "Look Whose Back In Town," with it's gorgeous piano lines (reminiscent of a Billy Sherrill production) sounds like a country version of Johnny Rivers' "Poor Side of Town," while we all better watch it because "Cowboys Like Us," could signal a return to outlaw country. The weepers work too, such as "Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa," the Guy Clark inspired "Desperately," by Bruce Robsion and Monte Warden and the soul country of "Heaven Is Missing An Angel." But the bar burner on this one is "I Found Jesus On the Jailhouse Floor." It may be a gospel song, but it'll have the honky tonky line dancers pounding the beer before sweating it out on the dancefloor on the Saturday night before Sunday morning. It is completely conceivable to hear this song being done by Merle Haggard's Strangers in 1967 or by Buck Owens in 1969. "Honk If You Honky Tonk," another Dillon joint, is harder rocking than anybody but Montgomery Gentry -- and they will kick themselves for not recording it first.
If the fools at country radio can hear, they'll be playing the hell out of this one - it's got five or six singles if it has one. Not that Strait was ever anything but country, this is the first hard country album of 2003, and he's got the torch burning bright for the tradition while not giving up an inch of his modernity.
George Strait will on June 10 deliver "Honkytonkville," his 31st release for MCA Records. Bumped up from an originally planned June 24 release, the album marks the first time the country artist has recorded vocals at home in Texas, rather than in a Nashville recording studio.
Strait credits fellow artist Alan Jackson for turning him onto the idea of recording at home. "I wouldn't really call [what I have] a studio," he explains. "It's a very minimal amount of equipment along with a microphone, a laptop, and some headphones set up in a small room at home. When I feel inspired to do a vocal, I can go do one at my leisure instead of being under the time restraint of a studio situation."
The album also features songs written by Bruce Robison and Monte Warden ("Desperately"), Anthony Smith and Bob DiPiero ("Cowboys Like Us"), and Jim Lauderdale and John Scott Sherrill ("She Used To Say That to Me"). In combination with various writers, Dean Dillon contributes three songs to the collection: the title track (written with Buddy Brock and Kim Williams), "Four Down and Twelve Across" (written with Tom Douglas), and "Honk if You Honky Tonk" (written with Ken Mellons and John Northrup).
In March, Strait released the live album "For the Last Time: Live From the Astrodome," which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and has sold 332,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. His last studio album, 2001's "The Road Less Traveled," bowed at No. 1 on the chart and has sold 1 million copies.
Although Strait has no tour dates scheduled, he'll be promoting the release of "Honkytonkville" with a Westwood One Radio Networks special. The show will be broadcast this weekend on more than 300 U.S. radio outlets.
When George Strait scored his first hit in 1981, the artists he saw rising to legend status had begun their careers a couple of decades ahead of him, folks like Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. They had inspired George Strait to do what he has done, sing bedrock country music, succeed at it so long and so well that he, in turn, has influenced country music to such a great extent, that he has now become the first modern legend of country music whose career began in the 1980s.
Strait debuted on the country charts 22 years ago with a top 6 hit called "Unwound." From 1981 to 2003 he's sold over 50 million records, scored more platinum albums and more number one country singles than any country singer in history. He remains one of the top concert draws in the country and he will release this month yet another album titled, HONKYTONKVILLE.
More importantly, instead of being declared a legend well past his prime, George Strait is at the peak of his powers and popularity, a rare legend in his own time with no end in sight to his career. As George Strait declared last month when he received a Career Achievement award from the Academy of Country Music, "To my fans, I'll do this as long as you want me to."
The thing about George Strait is that the minute he appeared as a new, young talent, singing traditional country music with a new energy, he began to immediately influence younger artists like Garth Brooks.
"My first memory of George Strait was hearing "Unwound" with my dad," Garth recalls. "We were in a little brown Toyota Corolla that my dad had bought used, trying to find something for him to go to work in . This was I guess '80, '81 in Oklahoma. When I heard it, it was like, holy cow. I don't have a clue what this is, I just know that it's something that I truly love. I didn't know how much I would love it until I actually got to bounce at one of his concerts when he came through Stillwater (Tumbleweed). He was great. All the cowboys loved him and all the cowgirls loved him."
"George Strait is solid as a rock," declares Darryl. "Obviously he's still having smash hits and selling copies in the millions when he puts an album out. I would have to say that his earlier music is my favorite music probably of any country artist. In the early days his songs were just incredible."
