George Strait, who is celebrating his long career with the release of George Strait: 50 Number Ones, has long been known as perhaps the song-savviest among country singers. Songwriters consider landing a song on a Strait album as a singular honor. Strait talked to CMT News in San Antonio about some of his songs and how they came to be.
Editor’s note: George Strait: CMT Insider Special Edition debuts Saturday (Oct. 9) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
CMT: How did you get the song “Amarillo by Morning?”
Strait: Well, “Amarillo by Morning” was a song that had had some regional success in this area. And I had known the song and had been singing it for a long time. And, I think [producer] Blake [Mevis] actually heard me singing it on stage and, I mean, I was all for cutting it. And so when he mentioned cutting it, I said, “Sure. Let’s do it. I love the song.” And it’s still one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever recorded. I still do it today. I love it.
It’s strange that it wasn’t a No. 1 song. It went to No. 4. How could that be?
I don’t know. (laughs) I mean, it was a pretty big record for me in Texas. But most people in Texas had heard that song, and it had been played around here in local bands, and it had been released two or three times regionally. And so it was a song that was heard all around here. But nationally … I think that was the first national release of that particular song.
What’s the history behind “She’ll Leave You With a Smile”?
Oh man, I love that song. That was my 50th. “She’ll Leave You With a Smile” And that was one of the songs that that came out of a huge box of CDs, demos that I was listening to while riding around on the ranch. I’d been doing that for two, three, four days. And anytime that I would go anywhere, I’d have a big box. I just kept going through songs, and I came across that one and I thought, “Man, that’s a hit. I know it is.” And it almost didn’t get released as a single. I wanted it for the first single [from 2001's The Road Less Traveled album], but I got talked out of it. When that song finally came out, I just knew that was a hit record. And I love it. That’s one of those “Amarillo by Morning” songs that I’ll probably do till the end of my career
What do you look for in a song?
I think the thing that catches my ear first is the melody. … If you look at the Dean Dillon songs, they’ve all got such interesting different melodies that you don’t often hear and a lot of just really pretty chord changes. …. And then if the melody catches my ear, then I start listening to the lyrics. But then, Dean writes such a catchy lyric that’s different. That’s why I’ve always kind of been partial to his songs. They just kind of fit me. And I wish there was something I could just say and put my finger on and say this is what I look for in a song, but there’s not, because I don’t know what it is. But I just know it when I hear it. And I think the songs that I’ve recorded have all … had a little difference. There’s no two songs that are really just exactly alike. You know, if you want to take all the swing music and put it in one category, you can certainly do that. But they’re all a little bit different still.
Songwriters in Nashville may want to sit down and say, “I’m gonna write a George Strait song,” but they can’t, because there’s no formula.
I think that’s true because, you know, Frank Dycus — I think it was “Marina Del Ray” — we were riding down the road in the car one day, he and his wife were coming back to San Marcos with Norma [Strait's wife] and me. He had some songs he was playing for me on a cassette, and I just punched it in there and “Marina Del Ray” came on. And he said “Man, I would have never” [but] I told him, “I want to cut that. Has anybody got it?” He said, “No. Nobody has it, but I sure would have never thought that you would want to cut that.” So … I think some of the songs that I do choose might surprise a lot of people, but I don’t know. I think I maybe hear them a little different [in terms of] what we can do in the studio, you know, to make them fit me even if they don’t sound like they will on a demo.
A song like “Check Yes or No” you would not think was a George Strait song, but audiences love it.
Yeah, “Check Yes or No,” that was a pretty big record. And that was one of the songs though that I knew, right away when I first heard it, I wanted to cut it. I couldn’t wait to get home and play it for my son. I knew he’d love it. I don’t remember how old he was at the time, but he was pretty young. And I remember I was riding to take him to school, and he’s not a morning person. He’s pretty grumpy. And I said “I’ve got a song here I’m gonna play you.” I stuck it in there and played it and cheered him right up. Boy, big ol’ smile, I knew we had a good one then.
“Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” was a record that turned country music more towards fiddles and steel guitars and allowed people like Alan and Garth to come along.
I did that? (laughs) I did all that? (laughs) Well, you know, I don’t know if I could take credit for all that. That was the first opportunity that I really had to go out and pick exactly what I wanted to do. But things were kind of turning already back to the traditional sound. And, you know, I’ve always been called that even though I don’t think some of my songs are so traditional. But that’s not a bad label to have put on you, in my mind.
Your album Oceanfront Property was the first country album to debut at No. 1.
That’s true. I don’t know how they pulled that one off. (laughs) But Oceanfront Property really was the first country album to debut at No. 1. And that was pretty special to me back then. They told me that, and I said, “You gotta be kidding me. Surely that’s happened before.” But it hadn’t, and I was real proud of that.
And the title song was one you wouldn’t expect George Strait to cut. How did that come about?
I just kind of like songs that … have a little humor in them, “The Fireman,” “Oceanfront Property.” You know, I like those kind of songs. And I think I got some of that from being influenced by George Jones so much. … Occasionally he would throw one out there that was funny and had a little humor in it. So I thought, ‘Well, if George can do it, you know it must be the right thing to do. I’ll do it, too.”
About this time you recorded “Love Without End, Amen” and you changed the wording of that.
