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2017

“Raw Like Good Church”: Joe Ely, Much-Admired Texas Troubadour

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Gambling cowboy troubadour 2017

Postby Nakora В» 10.12.2018

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One time, in Key West, where he records, he was sitting outside the studio, naked from the neck up, when a woman accosted him. Why would he cut a record in this little place?

He is, by some measures, the most popular country-music singer of all time and, by any measure, the most consistent. On a Friday night earlier this year, at T-Mobile Arena, a few paces from the Las Vegas Strip, nearly twenty thousand fans came together to hear Strait make his way through more than thirty of his biggest hits—a fraction of the total.

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them. Because he was playing in the round, there was no backdrop, and nothing in the way of pyrotechnics, with the important exception of that smile.

His onstage outfit, which has barely changed in forty years, includes, along with the cowboy hat and cowboy boots, a button-down shirt and bluejeans, ironed stiff enough to form an exoskeleton. A promotional contract obliges him to wear Wrangler jeans, and decades of ranching and roping inclines him to wear them stacked—that is, long and bunched up, so that he could, if necessary, mount a horse without fear of exposing any extra boot.

He adores the rough-hewn music and iconography of his native Texas, but he has never been too cool to sing sweeter, softer songs about suburban love gone right. He is a traditionalist, but not a revivalist: instead of evoking a bygone past, he prefers to evoke a familiar, unchanging present. The quintessential George Strait song involves a man who feels something strongly but can express it only winkingly.

A George Strait concert is a master class in the art of restraint. But just about everyone stood up at the sound of the fiddle overture that introduces the opening stanza, one of the most memorable in country music:.

The song—the stoic lament of a travelling rodeo pro—was originally recorded, in , by Terry Stafford, a former rock-and-roll singer. Chris LeDoux, a real-life rodeo champion who also built a do-it-yourself career as a country act, cut a version a few years later, which found its way to Strait, who made the song his own.

He occasionally approaches a syllable from above, using a mournful grace note, but he has an easy, conversational way of putting a melody across, as if he were singing to keep from talking. The song was so popular that he sometimes had to play it twice in a set, back when he was playing as many as four sets a night in Texas roadhouses.

But it resonated, and it has endured. When it was over, Strait looked out at the crowd and gestured toward the roof with both hands—jokingly asking for more applause, as if he needed it. Strait recently turned sixty-five, and he is officially semiretired.

Strait is an arena headliner, not a lounge act, and every night the preshow playlist pays subtle tribute to his staying power. What they have in common is that all of them mention Strait. But his bus comes, too, and remains parked behind the arena, allowing him to enjoy, in small doses, the life of a touring musician.

It was Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, and Strait was incognito on his bus, wearing a light-blue baseball cap and lightweight Nike running shoes. In the early decades of his career, he spent his downtime on horseback, turning himself into a decent competitor in the sport of team roping. He is still fit and trim, but these days he prefers fishing and golfing, and he enhances his year-round tan with frequent trips to the Bahamas and Mexico. In person, he is warm but watchful, and surprisingly shy; he seems like a man who does not crave attention, even though he has spent most of his life courting it.

Some members of his band have been playing with him since the nineteen-seventies, and they know him as an easygoing but exacting leader who wants his songs to sound just the way fans remember them.

He has always been a singles artist, and even people who have worked closely with him sometimes struggle to name a favorite album—they like all his songs, especially the hits. Without quite planning it, he built his career for maximum longevity, amassing one hit after another, never allowing himself a year off or a radical musical departure.

Strait became a beloved elder statesman without giving up the role he values more: hitmaker. There is, of course, life beyond the Billboard charts. Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, for instance, remain two of the most revered and beloved stars in the country-music galaxy, even though they stopped making hits in the nineteen-eighties. But Strait has always resisted becoming a legacy act—indeed, his legacy is inseparable from his miraculous ability to stay current, reigning as the defining voice of country music throughout the eighties, the nineties, and the aughts.

He is, by all accounts, intensely if quietly competitive: he wants to win, and radio spins and chart positions are an objective way of keeping score. On that Saturday night in Las Vegas, with those undetectable rough edges smoothed away, Strait and his band cruised through an even longer set, and he permitted himself to take some satisfaction in the fact that, once more, tens of thousands of fans had driven or flown into the desert just to watch him stand there and sing.

George Strait grew up in Pearsall, Texas, near the interstate that runs south through Laredo to the Mexican border. Strait developed a lifelong obsession with ranching, although he also had other interests: after high school, he married his girlfriend, Norma, spent a few semesters in college, and then joined the Army, which assigned him to the 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks, in Hawaii.

When the division put together a country band, Strait was chosen to lead it, and by the time he returned to Texas, in , he had resolved to pursue a career in music. Just to be safe, though, Strait enrolled at Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos, where he studied agricultural education, and where, one day, he came upon a bulletin-board notice from a group in search of a singer. One of the members was a pedal-steel player named Mike Daily, who has performed with Strait ever since.

The film was not, despite its plot, a comedy. The genre was getting popular and, not coincidentally, going pop, growing a bit more glamorous and a lot harder to define. Strait says that he does not remember the conversation. But George could get away with just standing there looking and sounding terrific.

Women deluged the stage with flowers, so many that disposal became a serious problem. At first, the bus would stop by a dumpster on the way out of town; later, the crew devised a system for donating them to local hospitals. Reba McEntire, who was also conquering country music at the time, once recalled a show that she played with Strait in Oklahoma.

For her, the Mark Harmon line was an act of professional self-defense, a way of winning over his female fans by endorsing their fandom.