George Strait is one of the few cowboy hat-wearing country stars that actually spent time in the saddle as a working cowboy. Strait (b. Poteet, Texas, May 18, 1952) was raised in Pearsall, Texas by a school teaching father who also worked the ranch that has been in the family nearly a hundred years. When George was young his mother deserted the family, taking his sister with her and leaving his father to raise two boys alone. Life consisted of the family staying in Pearsall during the week, then traveling to the ranch on weekends to run fences, round up and vaccinate a few cows. As a teenager George began to fool around with music. "Just a few garage bands, but nothing serious," he explains. "I always knew I wanted to sing, but never thought it was a possibility until I entered the service," Strait adds.
Strait enlisted in the Army in '71, and was stationed in Hawaii in '73. There the base commander wanted to start an Army sponsored country band. "That really appealed to me, so I bought a cheap old acoustic guitar, learned three chords, got me a bunch of Hank Williams sheet music and went to town," he remembers. The Army band, Rambling Country, became so popular, that the group would take off their uniforms to perform off-base gigs as Santee. Strait remained in Hawaii six months after he mustered out, but missed Texas too much to stay off the mainland.
He returned to home in '75, and to fulfill his father's wish that he get an education, entered Southwest Texas State University at San Marcos. His degree in Agriculture Education is still lying in a trunk, because Strait was still in school when he formed the core of his Ace In The Hole band. After he made a couple of fruitless overtures toward Nashville, and he was about to quit trying, a fellow Texan named Erv Woolsey discovered him in '79. Woolsey had worked for MCA Records before quitting to open a club in San Marcos, where he hired Strait and his band. Woolsey was soon on the phone to MCA Nashville, and Strait was soon working on his debut album.
After hitting number six in '81 with "Unwound," his second release "Down and Out" only reached number 16. His third release "If You're Thinking You Want a Stranger" hit number three, and he's been a permanent resident in the top ten ever since.
In '82, "Fool Hearted Memory" became the first of his record setting 50 number one country hits that includes tunes like "The Chair," "Ocean Front Property," "Love Without End, Amen" and "If I Know You."
Strait scored most of his hits with solid country songs, but he loved to include western swing in his live show, where his Ace in the Hole Band developed into one of the best road bands in the business.
In the '90s Strait was one of the few veteran acts that remained undaunted by the influx of hot new acts like Clint Black, Brooks and others. An intensely private man, he does fewer interviews than any major country act, but he did come out of his shell in '92 to promote and star in the movie "Pure Country." The soundtrack album yielded four hits, and helped to keep him in the country forefront.
Strait has managed to achieve a type of country star nirvana. His career continues to grow, in spite of the fact he dedicates only six months (or less) of each year to recording and touring, while spending the rest of his time sequestered back home in Texas, riding and roping and spending time with his family.
Last month, when George Strait was awarded the Gene Weed Career Achievement Award from the Academy of Country music, it was Alan Jackson that handed him his trophy. Jackson has often said that he patterned his career after George Strait's example. And, on national TV Jackson's simple eloquence revealed one of the secrets to Strait's success, he did it his way.
Doing it his way also meant that George Strait was never influenced by new artists or trends that differed from what he was doing. He just trusted in his own music, in his own ability to pick great songs.
There was a time in 1991, after a decade of success, and facing the onslaught of explosive new stars like Brooks, Black, Tritt, Jackson and more, that people thought George strait might fade. Indeed, he reportedly contemplated hanging it up.
But, in 1992, his landmark film "Pure Country" earned him critical praise for his acting. It also provided him with a fresh new soundtrack album, Pure Country, that showed he could stretch the musical boundaries of what people thought his fans would accept, and it worked. His career was rejuvenated and Strait decided he could continue to make music as long as the fans showed up at record stores and live shows to buy it. The King stayed on his throne, still competitive in the market place and still excited whenever he's anointed with another big music award.
"Oh, absolutely. I'm still just as competitive as I ever was in that respect," Strait agrees. "I mean, it's not really like I'm competing with the other artists out there. I don't look at it that way, but I'm really kind of competing with myself. I always want to do better and better and so get that kind of an acknowledgement, when you get an award that you've done well. I still love to win, and I still love to have Number One records. And I always will."
