George Strait grew up working on his father’s 2,000-acre ranch not far from Pearsall, a small town in South Texas where mesquite trees outnumber people. It’s a unique place: gritty but smooth, immense but intimate, obstinate but charming. In other words, South Texas is a lot like Strait.
The cowboy from south of San Antonio became country music royalty a long time ago, and unlike other legendary performers, Strait’s high has never been punctuated by a low. He’s been on top for decades, selling millions of albums and topping charts — notching more No. 1 singles than any other country artist — all while remaining constantly, unapologetically country.
Here are 10 prime hits that trace King George’s climb from sawdust floors to stadiums.
In 1981, an adult-contemporary veneer had smoothed most of the rough edges out of country music’s best-selling fare. But the easy listening smorgasbord was interrupted for two and a-half boot-stomping minutes when a cocky baritone and manic fiddle transported listeners to a hole in the wall for this whiskey-fueled singalong. Written by Frank Dycus and Dean Dillon — the latter would go on to write more than 50 songs for Strait — “Unwound” reintroduced Texas swing to a world that hadn’t realized it missed it so much. The song was an ideal debut for the grinning kid in the cowboy hat who jumped straight onto the charts and never left.
“Amarillo by Morning”
You can smell the truck stop coffee when you hear this lonely anthem that became one of Strait’s signature songs after it was released in 1983. Carried by his pitch-perfect croon and a crying fiddle that hauntingly conveys the ache, optimism and commitment of a rodeo cowboy, “Amarillo by Morning” is consistently ranked among the top country songs of all time. The tune wasn’t his first No. 1 — an honor that belongs to “Fool Hearted Memory,” released the previous year. In fact, “Amarillo by Morning” only climbed to No. 4, proving the songs that ultimately help define a career aren’t always the biggest chart hits.
In 1985, Strait officially entered rarefied Conway Twitty air with this smooth number written by honky-tonk poet laureates Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran. A witty take on boy-meets-girl, “The Chair” only recounts the guy’s half of the conversation, and Strait delivers the lines with disarming sincerity. Didn’t he know it wasn’t his chair after all? No one cares. Picking up a woman in a bar never sounded so sweet.
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
When Strait crows the first line of this 1987 smash, drawing out that first “ah” to a hard, rolling “l,” you can hear his lazy grin through the speakers. Written by Whitey Shafer — a master of one-liners — and Shafer’s then-wife Linda, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” was the second single off Strait’s seventh studio album, Ocean Front Property. The song lets us all in on a secret: Strait is hilarious. With a dry wit that’s often self-deprecating and always ensures fans are in on the jokes, he has created classics that never stop being funny and may even get funnier with time — a big reason why “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” remained a concert staple.
“Love Without End, Amen”
Strait had already mastered standard honky-tonk themes of cheating, boozing, heartbreak and romance when he decided to cut a song about fathers, sons and God. Sung by anyone else, “Love Without End, Amen” could have descended into mawkishness. But in Strait’s earnest, capable care, writer Aaron Barker’s expertly-crafted story about unwavering love — both earthly and divine — received the thoughtful treatment it deserved. The song stayed on top of the charts for five weeks in 1990 — the first multiweek No. 1 of Strait’s career.
“I Cross My Heart”
When you look like Strait, Hollywood notices. But he’s choosy when it comes to screen time. He has released nearly 100 singles but fewer than 20 music videos. So when he agreed to star in feature film Pure Country, anticipation was high. Released in 1992, the movie about a superstar who’s tired of all the smoke and the lights provided an outlet for Strait to experiment with poppier production without abandoning his trademark fiddles and steel. He rarely sings “I Cross My Heart” live, so if you’ve heard it in person, the rest of us are jealous. But the song’s tender promise has made it a favorite first-dance at weddings for more than two decades.
“Check Yes or No”
Strait has the rare ability to transform the everyday into the extraordinary. Sometimes he does it live. Blink, and the reticent cowboy with only his guitar becomes a superstar. Sometimes he does it with the songs he sings. A tentative third-grade love letter scribbled in pencil on notebook paper becomes the pivotal moment that unites soulmates. “Check Yes or No” was the lead single on 1995’s Strait Out of the Box, one of the greatest-selling boxed sets of all time.
“The Best Day”
Here’s another song for dads, who, until Strait gave them their due, were more likely to make cameos in country music by leaving, dying or getting loaded. A three-week chart-topper in 2000, “The Best Day” relies on tasteful instrumentation — an ideal blend of steel guitar, piano, fiddle and acoustic guitar — to punctuate the misty-eyed lyrics, sung from the perspective of a proud dad reflecting on three of his son’s milestones. The lead single from Latest Greatest Straitest Hits, a compilation of all his smashes since Strait Out of the Box, “The Best Day” helped Strait kick off the millennium with a monster-sized hit.
“Give It Away”
Strait is one of the few current chart-toppers capable of delivering old-school country recitations like those immortalized by Porter Wagoner. In 2006, he released “Give It Away,” an infectious groove of speak-and-sing sorrow written by power trio Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson. In the Nashville songwriting community, a Strait cut is still the Holy Grail. When Johnson performed “Give It Away” on an ACM special in 2009, he spoke for songwriters everywhere as he addressed King George: “When your hero cuts your song and runs it up the charts like you did — and gave me a second chance at a career I thought was dead and gone … I respect you so much.”
In this reflective hit from 2008, Strait relishes the satisfaction and comfort that comes with knowing who and what you are and that you’ll never change. Writers Leslie Satcher and Monty Holmes may not have had Strait in mind when they penned “Troubadour,” but the quietly confident lyrics sure sound like they did: “I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song/And I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone.” Fans worried about a world without King George should rest easy. He’s promised to keep recording and will book shows here and there. He’ll just do everything his way — like he always has.