A few years ago, 2012 to be exact, George Strait announced that he was retiring from the road. Of course, he could just saunter into the sunset without a proper goodbye. He embarked on a massive tour in early 2013 and closed it out in true Texas style a little over a year later in Arlington Texas at AT&T Stadium in front of a record crowd to record box office receipts and probably an unprecedented roundup of his best friends and collaborators. That show is presented in a new DVD titled The Cowboy Rides Away, although, thankfully, that just means away from the road and not into the sunset.
Is it Strait’s Last Waltz, the legendary concert The Band held in late 1976 to announce its retirement from concert halls, jets, and tour busses and which ultimately proved to be the death knell of the original version of the band? Kind of. It’s certainly the spirit of that epic show—a series of people from throughout Strait’s nearly 40 years as a performing artist and 30-plus years as a recording act stroll across the stage and join him on an endless barrage of hits that never tires. And, like The Last Waltz, this is a reminder of how damn good the performer in question is.
Armed with 40 tracks Strait and his Ace In The Hole Band deliver a performance that is polished and grand—replete with a Texas-sized stage and Texas-sized stage—and which not even Jason Aldean can derail. Strait isn’t much of an entertainer—the pyrotechnics here are primarily the musical kind and subdued enough that they won’t give Aunt Melba a fright. The only flying that happens is the soaring of the vocals and there are no strings to be found there—King George rises high on his own wings. He is, to restate the obvious, a hell of a singer with impeccable emotional delivery and an ear for virtually every corner of the human experience and crevice of the human heart.
Despite a couple of movie roles and the kind of good looks not uncommon to rural ranchers, he’s not really a star so much as he is a first-class musician. He’s comfortable in a working man’s shirt, blue jeans and a hat that might be the most expensive thing on his person. He’s not overwhelmingly magnetic and his personality doesn’t dwarf the 100,000 plus Arlington crowd.
But—and this can’t be said enough–the songs. Those tunes crush all comers.
“Amarillo By Morning”, penned by Terry Stafford and recorded by Strait in 1983, is one of the all-time great country numbers and our humble hero performs it not like a song he’s been singing since all those years ago, but one that he’s just mastered and rolled out for the first time. It doesn’t hurt that Alan Jackson joins him for that number or that Jackson adds a little touch of this and that and a whole lot of wow factor to a take on the 2000 hit “Murder on Music Row” (a country and western zeitgeist song, for sure).
Those and so many of the other songs here are the kind of tunes written and performed by an all-but-dead kind of Nashville performer—one who could grab hold of the universal and speak truth, the way Strait and Co. do here. Witness “Showman’s Life” and “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together”, rendered ever more true than ever with a little help from the seemingly ageless Faith Hill, or “Jackson” and “Golden Ring” with Martina McBride.
It’s like the magic era of country—the final good years, the ones that the ’90s came and crushed and erased and sent into the halls of time—is alive, well, and living on your television screen as the hours and songs roll away. Listening to “Arkansas Dave”, a tune written by Bubba Strait, you’re reminded that someone is still writing that kind of song, that someone still cares enough to sing their very best, and it’s a perfect contrast to the (comparatively) glitzed-out tracks with Miranda Lambert (“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”, “Run”). But even those can be washed away with the glory that is “You Look So Good In Love” (another 1983 hit for Strait and a must-love for any country fan).
Long hailed as one of the guys who wrestled country from the throes of crossover in the early ’80s, that reputation is well-earned and we’re reminded here of the short distance between him and Lyle Lovett in his younger years—guys who believed that roots were paramount and chart points were a nice perk but unnecessary for great art. Of course, Strait didn’t get to be The King of Country without a few calculated risks but they’re the kind you can still respect because, at the end of the day, this is a man who believes in what he’s singing more than most.
He’s not afraid to delve into the spiritual without being overly sentimental or, ahem, preachy (“I Saw God Today”, “I Believe”) and not afraid to have a good time without completely glorifying a life of sin (“Drinkin’ Man”), nor is he afraid to dive in and sing one for and about the fans (“I’ll Always Remember You”).
In short, this DVD isn’t so much just a record of an event, it’s a walk through the history of an artist who’s traversed some rough waters in the seas of country music and come out as one of the good guys—the real good guys who doesn’t seem to shoot his mouth off unnecessarily and has avoided the kind of scandals that topple giants. Could such a singer exist? Well, Gentleman George Strait has made us believe so. And, watching this evening, frame by frame and song by song, even the casual listener can’t help but like him and the novice would be wise to seek out more of his songs.
Of course we know that few stay off the road once they’ve done the retirement tour and shows and maybe Strait will poke his head back into the arena for a one-off here or there. But that hardly matters. As long as we have the legacy, the memories, the melodies and rhythms and double wide smiles, then we have George. And if he’s not prepared to stick around well, then, maybe this younger Strait, this kid Bubba, will do.
For those who want to know if the DVD is crammed with worthwhile extras, yes it is. Lots of Strait’s friends gathering together to sing his praises. But we already know how great he is.