George Strait has plenty to be proud of and nobody would blame him if he slowed his career down even more at this point. Instead, last year George released his first live album. He became the final live performance in the landmark Houston Astrodome and turned that into his George Strait Live For the Last Time in the Houston Astrodome."
Once that was done, he went back on the road in 2003 and has now finished his latest CD, HONKYTONKVILLE. With so much accomplished and so much happening, George Strait could easily become egotistical. But, it's not his style and he's the first to acknowledge that he didn't do it alone.
"Well, I've been real fortunate to have had a lot of good people around me," he says humbly. "I've had a good manager for 22 years in Erv Woolsey. I've had a good record company, MCA Records. They've been behind me from the start, and I think you can't do it unless you have the support of a major label like that. I've had a good band that's been with me almost that long. Most of 'em longer, before the recording career. I think I've been real fortunate to find good material over the years. I can't give you an exact idea of how I go about picking songs. I just know a good song when I hear one. At least I know I like it, and fortunately other people have liked it too. But that's about it."
"The nice thing about George is that he's another case of what you see is what you get," concludes Brad. "I didn't know him at all before I toured with him and getting to hang out with him a little bit I get to see that he's exactly what I'd hoped he would bewhich is this down to earth guy that really loves his ranch, his pastimes and he loves music and he's got the right priorities. I mean his family is around him out there a lot. His wife is with him, I've met his son, Bubba, and they come and he enjoys it. You can just tell he gets up there and he loves playing. He'd tell me the first couple of nights he gets back up on stage he's got a little bit of nerves hoping that it goes well, then by the end of the tour, he only does about 16 tour dates, so by the end of it he was wishing it was a little bit longer you know wishing he could do more every year. And that's a nice thing to know that after all these years he still feels this way."
"George Strait I think kind of ushered in the new era of country music because before Garth and before anybody else, George Strait was the guy that carried the banner for the young country singer kind of guy," McGraw correctly observes.
"Coming in with the young country look and a little bit of the young country sound but the traditionalist vocals. I remember, "Amarillo By Morning," "Unwound" his first single. Everybody knew that he was going to be a star. If I had to model my career after anybody it would be George Strait. Who else can you? He's made twenty, thirty albums. And he's still one of the top performers, if not the top performer in country music. He is the man. He's the one that everybody wants to be," Tim concludes.
"Absolutely. It's fun work. When you're doing it, it's a lot of fun," George says with that charming Texas grin he has. "I mean I enjoy doing the concerts. Going to and from gets old, but every time I walk out on stage I still love it just like I always have. You call it work because I guess it's what you do for a living, and it certainly takes a lot of time to prepare for recording an album and going out and doing a tour, but it is a lot of fun. It hardly seems like work."
Perhaps what cements George Strait's greatness is that he never let his record number of platinum albums or number one hits, monster tours or Entertainer and Male Vocalist awards go to his head. When asked how he'd like to be remembered he says simply,
"I really don't think about things like that. But I just want to be remembered as a guy who tried to cut the best music that he could. And it just so happens that my preference is traditional country music. I don't feel like that comes across all the time, because my tastes seem to have fluctuated at times and I don't feel like all my music is really that traditional, but that's my preference, and if they can just remember me as a good country music singer, then I'll be happy."
Strait trails only Conway Twitty when it comes to Billboard No. 1 records. Combine his chart performance in Billboard and in the other major country chart, Radio & Records, and Strait already has a record 50 chart-toppers, from 1982's Fool Hearted Memory to last year's She'll Leave You With a Smile. (Related item:Strait mixes it up on Honkytonkville.)
"He was really an inspiration to me," says Strait, 51. "Really, he got me into the swing thing, (along with) Bob Wills. When he recorded The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World album, the tribute to Bob, that kind of started all that for me. I'd have to give that credit to the Hag."
Haggard recorded Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa 17 years ago, though he never released it as a single. (Haggard's son, Noel, released his own version as a single in 1997, though it barely touched the chart.)
"I had heard it before, but I had forgotten about it," the Texas singer says. "When I heard it again, I said, 'Man, this is a great song. I need to do that.' It's a little intimidating to go in and try to redo something the Hag has already done, but I feel like it came off great."
