Editor’s note: This article was originally published January 11, 2014
He’s earned the right to retire. But country music needs him now more than ever.
A sold-out crowd of die-hard fans greeted George Strait on Friday night at the Erwin Center, the second stop in the home stretch of his two-year "Cowboy Rides Away" farewell tour. Technically, Strait isn’t retiring — "there’s still things I want to say and do," he assured the crowd near the end of the set in the chorus of "I’ll Always Remember You" — but his plan is to make records without touring after a June 7 grand finale at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
Though two dozen dates remain on the tour between now and then, it was clear from the start that this one was special to Strait. The Poteet native was raised in Pearsall and cut his teeth in the 1970s at venues such as Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos (while he attended college there) and the Broken Spoke in South Austin. He gave a shout-out to both places before launching into his signature tune "Amarillo By Morning" two-thirds of the way through a marathon 33-song show that ran almost two and a half hours.
The audience’s appreciation overflowed for most of the night, with extended ovations and spontaneous sing-alongs. Strait was clearly caught up in the moment as well: Several times, he gazed out at the crowd with a sense of wonder, savoring the moment of his final major concert in Central Texas. "It’s a little sad for me," he acknowledged early in the set, noting that he and his Ace in the Hole Band had played the Erwin Center "about 15 times" by his count.
But any bittersweetness was easily overshadowed by Strait and his 11-piece crew’s masterful performance, which drew liberally from a repertoire that trumps every other country artist of the past four decades (save perhaps Garth Brooks). Standouts included "Blame It on Mexico" (from his 1981 debut "Strait Country"), "How ’Bout Them Cowgirls" (from 2006’s "It Just Comes Natural") and "Easy Come, Easy Go" (the title track to his 1993 release).
Ten songs in, opening act Jason Aldean joined Strait on "Fool Hearted Memory," the headliner’s first No. 1 hit back in 1982, and "Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her" from 1986. "Growing up listening to George Strait songs helped shape what I do," Aldean said between the songs, telling Strait that "if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t be a Jason Aldean."
We won’t hold that against Strait, but it’d be nice if the understudy’s music actually showed more evidence of the mentor’s influence. Too much of Aldean’s hourlong opening set testified to all that has gone awry with mainstream country in recent years. Where Strait’s approach was smooth and true, Aldean’s was bombastic and contrived.
A rare moment that revealed a connection was "Amarillo Sky," a memorable tune with a nice pedal steel solo. More telling, though, was the contrast between Aldean’s wretched "Johnny Cash" — an arena-rockish abomination that ventures nowhere near the spirit of The Man in Black — and Strait’s decision to go straight to the source in his encore by covering Cash’s classic "Folsom Prison Blues." Aldean would do well to learn from the master, while he still can.