Yeah, I changed it to fit me a little more. I changed the song to fit me a little better. You know, like putting “1981″ in there [for] when my son was born. But I just thought that was a great song. I felt like it was well written and had a lot of good meaning to it. And as it turned out, President [George H.W.] Bush told me it was one of his favorite songs that I ever did, so I was pretty proud of that and I ended up doing it for him at Camp David.
Didn’t you have to perform it twice?
I did. There was a lot of stuff going on at that time. He was in and out. And right when I started doing it, he got a phone call and had to leave the room. So when he came back, they asked me if I would do it again, and I said “Of course.” (laughs) And it was right when he was leaving the White House. It was his last trip to Camp David when we got invited to go and spend that time with them which was one of the highlights of my whole career in country music. ‘Cause had it not been for this, I would have never had to get to meet the president, you know. But luckily for me, he was a country music fan and invited Norma and me and Bubba [Strait's son] up to spend the weekend at Camp David with them. Like I say, he was leaving the White House, and this was his last weekend at Camp David, and they had a big celebration for him. The troops there, of course, loved him. And when he made his farewell speech to the troops, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine. It was just very, very special. And the end of my show, I dedicated the song “The Cowboy Rides Away” to him, and that was pretty cool.
What about the Jim Lauderdale songs “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “King of Broken Hearts”?
Actually, I think the first time I was exposed to Jim Lauderdale’s music was for the Pure Country album. And [producer] Tony [Brown] brought these two songs in, “King of Broken Hearts” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and said, “Check these out. These sound pretty good.” He played them for me right there in the studio, and I said “Hell, yeah. I like both of them. Let’s do them. They sound pretty good.” But that’s when I got to know who Jim Lauderdale was. Jim’s got those great old country melodies and ideas and songs that, you know, I really, really like. So do a lot of other people. You gotta get those Jim Lauderdale songs first or they’ll go to somebody else. (laughs)
When you’re doing an album, do songwriters call you up or do you call them up and say, “What have you got?”
No. I don’t call them. But they know when you’re going into the studio. I think these publishing companies know who’s going in the studio and when. And so people know who’s gonna cut and when they’re gonna cut. I go to Nashville usually a couple of days before I start a session and start going over our final picks — me and Tony and [manager] Erv [Woolsey]. And at that time, we’re just getting bombarded with stuff. So we’re trying to go through what we picked out, along with as many other ones as we can listen to, to try to say “Well, we might like this one better than this one.” So you never know when you’re gonna get a good one. But Dean [Dillon] always comes in like the day before or the morning of the session, and he’s always got some new ones for me. And he’ll sit down and play them on guitar. Boy, we’ve gotten a lot of songs that way from him. It’s been pretty unusual, I guess, to have a relationship with a songwriter like I’ve had with Dean, ’cause I don’t think there’s been but one album that I’ve ever cut with no Dean Dillon songs on it.
Did you have to fight him for songs that he was going to cut?
Back when he was recording? (laughs) Yeah. I think “Easy Come Easy Go,” I believe, was one of those songs that he was putting on his album. He had him a record deal. And so I’m gonna do it anyway. So I did. You know for whatever reason, you know, his singing career just never took off. But he’s a hell of a songwriter, and really I love to hear his demos ’cause he’s such a soulful singer. And, you know, I don’t know why it never happened. But for whatever reason, I hate somebody else singing his demos because I want to hear Dean sing it. I can really tell a lot when he sings it how it will come off.
Do you find yourself ever copying what he did on a demo?
Well I think there’s a little bit of that in all — in all the songs that you cut. There’s certain things in there — maybe a lick or something some singer does — that might hook the whole song that you want to do. You don’t have to do it exactly that way. But sometimes you don’t want to go very far from what the demo is like because, I mean, that’s the way the song was written, and most of the time you do try to stay pretty close. But I can’t sing exactly like anybody, so it always comes out a little different.
Tell me about doing “Fly Me to the Moon” with Frank Sinatra.
Well, there was a time when Frank Sinatra was doing a duet album with country music artists. I’ve always been a big Frank Sinatra fan, so when I got asked if I wanted to do it, I said, “Sure. I’d love to.” [Producer] Phil Ramone came to Nashville, and Tony and I hooked up with him. He had Frank’s version already cut, you know, Frank’s part. So all I had to do was do my part and then do some harmonies with Frank. And so I did what I thought was a great version. I thought our duet was a great version of “Fly Me to the Moon.” I was very happy with it. I thought it sounded great, and I still like it. But for whatever reason, he decided not to use it on his album. And that really made me mad. (laughs) I mean, you know, ’cause I always thought he was so great, and to have that opportunity and to take my time to go up there and do it and then it not get used, it made me mad. But I got over it. And we ended up putting it on the box set.
Was “I Can’t See Texas From Here” the last song that you wrote, back in your earlier days?
I thought, “Well shoot, you know, I’ve got to be a songwriter if I’m gonna do this.” (laughs) So I’m riding on an airplane [from Nashville] back to Texas, to San Antonio. And it just came to me: “I can’t see Texas from here,” and it took me about 10 minutes to jot down that little song. & I just haven’t been a very motivated songwriter. I’m kind of lazy about it, actually. And there are so many great songwriters out there, and there’s a lot of good singer-songwriters, too. I just don’t happen to be one of them. You know, I think if I really put my mind to it, I know I could write, but I’m just not inspired to do it. It’s just something that’s just … I don’t know. I just don’t have the motivation. And I think the last song I did write and — I wrote it for a commercial — was “She’s All I Need,” and we did that for a Chevy commercial.