(To view photos from the concert, visit George Strait’s artist page at CMT.com.)
FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky — It looks like any typical summer afternoon concert. Families spread their picnic lunches on blankets on the grass. Thousands sit in their portable camping chairs and make good use of their cup holders. A couple of Frisbees whirl through the air as two Blackhawk helicopters pass over the crowd. That’s when I remember I’m on post at Fort Campbell.
There is little evidence of ’Army’ in this idyllic summer scene on Saturday (June 19). No one is in fatigues, except for a few scattered MPs. Ball caps cover most of the ’high-n-tight’ buzz cuts. And the only boots are of the cowboy variety. It’s fitting attire for a welcome home concert starring George Strait.
“He’s good, ” says Rakkasan Dan Devries, adjusting a time-worn cowboy hat. “He knows how to keep making great music. He keeps it going and keeps it fresh.”
“I’ve seen him in concert before,” brags Jason Burly, of the Cavalry. “He’s great. It means a lot to me. He’s stepping out of his world to come into ours.”
These soldiers aren’t alone in their love for Strait. A shirtless young man obviously in need of sunscreen keeps flashing a homemade sign begging “Can I sing ’Amarillo by Morning’ with you?” And the show hasn’t even started.
Most of these soldiers are fresh from Operation Iraqi Freedom. A fact you can’t ignore as you see the smiles on their faces. And while they’re glad to see a free concert, most are just relieved to be home.
“I’ve been separated from my wife for well over a year,” says Staff Sgt. Stephen Wells. “And I have a little one, too. So this is the best way we could spend some time together. You know, it’s good to finally be back. And [to] have the majority of everybody back here and in good health and for everyone to be able to spend time with their families.”
As the sun starts to dip in the west, Fort Campbell’s Commanding General Thomas Turner welcomes the crowd. “If you like country music, you’re in the right place, ” he says. Dressed in khakis and a black golf shirt, he looks like he’s enjoying the casual atmosphere as much as his soldiers.
“There’s one ingredient that is critical to the success of soldiers in combat. And that’s the support of our fellow Americans.” Turner adds, “And there’s been no more visible support of the soldier in combat than the country music industry.”
That connection between country music and the armed services explains the show’s lineup. The bill includes Strait, Vince Gill, Richard Marx, Dobie Gray, Collin Raye and Lane Brody.
Raye is first to take the stage. Wearing a desert camo shirt, he begins with his hit “That’s My Story.” During his set, he takes several breaks to address the crowd and thank them for their service. “I welcome this opportunity to tell a bunch of you, together with your families, what your sacrifice means to every American. Thank you so much for what you do.”
Brody’s set includes her hit “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” And Gray brings the crowd to its feet with a rousing rendition of his classic hit “Drift Away.”
Gill, who looks like he lost his razor a few days ago, is as charming as ever onstage. He begins with a simple, ’How y’all doin’?” before launching into his song “One More Last Chance.” Halfway through his act, he remembers his first visit on post.
“I came down here and performed the first time at Fort Campbell in 1990,” Gill says, wiping sweat out of his eyes. “We came and entertained the folks during Desert Storm — myself and my future bride Amy Grant. So that was a fun trip for me for lots of reasons.”
As the band changes for the next artist (presumably Richard Marx), a middle-aged man in a POW shirt yells, “George Strait’s gonna be here and we’re gonna love it!” And he’s right in his prophecy.
Strait takes the stage early, opening with “Honk If You Honky Tonk.” Several ladies scramble onto the shoulders of their dates — presumably for a better look at King George. Any camera that was once hidden is now out firing off flashbulbs. And Texas flags appear as if out of nowhere.
Strait includes several past hits in his show, including “Check Yes or No,” “Cheyenne” and “Amarillo by Morning” (no, our young hopeful did not join him onstage). And in less than 45 minutes, he’s done. But the cheers persuade him to do one encore, and perhaps appropriately, it’s Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me.” Richard Marx could wait.