WISCONSIN STATE FAIR, AUGUST 6
Even though (or possibly because) he's a monster country star, George Strait, at 42, has little detectable cachet among the alternative-country crowd. Unlike a critically correct artist like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Strait dresses in decidedly unhip fashion, sells tons of albums, and when not on tour holes up on his Texas ranch, where he indulges his passion for quarter horses and cattle. While Gilmore hung out with Austin hipsters and followed the chubby teenage guru Maharaji, Strait did a tour in the Army, then went on to study the art of cattle-pen construction at Southwest Texas State University.
Now that ain't hip in certain quarters, but Strait exudes another kind of cool. Unlike other mainstream country stars, he hasn't served up his personal life in exchange for copy. Vince Gill has racked up sympathy mileage from the recent death of his older brother, and Naomi Judd's incessant whining has made her the country nation's premiere sob sister--or rather sob mother. Strait's an enigma within the Nashville structure. You never see him wallowing in Music City's endless photo ops: celebrity softball games, ribbon cuttings, industry meet-and-greets. His own life-altering tragedy--the death of his 13-year-old daughter in a 1986 car accident--has remained that rarest of things in a country star's life, a private matter. For Strait, there are some things even Nashville can't buy.
But Strait has an image problem. Dwight Yoakam's cowboy duds have just the right touch of ripped-jean cool, but there's no irony in Strait's creased Wranglers. In 20 years Strait will be roundly acknowledged as the great country artist he currently is; right now he's too young to overcome the superficialities of style. The same alternative crowd that now genuflects to Johnny Cash stays away from a George Strait show in droves. It's possible that there's never been a big country star whose name outside country drew more blank expressions.
Yet at the Wisconsin State Fair a couple of weekends back the fans who packed the oversold grandstand knew who he was. More important, so did Strait. Behind the outdoor stage--a giant metal construction covered with a tarpaulin--sat three tour buses, road warriors of a thousand fairs, big and small. The two older, smaller buses bore the front sign "George Strait," but the man who paid the bills didn't step out of either one.
His bus, a long, streamlined, multicolored machine with smoked windows, nosed up to the edge of the backstage. As his Ace in the Hole Band warmed up the crowd with several songs, Strait stepped out of the bus onto the asphalt, waiting for his grand entrance. A trim, compact man in a cowboy hat and stiff blue jeans, he paused and stood stock-still, cocked his head, and gazed off somewhere, both aware of and oblivious to the handful of people backstage staring at him.
"George Strait!" screamed the announcer. The band slammed into an introductory rave-up of "The Fireman," a stinging mesh of fiddle and steel and thundering drums. Strait waited several long seconds, then began his unhurried walk up the stairs and across the expanse of the stage. A nearly imperceptible but impeccable swagger filtered down to his hips from the place where it truly lives--inside his head. An intensely private singer who rarely submits to interviews, Strait walks it like he talks it. That controlled walk said it all: only a pud has to swing in on a rope.
In his 1992 film debut, Pure Country, Strait played a disillusioned country star named Dusty. In one scene--just before he focuses his wrath on the smoke, lights, and other accessories of pop idolhood--he turns to his manager and sneers, "I don't remember seeing you out there makin' those people scream." At the Wisconsin State Fair Dusty/George paused for a moment, as if to fully taste and ultimately accept the burden of that statement. When he sauntered onto the stage, the roaring grandstand roared harder. Strait pointed at the crowd and filled his stage like the loose and contained thing he is.
Strait arrived as a star in 1981 and is now moving into deserved legend status within the country ranks (putting the alternative crowd aside for a moment). It's not unusual to hear him cited in the same breath with George Jones. In accordance with that stature, and in keeping with traditional country continuity, his singing has spawned what's known as the Strait School. His imitators are legion, including Tracy Byrd, Rick Trevino, and Clay Walker. References to Strait crop up constantly in new country songs, from Garth Brooks's "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" to Brooks & Dunn's "Texas Women (Don't Stay Lonely Long)" to Tim McGraw's "Give It to Me Strait." Strait's name is equated with real country; by using it, many vainly hope some of his credibility will rub off.
Strait's understated weapon is his voice. Like his main man Merle Haggard, Strait has been influenced by country legend Lefty Frizzell and pop crooners Perry Como and Bing Crosby. His Texas accent is apparent but never overdone, and he eschews showy fillips. Although he's mastered the blue yodel, he rarely cuts loose with such over-the-top vocal flash. And much like the Hag, Strait is inclined toward occasional departures into pop and light jazz. More than anyone, Strait has taken the big band's western-swing sound, stripped it down with a smaller combo, and kept it alive through the 80s on a mass, mainstream scale.
Strait isn't a songwriter. What he has done is conscientiously make other people's songs his own. His material has been carefully and lovingly chosen, and he's relied on the best. His masterful readings of Jim Lauderdale's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "The King of Broken Hearts" make Lauderdale's versions from his excellent 1991 album Planet of Love sound like they're from an expensive songwriter demo tape.
There were no giant ramps, no bombastic light show, no choreography, no costume changes. Strait's only concessions to the modern age were the two giant video screens that broadcast his image into the Wisconsin night, and those were there simply to accommodate the sprawling crowd. After nearly 15 years in the business, Strait has a lot of hits to choose from, and he drove through his vast repertoire with gobs of great tunes to spare. He played "Unwound," his first (1981) charting honky-tonk missive, which helped pave the way for the new traditionalism of the late 80s. "Amarillo by Morning," his dark rodeo classic, hinged on a delicate fiddle line as bittersweet as sugar in black coffee. Strait leaned into "When Did You Stop Loving Me," the kind of adult, heavyweight, old-guard ballad no one in Nashville seems capable of pulling off anymore.
For his encore, Strait switched from a cowboy hat to a green baseball cap and finished up with "The Cowboy Rides Away." A mix of affability and focused ego, he smiled and waved, taking his time to exit just as he took his time to enter. On- or offstage he doesn't talk much. For him that would be in poor taste, and his is the sort of taste that can't be measured by the cut of somebody's jeans.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.