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'Long Live King George!' Why Texas loves ACL headliner George Strait

George Strait will headline both Fridays of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Born just south of San Antonio in Poteet and raised in nearby Pearsall, George Strait — who headlines both Fridays of this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival — attended Texas State University (then Southwest Texas) in the 1970s and launched his career at honky-tonks such as Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Gruene Hall in New Braunfels and the Broken Spoke in Austin.

Because so many towns played a part in Strait’s rise, he’s less associated with a specific city (a la Willie Nelson and Austin), and more often simply regarded as a Texan. And what a Texan, indeed: When the American-Statesman conducted a “Texas Bracket” in 2017 to celebrate Texas Independence Day, it was Strait who was selected as “the Most Texan of all Texans” by our readers — above Willie, even.

GET READY:Everything you need to know about ACL Fest, including COVID rules

Austin’s relationship with Strait has been more like that of a favorite cousin than a native son, but he’s always been well-appreciated here in the Live Music Capitol. Since his rise to stardom in the 1980s, he’s played here many times, including more than a dozen concerts at the Erwin Center. No shortage of Austin musicians hold Strait in high regard.

We asked a handful of them to tell us what Strait’s music means to them. Our cast ranges from songwriters who’ve had tunes recorded by Strait; to country-leaning singer-songwriters Sunny Sweeney, Jesse Dayton and Kathryn Legendre; to bandleaders Jonathan Terrell (Not in the Face), Cory Reinisch (Harvest Thieves) and Stephanie Bergara (Bidi Bidi Banda); to fiddler Brendon Anthony, now director of the Texas Music Office; to manager/publicist Jenni Finlay, whose late father, longtime Cheatham Street Warehouse proprietor Kent Finlay, gave Strait some of his first gigs.

Here’s what they shared with us:

Sunny Sweeney

I LOVE George Strait. I have always looked up to him staying country, staying true. I remember being a child hearing "Unwound" for the first time. His voice was so pure. So country.

I've never had the pleasure of sharing a stage with him at one of his shows, but I did play Ray Benson's Birthday Bash (in 2016) and got up to sing a couple songs with his band. I heard a hush come over the crowd as I was walking offstage and passed "The King" as he was getting up to sing! It was like being in a room with royalty.

George Strait and his band played the inaugural concert at the Cedar Park Center in 2009.

Bruce Robison

The best thing is having that voice sing your song; still gives me chills. All the guys dressed like Strait in Bandera when I was growing up. THE biggest star.

Total career highlight that he recorded two of my songs (“Wrapped” and the Robison/Monte Warden co-write “Desperately”). Only drawback is he has so many hits, I have never seen him sing one of mine in concert. Oh well, someday. (Maybe ACL?)

Long live the king!

REVIEW:George Strait at Erwin Center in 2018 (set list included Robison's "Wrapped")

Monte Warden

I have loved George Strait since I first heard “Strait Country” in 1981. One should remember country at the time: Strait was as groundbreaking and unique-sounding as about anything going on in rock & roll. In 1983, Wayne Nagel sneaked me into the Double Eagle to see Strait's last Austin club date. I was 15 and about the only male in the audience. All that is cool and fun, but it doesn't exactly separate my experience too much as a Strait fan.

But when Strait recorded my song “Desperately” (for 2003’s “Honkytonkville”), it put me in a different category of songwriter. Permanently. Not just a hit writer, but a writer of a George Strait hit (No. 6 on Billboard’s country chart). In his 40-year career, he has become known as one of the all-time great interpreters of song, right there with Sinatra, Ella, Presley, Cole — and here he took a song of mine top-10.

George gave me a seat at the grown-ups' table. After two decades of critical acclaim but little commercial success, George changed that narrative for me in a way few other living artists could — and he sang the absolute hell out of that song! The three times we have been blessed to visit with him, he has always thanked ME for the hit — me, the kid that Wayne sneaked into the Double Eagle to see him.

Stephanie Bergara

I have wanted to be like George Strait since I was the tiniest of Texans. George represents the best of what Texas is. Cowboys boots, crooning and team roping. A beautiful mixture of Central Texas charm, honky-tonks, mariachis and all things we native Texans hold near and dear to our hearts. George is King in these parts. At last count, I have been the girl openly weeping at a George Strait concert a grand total of 14 times. Every time was magic.

He has always been my North Star. He’s been my guiding light and the example behind my mantra that you’re never too late to make your dreams come true. I was less dissuaded about starting my first band at 29 when I found out that George cut his very first record, “Unwound,” at 29. He won his first Grammy for “Troubadour” at 57.

PHOTOS:George Strait, through the years

When he cut “El Rey,” completely in Spanish and backed by a mariachi, for the “Twang” album (2009), it felt like he was doing it just for me. I listened to it on repeat for weeks. I played his song “Blues Melodies” on repeat for hours while I wept and consoled myself after hearing about the death of one of my best friends eight years ago.

I call my players out by their full name and their hometown when I introduce them, because that’s what George does. You’re never doing it wrong when you’re taking care of your family and your band. George taught me that. He’s a musician who musicians want to be like — cool, exceptionally talented and deeply admired.