"Most artists, there is an ebb and a flow," says Chris Huff, program director at Dallas' KSCS-FM. "There are hot streaks and maybe some cooler streaks. I thought for a time, maybe in the early to mid-'90s, maybe George was slowing down a little bit. Every time I've thought that, I've been proven wrong."
Strait's long-term consistency has led to talk pretty much an assumption, really that he'll one day join his heroes Haggard and Twitty in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps, like Eddy Arnold or Johnny Cash, he'll be inducted while he's still making hits, because there seems to be no end to them on the horizon.
The Lone Star State native, who came from a small southwestern ranch town to become one of the biggest stars in popular music, has shattered several music-business records. He achieved an unprecedented 50 #1 country singles (his latest, "She'll Leave You With a Smile," just last December) and 26 platinum albums (including '95's seven-times platinum Strait Out of the Box and '92's six-times platinum Pure Country). He is second only to Elvis Presley for holding the greatest number of RIAA gold and or platinum certified albums (by a male artist in any genre).
With his new MCA Nashville album, Honkytonkville, his first studio album since 2001's Road Less Traveled, George reunites with longtime co-producer Tony Brown (working on his 12th Strait record) to once more return to the music of his youth. These 12 songs fit as comfortably as the hat worn by this real-life cowboy, who hosts his own team roping competition. Strait proves equally at home on the barroom, truck-driving, boogie-woogie of "Honk If You Honky Tonk" and the lonesome Hank Williams twang of the rueful "Look Who's Back From Town."
After more than 20 years and 30 plus albums, all for the only label he's ever called home, Strait hasn't veered from the simple verities that make his sound timeless. For the new album, he has once more chosen songs by some of the top songwriters in Nashville, putting his distinctive mark on every one, making each his own.
"I remember seeing the Merle Haggard album, Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album, years ago and thinking, 'How could he have already done that many albums?'" muses Strait. "That's the way I feel now. An artist doesn't, or at least I don't, go into the studio and think what number album I'm doing. My career has been long, but it seems short. I've had so many great things happen to me professionally that the saying, 'Time flies when you're having fun,' really rings true for me. The same holds true for #1 records. I really wasn't keeping count until someone told me I was close to breaking the record."
Using some of the best session players in town, Strait plays the wronged lover who loses his girlfriend to a rich guy in the city on the aching "Look Who's Back From Town." Lamenting, "My old truck could not compare to his Mercedes," he still takes her back, with Matt Rollings' subliminal gospel B3 organ and Paul Franklin's breathless steel guitars providing an audible sigh. The soaring "Cowboys Like Us" once again pays tribute to being home on the range, as George pushes the emotional button, while at the same time roping it in, the strong, silent type who's not afraid to show pain. "As Far As It Goes" features a yearning steel guitar to match Strait's romantic devotion, which is also present on the final benediction of "Infinite Love." But he also demonstrates his lighter side in the tongue-in-cheek whimsy of the Grateful Dead-by-way-of-Merle Haggard "I Found Jesus on the Jailhouse Floor." The clever but warm "Four Down and Twelve Across" finds Strait comparing the vagaries of a love affair to solving a crossword puzzle by finding "a two-letter synonym for lostthat's me."
"I try to outdo myself every time I go into the studio," says the self-effacing superstar. "After I recorded 'The Road Less Traveled,' I really felt it was the best effort I'd had in a while. I feel my new record is even better."
As the Washington Post marveled after George's MCI Concert last February: "What was striking about this career-spanning show was how little Strait's style has changed over the years. Which perhaps hints at the secret to his longevity. He never fell for any fads in the parlance of politics, he hassomething else that's very rare these days: mystique."
"My approach to recording this album was pretty much the same as far as putting it together," says Strait. "I listen to hundreds of songs every time I record. I keep what I like, then the culling process begins. I was getting so much good material, it was very tough to let some of them go. I've always done my vocals in Nashville, but with today's modern technology, I decided to do my vocals at home. I really enjoyed the comfort of being able to do that. I think the more relaxed atmosphere comes through on the record. I felt more free to try different things that I probably wouldn't have tried in a studio situation."
As for the seminal influences in his career, Strait credits Haggard, George Jones and Bob Wills as the most important, but adds, "I can't leave out others like Hank, Cash, Tillis, Milsap, Sinatra, Street, Pride, Waylon, Willie, Faron, Price, Conway and Buck. I hope I'm not leaving anyone out. For years, I sang these guys' songs (except, perhaps, for Sinatra) in every bar and honky-tonk that would let us in."
