Strait Casually Ignites Nashville Crowd

George Strait brought his “Chevy Trucks Presents” tour to the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville Friday night (Sept. 13) and in a program of 27 songs demonstrated why he remains — after 21 years on the charts — one of country music’s mightiest talents. Dynamo Jo Dee Messina opened the show.

Strait must find it a mixed blessing that his fans seem to love him even more than they do his music. While such adoration is tonic for the ego, it minimizes the artistry. The cheers that attended his simply being on stage were so loud, sustained and easy to ignite that he could have coasted through on charisma alone. But he didn’t. He worked hard. Ever the attentive craftsman, he concentrated on illuminating the lyrics songwriters had entrusted to him. To watch him is to see a performer more animated by inner voices than the roar of the crowd.

As a vocal stylist, Strait stands level with George Jones , Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard — but with none of their diverting mannerisms: Jones’ playful sonic gymnastics, Twitty’s erotic growl, Haggard’s recurring echoes of Lefty Frizzell . Like James Taylor, whose barebones approach to performing his own parallels, Strait is pure musical message.

Wearing a white hat, a long-sleeved blue shirt and jeans, Strait ambled into the spotlight to the strains of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” played by his 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band. The flat, square stage was erected in the middle of the arena floor with fans seated all around it. The band was arranged in a loose circle. Strait took turns singing at each of four standing microphones placed on each side of the stage. He did not draw a full house. Several hundred seats remained empty in the building’s topmost tiers. Most of the people on the floor — and many in the more remote sections — stood and swayed throughout his performance.

Strait opened with “Stars on the Water,” the Rodney Crowell tune he recorded for The Road Less Traveled album. He followed with “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” After the obligatory “Hello Nashville,” Strait remarked, “We’ve got a lot more songs to play for you this evening, so I’m not going to waste any more time talking.” For the most part, he kept that promise.

Although he usually limited his expressions while performing to a small grin or tilt of his head, Strait did appear to be emotionally caught up in the anguished lyrics of “When Did You Stop Loving Me.” At one point, he stopped strumming his guitar, tightened his face and moaned in vicarious grief.

“A couple of years back, a friend and I recorded this song,” Strait began, and before he could finish the sentence, the crowd erupted with cheers, clearly thinking he was going to introduce Alan Jackson. “It was Alan Jackson ,” Strait continued. “He’s not here. I wish he was. But I know his part.” Then came the familiar weeping steel guitar intro to “Murder on Music Row.”

At the time he and Jackson recorded “Murder” (which went on to win a CMA vocal event of the year award), Strait said he viewed the song as “kind of a joke” rather than as the severe criticism of modern country music it was intended to be. But on this night, he didn’t sing it as a joke. He poured every drop of resentment and outrage into it that the lyrics called for. Now and again, though, he grinned broadly, as if to say, “I’m still not sure about this.”

The artistic highpoint of the evening was Strait’s majestic interpretation of “My Life’s Been Grand.” It is not an easy song to sing well. It has no hooks nor catchy melody, no storyline, no felicitous and quotable phrases. Indeed, the language is a bit stilted. Its power lies in its nuances of joy, and Strait discovered them all. This Merle Haggard/Terry Gordon summation of life — as Strait conveys it — reduces Frank Sinatra’s excessively beloved treatment of “My Way” to a caricature of mature reflection.

Strait could have filled his show twice over with just his No. 1 hits. But he pruned his possibilities, judiciously balancing the new with the old and the frothy with the profound. (See set list below.) “We can’t leave without doing a little western swing for you,” he told the crowd near the end, as the band romped into “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and then steamed through a loose, rambling, jam-length version of “Milk Cow Blues.” He wound up his set with “Unwound,” his first hit. But the fans stood confidently in place, even after the band left the stage. Within a couple of minutes, the troupe filed back for a quick two-song encore, which Strait terminated with the aptly titled “The Cowboy Rides Away.”

Messina has a country heart in a body programmed to rock — an endearing mix of sentimentality and brashness. As such, she was an ideal warmup for the always-subdued Strait. Her stage arrangement, with the band clustered in the center, enabled her to move freely around the perimeter with her hand-held microphone. She was dressed in a tight white sleeveless blouse and broad-striped, bell-bottomed hip-huggers that kept sliding south during her more impassioned moments.

Gifted in choosing songs that explore the pastel areas between black depression and sky-blue euphoria, Messina began her set with “I’m Alright” and segued from there to the even moodier “Downtime.” Then, looking out into the audience, she praised the seating arrangement. “Everyone can have a good angle on George Strait,” she observed, adding, “To me, any angle is good.”

As she circled the stage, Messina would stop, lean forward and sing with such visceral intensity that she seemed like a prisoner pushing against invisible bars. After blistering through “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” “That’s The Way It Is” and “Bye Bye,” she moved into the nostalgic narrative phase that’s become a standard part of her show. Here she traced, with appropriate musical footnotes, her progress from listening with her ear pressed to the door to her brother’s Journey albums (“Don’t Stop Believin’”), to nights at the local skating rink (“Bad Case of Loving You’) to cruising the country bars around Boston (“Stand by Your Man”).

Messina’s occasional bids for the audience to participate in her songs sometimes fell flat; but when she sang “Bring on the Rain,” the crowd joined in sweetly and without prompting. She wrapped up her performance with “Come On Let’s Go,” not only singing but also playing drums.

In these days of tight entertainment budgets, no one underestimates the value of corporate sponsorships. But the Chevy Trucks people should ask themselves if they’re doing their brand a favor by employing the squad of cheerleading irritants who introduced Strait’s segment. Dressed in what appeared to be basketball uniforms, these four advanced muscle cases (two with guns that fired T-shirts) trotted onto the stage and attempted to whip the mob — already impatient for Strait — into chanting the name of a truck. That they survived this ill-timed effort is a testimony to the mellowing properties of arena beer. Someday a crowd — stretched to the limits of politeness — will hear the whine “I can’t hear you” and straightaway remove the offender’s ears to examine the cause of that impairment.

Set List

Jo Dee Messina

“I’m Alright”
“Downtime”
“Heads Carolina, Tails California”
“That’s the Way It Is”
“Bye Bye”
“Don’t Stop Believin’”
“Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”
“Stand by Your Man” (fragment)
“Think”
“Lesson in Leavin’”
“Stand Beside Me”
“Bring on the Rain”
“Burn”
“I Believe It”
“Come On Let’s Go”

George Strait

“Deep in the Heart of Texas” (band intro)
“Stars on the Water”
“I Can Still Make Cheyenne”
“Write This Down”
“When Did You Stop Loving Me”
“Heartland”
“Check Yes or No”
“Lead On”
“The Fireman”
“Run”
“Murder on Music Row”
“The Chair”
“Blue Clear Sky”
“I Just Want to Dance With You”
“My Life’s Been Grand”
“She’ll Leave You With a Smile”
“Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind”
“Meanwhile”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“If You Can Do Anything Else”
“Living and Living Well”
“Take Me Back to Tulsa”
“Milk Cow Blues”
“The Best Day”
“Unwound”
“Love Bug”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”