Jorge Derecho, El Gran Señor: Gracias por todo. Cheers to you, sir, one of Texas’ most beloved sons. What a treat for us to see you back in Austin.

George Strait and his band played the Erwin Center's 40th-anniversary concert in 2018.

Jesse Dayton

George Strait showed up in disguise sporting a full beard at the Continental Club, saw me and ended up taking my band on his Strait Fest tour in 1997 as the very first opening act. As far as Texans go, he’s one of the coolest. Long live King George!

Cory Reinisch

To me, George Strait has always been the sound of Texas. The first time I ever walked into Gruene Hall, I remember setting eyes upon a signed picture of George Strait and immediately recognized the setting as the back photo on the album "Strait Country." I had probably seen that photo a thousand times in my youth, and heard those songs as much or more. His music and presence have never been too far away from where I am.

My father owned a 1978 Ford Custom, and I would accompany him on the weekends to our family's ranch out in Central Texas. A cassette of "George Strait's Greatest Hits" was a permanent fixture in that pickup, and I can remember many cold winter mornings on our way to a deer hunt listening to “Marina Del Rey.” I had friends who rodeoed and crossed his path on the team-roping circuit. Their stories were always like you imagined he would be: cordial, welcoming and most of all entertaining.

When I was in college, it was a rite of passage to play at least one George Strait song at open mic nights in Lubbock. Most everyone chose “Amarillo By Morning.” My favorite bar in Austin, the Horseshoe Lounge, banned “Amarillo By Morning" on the jukebox. So it goes with George Strait.

FROM 2014:Our review of George Strait at the Erwin Center

Kathryn Legendre

It’s safe to say I wouldn’t be the same person, artist, or Texan without George Strait. No other artist or collection of music has inspired or influenced me more. His catalog is embedded in every stage of my life and helped inform my own musical identity. From singing “Baby Blue” in the back seat of my parents’ car to covering “Down & Out” with my band at the White Horse, he’s my absolute musical hero. His “Carrying Your Love With Me” tour was the first concert I ever attended (in San Antonio, of course). Bottom line: I can’t wait to get honky-tonk crazy with George at ACL Fest!

George Strait has played the Erwin Center more than a dozen times, including this January 2011 concert.

Brendon Anthony

George Strait is a music icon. His name appears regularly alongside the likes of Sinatra, Elvis and Streisand, and rightfully so. Strait is a Texan, and this crucial piece of his identity seems baked into his music and his public personality.

In economic discussions, we often reference direct and indirect effects of certain events. Strait’s direct effects are fairly well understood (if still staggering): millions of albums sold, more than 50 No. 1 hits on the country charts, record-breaking touring numbers for more than 30 years.

When Strait first arrived on the country music scene, Nashville country music was awash in a sea of overwrought, overly string-arranged, melodramatic pop. His single “Unwound” cut through all of that and changed the landscape forever. What followed was a boom that lasted more than 20 years and spawned multiple generations of major country mega-acts that included Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire. This is where we begin to see the all-important indirect effects of the George Strait phenomenon.

Strait is a Texan through and through. His roots are in the songwriting and performing community that existed in Texas long before he came of age, one that carries on to this day. George’s success and his continued support of subsequent generations have produced notables like Randy Rogers and many others. It is truly impossible to describe how many lives and careers he has touched in his time. As a Texas musician myself, I am proud to say that I consider George Strait a musical hero of mine.

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Jonathan Terrell

When you see George live, he could be playing a slow ballad, a hot trotter or a breezy trail song, and the crowd does the same thing for all of them. They go ape (expletive)!

For me, it’s the songs. They’re the star, and Strait serves them beautifully. It’s a gentlemen’s approach to a master craft, and I feel like that level of care and style exemplifies the traditions of true cowboy culture. He’s a pretty good roper, too.

American-Statesman photographer Jay Janner was still in college at Texas A&M when he took this photo of George Strait in College Station in 1987. Behind Strait are Ace in the Hole band members Mike Daily, left, Gene Elders, Benny McArthur and Rick McRae.

Jenni Finlay

Dad knew from the start. He knew George Strait was the world’s biggest country star. We finally confirmed that he was on the way on Oct. 13, 1985, which was the 10th anniversary of the Ace in the Hole band at Kent Finlay’s Cheatham Street Warehouse. The whole band was there for the annual anniversary show party. Well, all but one. George was up in Nashville at his first CMA awards show. He had been nominated for male vocalist of the year.

Dad had told everyone — and I mean everyone — that George would win. Folks would roll their eyes, but Dad would say, “Mark my word.” That night, Dad even broke his own sacred rule outlawing televisions in the bar and brought in a huge (back then) 32-inch TV to set up on stage for us all to watch. And what do you know? Dad was right! What a party we had after that. The band played, and we whooped and hollered celebrating our friend, George — that shy, nice and amazingly talented guy who Dad gave his first break when he played his first gig with the Ace in the Hole band at Cheatham Street Warehouse on Oct. 13, 1975.

The next day, Dad spiked into the ground a handwritten sign outside Cheatham Street for all the world to see: “George Strait — Male Vocalist of the Year. 'I told you so!' — Kent Finlay.” If Dad were here today, I can hear him now, clear as day, the pride shining all over his face: “I TOLD YOU SO.”