Strait rides tall on Texas turf
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, The Astrodome, Houston, Feb. 21, 1997
By Brian Wahlert
HOUSTON - Texas does everything bigger and better than any other state, so it's no surprise that Texans don't just listen to country music - they live it. And they don't just love their hometown stars - they idolize them.
So when George Strait comes to town, it's not just a concert - it's a spectacle. Strait is always the first artist to sell out at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and this year was no exception.
Houstonians seem to be grooming Clay Walker, another artist who paid his dues in Texas honky tonks, as the heir to Strait's throne, but based on tonight's performance, don't expect Strait to retire to Branson anytime soon.
The 58,842 in attendance roared to life as the announcer spoke the name of Houston's most adored star, and the Ace in the Hole Band launched into a western swing instrumental.
After a brief greeting from Strait, he and the band played the western swing piece, "Take Me Back to Tulsa," the first of many songs featuring great solo fiddle work by Gene Elders.
"Lovebug," a classic by that other George (Jones) got the crowd even more excited, and "Overnight Male," one of several songs off the "Pure Country" soundtrack, didn't give them a rest.
By then, however, it was quite apparent that something was wrong. Strait sounded a little bit hoarse, like he had some bug other than the lovebug, and he was having trouble hitting notes.
The problem became much worse at the beginning of the fourth song, "Easy Come, Easy Go," when Strait couldn't even find the right key, much less the right notes. He sounded almost like he was afraid to sing, like he was holding back for some reason.
Based on those four songs, one had to wonder: All this time, has Strait just been a great studio creation? Can't he sing live? Is the worship that he receives from these rodeo crowds undeserved? He dispelled any such thoughts with the next song, "When Did You Stop Loving Me," which he belted out in fine voice. Maybe his earphone got turned on so he could hear himself better, or maybe he just decided to be more aggressive vocally, but for the rest of the show he sounded great.
More "Pure Country" music followed: "Heartland" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends." Although such rocking country songs are not Strait's forte, they work well to energize the crowd.
Strait sings several songs about rodeo life, and these naturally struck a chord with the audience. "Amarillo by Morning" featured gorgeous fiddle, although the song may have been sped up a bit too much, and "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" is still the best song off "Blue Clear Sky."
At the rodeo, the crowd is full of lifelong country fans and not just come-latelys who put go to country concerts dressed up in their line-dancing clothes and scream, "Yeah," when random new-country singer Mr. X asks from the stage, "Are there any cowboys in the crowd tonight?" As a result, this crowd remembers the great Strait songs of the past, so these go over particularly well. "Amarillo by Morning" is one, but tonight's best example was "The Chair," which had many in the crowd singing along to the classic tale of a hook-up in a bar.
Surprisingly, however, the night's highlight was neither a rodeo song, nor a Strait classic. It wasn't one of his beautiful power ballads, although "Carried Away" and "I Cross My Heart" are wonderful songs. It wasn't even a great piece of western swing, like "Big Ball in Cowtown."
Tonight's best song was a little-heard cut off "Chill of an Early Fall," "Milk Cow Blues." It's a country-blues number unlike anything else Strait has recorded, but anyone in the audience with a view of the jumbo screen could see that Strait gets a huge kick out of performing it live. His eyes absolutely lit up near the end of the song when he growled the line, "Just count the days I'm gone," and many of the women in the audience screamed in delight.
By the time he got to the show's closing number, his first hit, the honky-tonk classic "Unwound," many in the crowd were standing and dancing. No one wanted the show to end. Strait could have played for hours more than the one-and-a-half where he stopped, and tens of thousands of fans would have stayed right there with him.
Tonight, George Strait proved why many consider him the reigning king of country music and a certain country hall of famer. By and large, he's chosen great songs, and after the technical difficulties of the first few tunes, he showed that he has a very good voice.
On top of that, he has a magnetic stage presence that makes women swoon over him and men envy him. He doesn't have to say anything at all. He can just stand at the microphone and sing, maybe mug for the camera a little, and that's entertainment enough for this crowd.