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'He's the only reason I'm here': George Strait's loyal subjects assemble at ACL Fest

Ramon Ramirez
Fans attend the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Friday October 1, 2021 (Robert Hein for American-Statesman)

It’s 7:17pm down at Zilker and I’m spotting 30 cowboy hats up front.

I see children In Dallas Cowboys jerseys and Houston Astros dads in polos; their large, adult, culture-warrior sons are leaning into the regional pride hard: ‘staches, boots, jeans, hats, shirtless torsos covered only by suspenders, and for one ACL patron, a Whataburger baseball jersey. I see lots of Texas A&M maroon and you guessed it, red, white, and blue regalia.

Country legend George Strait is performing shortly at the Ladybird stage, and his fans are showing out with away-game energy. Austin City Limits is a festival that runs on its pop headliners these days, and this ain’t exactly Midnight Rodeo. As such, King George’s loyal subjects are defending the genre in “Willie Waylon and Whiskey” and “Damn Strait” tees. Seen and heard, even if there’s, frankly, wide open spaces here for blankets. 

There’s also 25-year-old Lubbock man Hector Bustillos, tonight shirtless, donning earrings, and nipple rings. He says he drove in for George. 

“He’s the only reason I’m here,” Bustillos says, citing the 69-year-old Texas icon’s “classic” country. 

The thing about Strait is, he’s beloved by the whole state—and that also includes its significant Latinx community. I spot a Latina in black hats and a long, black George Strait shirt among similarly outfitted friends. I see lots of Latino cowboy dudes in fishing shirts. And it’s a generations-deep fandom, apparently. 

“My area, the whole panhandle is into country music,” Bustillos says, citing Strait’s themes of small-town farm life as particularly resonant. Does he feel singled out as a colorfully dressed country fan? 

“Without a doubt. I look gay as hell and I’m in it. It’s my whole life,” Bustillos says of his scene and fandom. 

His friend, 26-year-old San Antonio man Alex Maher, became a fan because his mother, from Mexico, loved her some George Strait growing up. They want to hear “Amarillo by Morning,” they want to hear “Blame it on Mexico.” They know these songs in Mexico but not in Austin, Bustillos quips.

That’s not quite true. 

“First: He’s from my alma mater, Southwest Texas [Texas State]. Second of all, my friends live in a ranch next to his so that’s personal. Thirdly he’s a great songwriter,” Plugerville-by-way-of-Laredo man J.J. Martinez tells me. 

Martinez says he’s been a fan since 1987 and his date blushes when he says that their romantic history is linked to Strait songs “Check Yes or No” and “The Chair.”