Editor’s note: George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All Star Concert airs Wednesday (May 27) at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
CINCINNATI — During a Friday evening (May 22) concert here at the Riverbend Music Center, George Strait simply stated that he’d be singing some of the old songs and some of the new ones. And if anybody wondered at the end of the night whether he really deserved his recent Artist of the Decade recognition from the Academy of Country Music, the exceptionally-receptive crowd would have disproved all naysayers. Sure, it’s always fun to hear “The Fireman,” but the loudest applause followed newer hits like “Give It Away,” “I Hate Everything” and “Troubadour.”
The first few minutes of Strait’s set are far different than just about anybody else’s in country music. While his Ace in the Hole Band digs into an Western swing instrumental, Strait walks from one end of the stage, grins and waves, then strolls to the other side. After his warm welcome, he plants himself behind the microphone at center stage and remains there for nearly the whole night. Sometimes he strums his guitar, too, but mostly he just stands there and sings. It’s worked for him this long. Why change now?
Returning from the photo pit, I found two women — presumably a mother and daughter — in my seats swaying along with the songs. I wanted to say something (“Well, excuse me, but I think you’ve got my chair”), but seeing how wrapped up they were in the music, I didn’t have the heart. One of the women had to be at least 80 years old, which reminded me of something I heard a record executive say earlier in the week at the CMT offices: “We need to get country music back to the 18-80 demographic like it was in the 1990s.” OK, I’m all for that. However, if anyone thinks teenagers are the only way to fill an arena, they ought to check out the faces at a Strait concert.
I wouldn’t dare to put such an enduring artist in a time capsule, expecting to hear every big hit from the 1980s or 1990s. Yes, “Amarillo by Morning” is included this time, along with “Ocean Front Property,” “Unwound,” “Check Yes or No,” “Heartland,” “Write This Down” and “I Just Want to Dance With You.” He offered a wide variety of material from the last 10 years, too, including “She’ll Leave You With a Smile,” “Honk if You Honky Tonk,” “Seashores of Old Mexico,” “Wrapped,” “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls,” “I Saw God Today,” “I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore” and “River of Love.”
Despite some notable omissions, one of my favorite Strait songs — “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” from 1996 — still made the cut. In the song, a struggling rodeo cowboy decides it’s time to come home, but his wife says he shouldn’t bother. See, she’s found somebody else — and the new guy sure ain’t no rodeo man. The next line gets me every single time: “He left that phone dangling off the hook/Then slowly turned around and gave it one last look/Then he just walked away.” It’s like watching a movie whenever I hear that song, and you can almost see the opening and closing credits when Gene Elders plays his mournful fiddle part. (Incidentally, Strait’s longtime manager, Erv Woolsey, is credited as one of the co-writers on that song, along with Aaron Barker.)
Speaking of lyrics, this one from “The Cowboy Rides Away” is perfect: “When she dealt the cards, I held my heart.” When he comes to that song in concert, the show is pretty much over, unless you’re in the front row. Then you can reach up and shake the hand of the King of Country Music. But here’s a warning: When Strait looks down at you, everything can get a little bit fuzzy. Because I was the sole photographer in the photo pit at the start of the show, he looked right down at me, which definitely would have been an awesome photo. Instead, right or wrong, I just got this big goofy smile on my face as it dawned on me: “Oh, my God. That’s George Strait!”
Like everybody else in the crowd, Blake Shelton knows he’s in the presence of royalty when he’s at a George Strait concert. Shelton holds down the middle slot on the tour, allowing him to do his funny Strait impersonation from Pure Country. Obviously the crowd screamed for the line in “The Baby” about turning 21 in Cincinnati, yet Shelton managed to keep the crowd engaged throughout his 45-minute set. Because he’s been on a never-ending tour for about a decade, Shelton is a polished performer. Plus, he’s picked some memorable tunes over the years, such as “Austin,” “Some Beach,” “Nobody but Me,” “The More I Drink,” “Home,” “She Wouldn’t Be Gone” and, of course, the perennial favorite, “Ol’ Red.” Clearly, he would be well-served with a greatest hits album. I also hope there’s still time for “Green,” a track from his Startin’ Fires album, to go to country radio because it suits Shelton’s light-hearted personality to a T.
With a strong voice and charismatic stage presence, Julianne Hough proved herself worthy of the opening slot. Because she only has two perky singles (“That Song in My Head” and “My Hallelujah Song” ), she had to stretch her 25-minute set with a cover of the Eagles‘ “Heartache Tonight” — a song that’s older than she is. However, she managed to succeed where other opening acts fail, and that is to leave ‘em wanting more. She reminded the audience that she had played at the venue last year on Brad Paisley‘s tour. After winning the Academy of Country Music’s top new artist award, I’m sure she’ll be back yet again.View photos from the concert.