MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Approaching the four-hour mark at George Strait‘s Thursday night concert (March 4) at Memphis’ FedEx Forum, I kept thinking, “This is where ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ will bring down the house and bring up the lights.”
After all, he’d already played “Amarillo by Morning” and about 20 other tunes. But Strait was in no hurry, going on to deliver “I Saw God Today,” “Give It Away,” “River of Love,” “Living for the Night” (apparently true), “Troubadour” and his first-ever hit, “Unwound.” Then he came back for a three-song encore.
Thus, fans of traditional country music got their fix when he wrapped after an hour and 45 minutes, while Reba McEntire had already offered about 80 minutes of hits and Lee Ann Womack graced the stage with a brief but engaging 30-minute set. (Strait called them “two of the greatest country performers ever.”) It was just before 11:30 p.m. when the balconies emptied out, yet Strait stayed onstage to personally greet the folks who had floor seats. At that late hour, if you headed west on I-40 right after the show, you really could have made Amarillo by morning.
Strait’s stage was situated in the middle of the arena, surrounded by rows of small folding chairs, squished together. (Being 6 feet 2 inches tall, I couldn’t fit into one without my shoulders pressing into my neighbors’ arms and my knees grinding into the chair ahead of me, so I watched the show from the nosebleed section.) Strait prefers in-the-round concerts where the band essentially stays put and the singer walks to a new corner of the square stage after every song or two. There’s no backdrop at all. Of course, the cameras follow the singer around, so if you watch the show on the big screens overhead, it’s sort of like catching a very special episode of Austin City Limits.
Strait walked the perimeter of the stage upon his much-heralded arrival from a barricaded path from backstage. It’s a rather regal proceeding because he is, after all, King George. He kicked it off with “Twang,” then shuffled through newer hits (“I Hate Everything,” “Wrapped”), modern classics (“Check Yes or No” ) and enduring fan favorites (“Run,” “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”). He also indulged himself with tunes that brought modest applause but that he clearly relished singing (“Honk if You Honky Tonk,” Merle Haggard‘s “Seashores of Old Mexico,” the anthemic “If It Wasn’t for Texas”).
But you’d think the seats were hot the way people jumped up at the opening bars of “The Fireman,” followed by “Ocean Front Property” and “Heartland.” He dedicated “I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore” to all the lonesome cowboys before pulling out a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, “She’ll Leave You With a Smile.” Clearly, “Where Have I Been All My Life” is a sentimental favorite for the singer (and occasional songwriter, this tune included). Meanwhile, the ladies loved seeing themselves captured on the big screens during “How Bout Them Cowgirls.”
Strait mentioned that his son, Bubba, wrote “Arkansas Dave,” a story song that should go over well when the tour continues on to Little Rock this weekend. He also dug into his new album, Twang, for “Gotta Get to You.” But when the cluster of women in front of me heard those distinctively twangy opening bars of “The Chair,” they uniformly leaped to their feet and hollered, “There it is! There it is!” These are the moments when it’s fun to sit in the upper reaches of a venue because on beloved songs like “The Chair,” you really can hear the whole place singing along.
McEntire’s elaborate tours in the ’90s are famous for production value and endless costume changes, and her recent tour with Kelly Clarkson was a high-tech extravaganza. Because of that, the bare-bones approach on this outing is unusual for her. Fortunately, she has the material to make up for it, with an even longer career on the country charts than Strait. She launched her portion of the show with her first No. 1 hit, a modernized version of “Can’t Even Get the Blues” but didn’t follow any sort of timeline. “The Fear of Being Alone” led to “Strange,” while “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” prompted a new number, “I’ll Have What She’s Having.”
For the longtime fans who wore out their copies of Rumor Has It, McEntire’s strong rendition of “Falling Out of Love” was especially satisfying. That title pretty much encapsulates the theme of her early hits, and she can still effectively turn a word like “go” into a 12-syllable warble. After two new tunes (“I Keep On Loving You,” “Nothing to Lose” ), she condensed three signature hits into a medley: “Somebody Should Leave,” “For My Broken Heart” and “Does He Love You.” Lee Ann Womack came out for the dueling diva showdown, and when they stood side-by-side at the climax of the ever-dramatic ballad, flash bulbs illuminated the place. Yet at every corner of the stage throughout the night, McEntire was impeccably lighted.
Unlike Strait, McEntire is surprisingly talkative onstage (despite a long list of songs to get through), and her banter is well-rehearsed. She gave the crowd insightful introductions to “I Want a Cowboy,” “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” and “Because of You,” while “Consider Me Gone,” “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” and “Is There Life Out There” speak for themselves. The singer received a “surprise” visit around this time, too, and if you’re seeing the tour in the coming weeks, don’t miss her encore.
Womack wasn’t shy about opening the night with “San Antonio Rose” and later offered a sultry, bluesy take on Patsy Cline‘s “She’s Got You” that was well-suited to the Memphis vibe. Naturally, she played quite a few hits, too. This is her first tour since the release of “There Is a God,” a ballad about life’s simple pleasures. With a lineup like this, many traditional country fans would easily agree with her.View photos of George Strait, Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack in Memphis.