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.
George Strait couldn’t quit grinning throughout the taping of the CBS-TV special honoring him. Among the dozens of compliments during the show, his influence in country music can be boiled down to one revealing quote by Garth Brooks: “I wanted to be George Strait.”
As the Academy of Country Music’s Artist of the Decade for the 1990s, Brooks formally passed the torch to Strait on April 6 during an all-star concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Musicians such as Jamie Foxx, Jamey Johnson, Toby Keith, Sugarland and Lee Ann Womack gave onstage testimonials while Strait, wife Norma and son Bubba settled in and enjoyed the two-hour show.
Tim McGraw prefaced his performance of “Marina Del Rey” by telling Strait, “Listen, I grew up in Louisiana listening to your music in my truck every day, all day long, and you’ve been a huge influence on me, and I want to thank you for that.”
Meanwhile, in the backstage pressroom, the stars couldn’t say share enough kind words about Strait and his music.
“George has been like a father figure to me, really,” Taylor Swift said. “Going on tour with him when I was 17 years old, he was the first major artist to invest in taking me out on tour with him, and ever since, he’s shown up at my concerts and sent me little messages. He’s been so incredibly supportive, and I couldn’t really ask for more.”
Others who have opened shows for Strait also remain indebted to him for the support he’s provided.
“Growing up listening to George Strait and, all of a sudden, you’re on the tour — I took it all in,” Martina McBride said. “We toured the stadiums, and for me to be in front of that many people was amazing. To be there, handpicked by him, was such an honor.”
“I got to go on tour with George when I was brand new, and I learned so much,” Miranda Lambert said. “I love George not only for his amazing music and everything he’s accomplished, but … seeing the people who surround him and who have been with him for so many years says a lot about his character, and I definitely took that away from the tour.”
Blake Shelton is enjoying his slot on Strait’s current tour.
“I don’t know how it is across the rest of the country, but growing up in Oklahoma, George Strait was not just the king of country music,” Shelton said. “He was the king of the world. His image, his name, his music — everything was larger than life.”
In Texas, listening to Strait is simply a part of growing up, according to Jack Ingram.
“As a Texan and a country music fan … I didn’t learn George Strait songs,” Ingram explained. “I knew them the same way I know English. That’s how it goes. When you get your first car at 16 or 17 years old, it comes standard with a George Strait Greatest Hits along with brakes and A/C. Just to be on the show means a lot to me.”
Playing cover versions of Strait’s music was a requirement when Montgomery Gentry‘s Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry were honing their skills in Kentucky nightclubs.
“Our love for George Strait comes from the clubs and honky-tonks,” Gentry noted. “Back in the days when we played those, George was one of the hottest country acts at that time. Everybody was coming into the clubs requesting George Strait [songs]. Not that we didn’t want to do them. We did them because we loved them, too.”
“It’s helped us coming up through the clubs, playing so much George Strait,” Montgomery added. “He’s got so many killer, unbelievable songs. Listening to his albums over and over and over, it’s helped us pick songs to go on our albums. You can always go, ‘Do you think George Strait would sing something like this?’ I think it’s helped us a lot, and how many people he’s influenced is unbelievable.”
As he prepared to sing “Unwound” at the TV taping, Toby Keith shared a similar story.
“Years before I released my first album, I was playing the honky-tonks where I lived in Oklahoma and Texas,” Keith told the audience. “And what people don’t know is, you know all the millions of hits that George has had, but down in Texas and Oklahoma, they play the album cuts, too. So when you have to cover stuff, you have to cover all the stuff — the singles along with the B-sides and everything. I covered him everywhere we went.”
Prior to singing “Blue Clear Sky,” Dierks Bentley briefly went off script to recall his first major tour as Strait’s opening act.
“In 2005, I was playing in this building, opening up for George Strait,” Bentley said. “A girl called me that I had known since I was 13 years old. She said she wanted to come out to the show. We had tried dating a couple of times, but I kind of figured it wasn’t going to work out because I was chasing this dream down in Nashville. She came out to the show, and you talk about ‘out of the blue clear sky’ — ‘One day you’re giving up the dream/And the next you’re picking out a ring.’ We eloped down to Mexico that same year. So I owe George and Norma a lot for giving me my life, and I love my life. I really appreciate it, and you are my blueprint for what we aspire to be.”
Even the usually reticent Alan Jackson praised one of his favorite singers.
“He was one of the singers who made me want to move to Nashville,” Jackson said. “I thought then, ‘He’s just a good ole boy from Texas who likes country music,’ but after knowing him 20 years, take all that hit stuff away from him and he still seems like a good ole boy from Texas who likes country music.”
Just before his rendition of “The Fireman,” Jackson added, “Thank you for your friendship. Congratulations on this decade thing, but I think they’re a few decades late getting to you. When they asked me to prepare a song for this thing, after 30 years of classic stuff to go through, I went back to this one song immediately because I sang this thing a million nights in a smoky bar — just wishing I was George Strait.”