Carving out his career in the early ’80s, well after the legends of the classic era had set the standard for country music, George Strait is someone you can legitimately say is in a league of his own.
Having sold nearly 50 million albums since making his recorded debut in 1981 with “Strait Country,” he’s one of the most successful country artists of all time. In nearly four decades, Strait has issued 28 albums, and from that daunting discography, the Texas-bred troubadour has seen 60 songs shoot up to the top the charts, almost one for every year he has been alive.
A military veteran with a degree in agriculture, Strait paved the way for a succession of country stars who came after him, everyone from Garth Brooks to Kenny Chesney to Tim McGraw to Blake Shelton to Justin Moore, among countless others. Looking at the early images of those artists, many of whom have become icons in their own right, it’s not hard to see the shadow Strait cast with his crisp cowboy hats, freshly pressed button-downs, Wranglers and boots.
Ironically, the 63-year-old Strait, who’s set to perform two shows this weekend at T-Mobile Arena — the first of eight (followed by return dates in September, December and February) — made his mark singing songs of heartbreak with such conviction, you’d never know he’s been happily married to his wife since 1971.
Among the lengthy list of Strait’s songs, which have been staples of country radio for the better part of 40 years, he’s released some serious gems, including “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” “Amarillo by Morning,” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.”
Here’s a rundown of those ringers, along with some other highlights from his catalog, songs that stand out for either their expressiveness, their earnestness or their wordplay.
‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’
Written by Sanger D. Shafer and Linda J. Shafer, this song is, ahem, pure country from the opening notes played on the pedal steel guitar and fiddle. Although Strait sings of all the ladies left in his wake, the song’s central theme can be summed up simply in the opening quatrain: “All my ex’s live in Texas / And Texas is the place I’d dearly love to be / But all my ex’s live in Texas / And that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.” (Bonus points to the songwriters for squeezing in a line about transcendental meditation in a mainstream country song.)
‘Amarillo by Morning’
“Amarillo by Morning” is one of many tunes that Strait made popular. A down-tempo ditty, the song, written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, somehow succeeds in being timeless while also evoking an erstwhile era, one that couldn’t be more removed from contemporary times. Wistful words from the perspective of a rodeo cowboy who’s endure broken bones and broken hearts to pursue his passion precede sanguine sentiments like, “Amarillo by morning, up from San Antone / Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on / I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine.”
‘I Can Still Make Cheyenne’
This tune, written by Aaron Barker and Erv Woolsey, finds a guy who’s spent far too much time riding bulls and too little time at home. Exasperated and expressing regret for his neglectful ways, he calls and says he’s heading back. Too little too late, apparently. She’s found somebody else who’s not obsessed with rodeo. Eh, well, “There’s so much about you that I’m gonna miss,” he tells her. “But it’s all right, baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.” And with that, the protagonist makes his way back to the fabled rodeo town.
‘She Let Herself Go’
Country music, more than any other genre, is known for its double entendres, and this Dean Dillon and Kerry Kurt Phillips song holds its own in the pantheon of perfect twists. Similar in tone and texture to the tune above, “She Let Herself Go” starts off with a couple calling it quits, wondering how his significant other would handle the breakup. “When he said he didn’t love her no more, she let herself go,” Strait sings, before listing the ways she let herself go: “On a singles cruise / to Vegas once, then to Honolulu.” Oh, she also let herself go “on her first blind date” and “to the beach he always said was too far,” and, well, you get the picture.
‘Give It Away’
This track, written by Jamey Johnson, who’s since become a big name in country himself, along with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, could easily be a companion to “She Let Herself Go.” Here Strait pulls out a picture of another couple cutting ties. Rather than sifting through their shared belongings and dividing up who gets what, the wife says, “There ain’t nothing in this house worth fighting over” and tells him to just get rid of it. “That picture from our honeymoon, that night in Frisco Bay / Just give it away / She said, give it away / And that big four-poster king-size bed, where so much love was made / Just give it away / She said, just give it away.”
‘Check Yes or No’
While Strait didn’t pen this tune, Danny Wells and Dana Hunt, the song’s authors could’ve just as easily have written this one about Strait and Norma, his high school sweetheart whom he wed more than 40 years ago. “Check Yes or No” starts off with two classmates innocently passing notes and transitions to a time 20 years later with the husband reflecting: “Now we’re grown up and she’s my wife / Still like two kids with stars in our eyes / Ain’t much changed, I still chase Emmylu / Up and down the hall, around the bed in our room.”
Of all the songs Strait’s sung over the years, “I Believe,” which he wrote with son George Strait Jr. and Dean Dillon, is perhaps his most earnest and poignant. Inspired by the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, Strait acknowledges the lives lost in the first few lines (“The night’s as clear as a big desert sky / But it’s hard to see the stars with these tears in my eyes / Yeah, it’s hard not to cry / There’s 26 reasons why”), before bringing a sense of optimism to the grieving with his belief that “There’s 26 angels looking down from above / resting in his mercy, grace and love / Time may never heal / The sadness that we feel.”
Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @rjmusicdh on Twitter.