George Strait Packs the House in Austin

He Opens New Tour Close to Home With Little Big Town and Sarah Johns

George Strait knows how to make an entrance. While some stars are shooting out of the stage floor or rising mysteriously through smoke, Strait simply walks in — and that seems to work just fine, judging from the extremely enthusiastic response at his show in Austin, Texas, on Thursday night (Jan. 10).

Strait’s ranch is located between Austin and San Antonio, and he clearly felt right at home while singing dozens of songs from all eras of his impressive repertoire. Sitting in the mid-level seats at the Frank Erwin Center, it felt sort of like watching a boxing match as the hometown favorite flashed a big grin while following security guards down the blocked-off path from backstage. With enough imagination, you could almost hear, “Man, woman and child! King George!”

If you love traditional country music, Strait is definitely in your corner. From “Unwound” to “Wrapped,” he held the audience in the palm of his hand. Since the concert was in the round, it took a while for him to come over to my section because he sang two songs at every microphone. But when he did, out came “Amarillo by Morning,” which is pretty much the Texas national anthem. (That is, if Texas was its own nation, but that’s another discussion.)

However, the Country Music Hall of Fame member got the loudest applause for one of his newest songs, “Give It Away.” Has he ever had a dry spell? That’s the cool thing about Strait: He can line up a set list with “There Stands the Glass,” “Run” and “Ocean Front Property,” and it all makes sense. If anything can be said about Strait, he knows what works.

Before Strait’s set, a photographer told me he couldn’t remember the last time he saw the Frank Erwin Center so crowded. Usually at rock shows, he said a portion of the venue has to be curtained off, but at this concert, people were nestled into every available area — a few inches from the stage all the way up to the nosebleed seats. The staging essentially consisted of spotlights, colored lights and a few big screens everybody could see.

Sometimes when people talk about Strait, they’ll say, “He’s not entertaining. He just stands there.” I’ll agree with the last part, but that’s as far as I’ll go. It’s certainly not the most high-energy show, but it is country to the core. Besides that, it’s a lot of fun to sing “The Chair” with thousands of other people joining in.

Luckily, Strait’s opening acts are not shy. Little Big Town continues to carve out a spot in country music with their distinctive four-part harmonies and winning personalities. With other bands, the weak link is often easy to spot, but LBT is as tight as any group out there. Fortunately, their stage banter is improving and isn’t as rehearsed as in past shows I’ve seen. Their ease certainly comes from working so much, getting more comfortable on stage and meeting hundreds of fans face to face every year. They kicked off their set with “I’m With the Band,” but in my opinion, the real hit is “Fine Line,” and it stands out in concert as much as it does on their new CD, A Place to Land.

Sarah Johns is the fortunate newcomer who gets 25 minutes on a major tour. A native of rural Kentucky, she’s a hard-charging honky-tonk singer along the lines of Loretta Lynn and Lee Ann Womack. Her boisterous personality is equally lively, and she’s worth coming early to see. Surely, if her music is going to connect with anybody, it will be the longtime fans of George Strait.