“Oh the last goodbye's the hardest one to say. This is where the cowboy rides away.” — George Strait, “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
When Easton Corbin released his self-titled debut album back in 2010, People magazine declared he “sounds like the second coming of George Strait.”
“George Strait's one of a kind. He's a legend,” Corbin told me in a 2011 interview. “You know, it's an honor to be compared to that, but there'll definitely never be another George Strait, that's for sure.”
For sure: Since his 1981 debut single “Unwound” became a top 10 hit, Strait, now 60, has notched 59 No. 1 songs, sold in excess of 65 million albums and set more than 20 attendance records at U.S. venues from coast to coast.
Now, the Texas troubadour is bidding farewell to the road.
The Country Music Hall of Famer is opening his aptly named “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour,” which he has said will be his last, Friday night in Lubbock, Texas. He will play the second show on his 2013-14 farewell trek Saturday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The last time he played Oklahoma City two years ago, Mayor Mick Cornett proclaimed it “George Strait Day,” recognizing the singer as the top-grossing concert act in the venue's history. Singer-songwriter Lee Ann Womack, who opened that January 2011 show, called Strait “one of the greatest voices we have in country music today.”
“I look back at all the shows I've been to and there are a few that really stand out in my mind: Those that were true musical experiences. George has an unbelievably vast catalog of hits, he has a band full of great musicians, and his voice is truly an amazing instrument that he knows how to use. He's a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and yet still at the top of his game,” she said.
“I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song. And I'll be an old troubadour when I'm gone.” — George Strait, “Troubadour.”
Martina McBride, the opening act on Strait's 2013 dates, said all singers have to decide when it's time to leave the road behind. She knows that for the fans, saying goodbye to King George will be heartbreaking.
“There are a bunch of sold-out shows on this tour,” she said. “I know the fans would still come to see him for many, many, many years.”
When he announced the farewell tour in September, Strait told The Associated Press the plan to park his tour bus was a hard choice but he was sure it was the right one.
“I just don't want to go to the point where I show up and nobody else does, you know?” Strait, who rarely does interviews, told the AP. “It's been great. I've been doing it for 30-some odd years and I've loved it.
“Sometimes I've not liked it as much. And here lately it's just the walking out onstage part, that's all great. I'm still loving that. It's just the hectic part about touring and traveling and bam bam bam bam. I just feel like it's time for me to try something else.”
The Academy of Country Music Artist of the Decade said at the time he plans to keep recording new music and play select dates around the country at the end of the tour.
“When I do walk off this stage for the last time, and I'm all settled in, away from all this, you won't be far away. I'll still hear your screams and cheers in my mind.” — George Strait, “I'll Always Remember You.”
From the first time he heard him sing, George Strait changed Tommy Foote's life. The drummer had given up on his musical dreams and moved to Houston when his former bandmates called him back to San Marcos to audition a new singer for their group, the Ace in the Hole Band.
“I heard him sing once and quit my job and moved back up here and slept on couches. Because back then, I didn't really know enough about the music business, but I knew enough to know that this was my shot,” Foote said in a 2010 interview.
“Given his success and his stature, everything I say now almost sounds like a cliche, but it absolutely is sincere that he had a presence and a vocal ability from day one that just made him stand out.”
Three of the four original band members still tour with Strait, including Foote, who moved from drummer to road manager in 1983. He said the singer has always had a gift for knowing when to stick with what works and when to take a risk on something new. Like a music career without the road, for instance.
“He does have a surprising ability to think out of the box. I think ‘Pure Country' was about as out of the box as you could get,” Foote said with a laugh, referring to the 1992 film that marked Strait's acting debut.
“Really and truly, what you see is what you get,” he added. “Like the first time I met George, he was wearing a hat. So it's never been any kind of calculated master plan. I think he's always focused on finding the best songs possible that he was comfortable singing.”