And you're more than welcome to join him. Although he closed his live album, For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, earlier this year with his '84 hit, "The Cowboy Rides Away," Strait isn't about to walk off into the sunset. As he sings in "Infinite Love": "It will live on/Long after we kiss goodbye/Forever by your side." That applies equally to his passion and his music.
George Strait seems determined to confound those who call him predictable. By ending the '90s with "Murder on Music Row," a duet with kindred spirit Alan Jackson that wittily jabbed Nashville for its pop-country emphasis, Strait secured his reputation as one of the last of the country traditionalists still working out of this town. But that created a problem for him: He may love honky-tonk and Western swing, but he considers himself more dimensional than his image as the trad-and-true king of old-school country music suggests.
So, after "Murder," Strait took the ironic turn of releasing two of the most pop-leaning albums of his career. While he's never shied from middle-of-the-road balladry, 2000's George Strait and 2001's The Road Less Traveled proved he's just as good at sophisticated adult pop as he is at Texas two-steps. In doing so, he proved to naysayers yet again that pop need not be synonymous with schlock.
Both albums feature work as subtle and sublime as any in his career. The self-titled album is the more consistent of the two: The sensual come-on of "The Night's Just Right for Love," the heartbreaker "If It's Going to Rain" and the hit "Go On" each feature elegant, effortless phrasing and moonlit arrangements as suitable for a sleek Lincoln Navigator as for a hard-working Chevy pickup.
The Road Less Traveled doesn't maintain as high a standard, but its best tracks probe relationships with the kind of mature complexity that made its predecessor shine. The hits, "She'll Leave You With a Smile" and "Run," may not hit the peaks of Strait's best-loved material, but they're beautifully conceived tunes that will stand the test of time. The version of Merle Haggard's "My Life's Been Grand" is Strait at his best--and in its spare mix of strings and steel guitar, offers as much of a road map for what he does best as anything he's recorded.
But just as Strait appeared to be pledging allegiance to new-millennium country, he returned with Honkytonkville, his most traditional album in ages. Released in June, the record sports rural Southern rhythms and musical accents that recall Strait's early '80s classics, back when he rode into Nashville with a quiet authority and a down-home appeal that reminded country music of what it had lost during the Urban Cowboy era.
But Strait has never been retro. Even his most hardcore honky-tonk is attuned to contemporary possibilities: He keeps it country while fitting into the context of the time in which he lives. Honkytonkville may feature shuffle rhythms and steel-and-fiddle leads, but it's not the same old-school sound found in Strait classics like 1981's "Unwound" or 1983's "Amarillo by Morning." The blend of strings, fiddle and keyboards on his new "Cowboys Like Us," or the smooth way the twin fiddles get support from a sighing string orchestration on the title track, shows how seamlessly the past can be nudged into the future without losing touch with its roots.
Strait's still trying new themes: He's never sung about religion or prison (both bedrock country music topics), but manages here to combine them into one romping new tune, "I Found Jesus on the Jailhouse Floor." It's unlike anything he's previously recorded. The same could be said of the album's first hit, "Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa," a gem of a laid-back country-soul tune that underscores the ties between R&B singers like Arthur Alexander and O.C. Smith and Nashville crooners like Don Williams and Conway Twitty.
Another standout, "My Infinite Love," mines familiar territory for Strait--the tender, devotional love song. But it's the details that count, the way the steel guitar sweeps behind his conversational tone while barely-there background vocals and airy, sustained keyboard chords linger like an orange sunset over his shoulder.
Working again with co-producer Tony Brown, as he has since 1992, Strait returns to his roots not as an attempt to capture the magic of his early career. Instead, he's intent on conjuring something just as fresh as the standards he recorded 20 years ago. It's not Hank Williams or Bob Wills, but it brings their music forward in a way that's as dead-on country as a Bandera cattle ranch or an Amarillo feed store.
Strait's not alone in charting this course. We're now experiencing at least the second generation of artists he's influenced. A dozen years ago, he inspired Alan Jackson and early Garth Brooks; today, his ideas resonate in the records of Brad Paisley, Joe Nichols and Craig Morgan, all of whom owe a debt to Strait.