He did, however, find canny ways to capitalize on it. Strait read a script and agreed to make the film, with some caveats.

In the part where Dusty, having absconded from his own tour, takes refuge at a ranch, Strait wanted to do his own roping. And although the script had him falling in love with a humble woman from his home town, he thought that a proposed kissing scene was unnecessary and potentially embarrassing , so he and his co-star, Isabel Glasser, made do with meaningful looks.

But the movie, which borrowed its plot from an old Presley vehicle, had an easygoing charm that encouraged repeat viewing. Strait wears a white hat, and on two separate occasions he vanquishes a bad guy wearing a black hat. Near the end of the film, Dusty rejects sinful pyrotechnics, and recommits himself to the path of musical righteousness.

At first, he hesitated to record it, until he realized that he could sing it in character, as Dusty. The song went to No. Wills was a fiddler, and in the nineteen-thirties and forties his group pioneered a style known as Western swing. Wills had begun his career as a blackface minstrel, and most of his musical heroes were black jazz musicians, although his band was all white. His biographer, Charles R. Townsend, reported that Wills once, on a bender in Tulsa, asked a black trumpeter to join the group.

Nowadays, hardly anyone stops to wonder why a city not known for ranching is synonymous with cowboy hats. But a certain amount of tension between Nashville country and Texas country is built into the relationship, dating back at least as far as , when Wills came to town to play the Opry and was nearly thrown out.

The organizers were accustomed to string bands, and Wills insisted on performing with a drummer. Strait was born in , and by the time he got to high school he and his friends were listening to the Beatles and other rock-and-roll bands.

Strait, like many of his peers and most of his successors, is in some sense a convert to the genre: he is country by birth, but also by choice. When Strait came to town to record, songwriters would lie in wait outside the studio, carrying demo tapes with the most stereotypically George Strait songs they had: songs about cowboys, songs about Texas, songs about the Alamo.

What Strait really wanted, though, was memorable and interesting melodies. His string of hits is in large part a result of his ability to identify a great tune.

He would review hundreds of demos himself, often deciding within thirty seconds whether a song sounded like something he might want to cut. Often, though, Strait learned each song quickly and sang it much the same way it sounded on the demo.

Dillon had grown up in Tennessee, in love with country music but also with singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King, who inspired him to experiment with unusual chords and structures. Dillon was once a recording artist, too, but he eventually decided that, since Strait was having so much success with his songs, he might as well become a full-time songwriter. Where Strait is polite and self-effacing, Dillon is a big, ornery personality: when Strait asked Dillon to put out his cigarette during their first meeting, he responded by exhaling a mouthful of smoke.

It is a wry, lilting account of a man chatting up a woman in a bar. Friends describe him as kind but quiet, and not easy to get to know. But in , when Strait decided that he was ready to work with someone else, Brown received the news not from Strait but from Erv Woolsey, his manager.

Successful country singers typically move to Nashville, but Strait never did. He lives outside San Antonio, and although he used to visit Nashville to record, he found that the climate exacerbated his allergies, which is why he now records in Key West, at a studio that belongs to his friend Jimmy Buffett.

In Texas, Strait keeps a low profile; he has adopted the life style of a contented, golf-obsessed businessman without ceasing to represent, for many fans, a connection to an older, more rugged way of living. He emerges once a year for the George Strait Team Roping Classic, which he created in and has presided over ever since. Team roping is one of the seven events included in a rodeo competition, and, like many sports, it is based on a useful skill honed well past the point of usefulness.

Strait was a pretty good roper, and he used to compete in his own tournament, although he never won. He sometimes worked in partnership with his son, George, Jr. It is down the road from Tapatio Springs, a golf resort that Strait and a partner recently bought and renovated.

A couple of announcers called the action, their voices both amplified and distorted by an antiquated public-address system. More than five hundred teams competed over two days, creating an agreeably repetitive spectacle. A top roping team can finish its work in less than five seconds, after which the steer is released to trot back to the pen, and the next team gets ready.

No less than Nashville, perhaps, the sport rewards perfectionism and patience: everyone is trying to solve the same problem, over and over again. On Saturday morning, championship day, Strait made his grand arrival on horseback, taking a ceremonial lap around the arena as fans hung over the railings, angling for selfies. All weekend long, the loudspeakers played nothing but George Strait songs, and it is a testament to his legacy that some attendees might not have noticed.

His music is so synonymous with the genre that a selection of his hits might simply sound, to the casual listener, like a classic-country playlist. Where Strait was stoic, Brooks was eager and emotive, straining for high notes, quavering or snarling, amplifying his Oklahoma accent or diminishing it, doing whatever it took to make fans love him.

In the nineteen-nineties, Brooks changed the genre, roaming stages with a wireless microphone, singing about ending racism and domestic violence; he also feuded with executives, retired for much of the aughts, and briefly tried to reinvent himself as a brooding rocker named Chris Gaines.

Strait, by contrast, instinctively avoided controversy; in fact, he avoided anything that was likely to interrupt the smooth functioning of his hit-making machine. He is friendly with both Bush Presidents, but he has never made a public political statement, and he has gone out of his way not to criticize his fellow-singers, or the industry more generally. For the shows earlier this year, in Las Vegas, his opening act was Kacey Musgraves, who is twenty-eight; when she was growing up, in East Texas, Strait was already a well-established star.

Even so, she was enjoying the challenge of trying to win over a George Strait crowd, not to mention the challenge of trying to get to know Strait himself.

Alan Jackson, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Don Williams , George Strait - Country Songs 2019, time: 1:14:59
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