As funny and as right-on as "Murder on Music Row" may have been, Strait has spent the ensuing four years illustrating how predictions of the death of country music are as premature as they've always been. Country music makes its greatest advances when it shows pride in where it comes from, yet accepts that staying tuned to modern innovations is the best way to keep it robust and lively. It's not just Strait's ability to stay in touch with the past that makes him great; it's also his ability to recognize how he can fit into today's world without changing who he is.
Actually, ''amble'' is a good word for how Strait entered the arena, climbed the square stage set in the center of the building and quietly went about his business. There were no rock 'n' roll-style special effects or flying cowpokes with wireless headsets to be seen.
He followed opening acts country pop vocalist Kellie Coffey and scraggly traditionalist Dierks Bentley. Both delivered energetic sets, but in both cases the biggest applause they got came when they mentioned the headliner, the fellow who brought the people here, the guy Coffey called ''the legendary king of country music, Mr. George Strait.''
According to promoters, there were 17,860 tickets sold for the show, the second-largest number in GEC history. To please all in attendance, Strait worked all sides of the ''in-the-round'' setting magically from the moment he got things going with Honk if You Honky Tonk.
Strait commands attention by delivering stirring vocals and knowing when to step aside, holding his guitar silently and letting his Ace in the Hole Band deliver sounds that would have pleased Bob Wills.
Bobbie Elliott, 47, and her husband, David Elliott, 51, were among the many who raised the noise level. They drove up from Muscle Shoals, Ala., with their daughter, former teen singer Alecia Elliott, to see the show.
That fan dedication is well earned and appreciated. When launching into Amarillo By Morning, Strait said: ''We used to sing this in honky-tonks in South Texas. Y'all made it a hit for us, thank you very much.''
It was the latter leader, George Strait, who rustled up no fewer than 12,063 of his constituents on Saturday night at Hilton Coliseum in Ames and had them whooping and hollering in praise of his timeless, velvety twang. The cowboy in a big black hat and a pair of pressed Wranglers took his fans on a guided tour of not just his own prolific career but also summed up country music history in the process.
Strait's 31 albums in 23 years have maintained an unwavering devotion to a mix of honky tonk, Western swing and plenty of radio-friendly ballads. This steady diet has yielded more No. 1 hits (50 of "em) than Strait could hope to shoehorn into a given night, but Saturday's show served up a respectable and representative 28 songs.
Strait began in his usual style, by showcasing his latest work: the upbeat "Honk if You Honky Tonk" from last year's aptly titled album, "Honkeytonkville." Midway through his set he reached back to the days before his record deal for the incredibly smooth and supple "Amarillo by Morning."
Everything about Strait's show was as well-pressed as his Wranglers, even the singer's deliberate method of playing to the entire audience from the square stage in the middle of the arena floor: He simply played a few tunes on one side of the square and then moved to the next, rotating counterclockwise throughout the concert.
Other Strait selections included "Murder on Music Row" (the angry indictment of contemporary Nashville that was recorded as a duet with Alan Jackson) and Merle Haggard's "My Life's Been Grand" (which included a beautifully wistful steel guitar solo by Mike Daily).
And just when the momentum was suffering from a few too many slick, homogenous ballads, Strait picked up the pace with the harder Western swing of "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and "Milk Cow Blues." These classics gave his entire 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band room to shine, especially pianist Ronnie Huckaby.
The well-preserved Strait, 51, does little more on stage than sing, smile and occasionally strum his acoustic guitar, yet he inspires baby boomer women to squeal like a bunch of giddy Justin Timberlake fans. (Well, there was that gratuitous close-up of Strait's backside that was flashed on the four giant video screens and sparked a screaming frenzy.)
Bentley is another reason that Strait has enjoyed such a long reign: The veteran has a habit of hanging around and lending his support to up-and-coming talent. The George Strait Fests in the 1990s did for young country singers - introduce them to the masses - what Ozzfest has done for metal bands and Lilith Fair did for female singer-songwriters.
Coffey rolled out her current hit, "Texas Plates," as well as the McEntire classic "Little Rock." She ended her 20-minute set with complete bombast, an extended rendition of her hit ballad "When You Lie Next to Me."
In a single song, Bentley's bassist, Michelle Poe, displayed more promise. She got to step up to the microphone and showcase her forthcoming debut single, "Just Like One of the Boys," which was sly and understated compared with Coffey's hard-sell style with her power ballads.