Recently, a colleague pointed me to the wonderful in-depth Texas Monthly article on George Strait’s long career and his farewell tour. (The image above is from the article.) I didn’t make it to George’s tour stop in southern MA, but I devoured every word of the feature, which included a complete list of his (60!) No. 1 hits over the years.
I must have shocked my colleague – a native New Englander, more of a rock-and-roll guy than a country fan – when I said, “I could probably sing you forty of those sixty number-one hits, from memory.” I didn’t add that I could also sing (at least) twenty of George’s songs that never made it to the top of the charts. His music is a constant thread, woven through the background of my childhood memories.
I don’t know how my parents discovered George’s music, but I do know they have loved him since the early eighties, nearly all my life. Our stack of George Strait cassettes grew gradually over the years: Ten Strait Hits, Greatest Hits Volume 2, the Pure Country soundtrack, Ocean Front Property, Lead On, Easy Come Easy Go. Later we added (on CD) Blue Clear Sky, Carrying Your Love with Me, One Step at a Time, The Road Less Traveled. And every year, we put on Merry Christmas Strait to You (along with Elvis’ Blue Christmas and Kenny G’s Miracles) as we decorated the Christmas tree and hung the stockings. (Now I play it each year as my husband and I hang ornaments on our own tree.)
Every summer of my childhood, we packed the car with suitcases and stuffed animals, and pulled out of the driveway before dawn. It is nearly 700 miles from my West Texas hometown to my grandparents’ farm in southwest Missouri, and we always made the trip in one day, the long gray miles of highway sliding by to the sound of George’s voice. Especially in those early years, when reading made us carsick, my sister Betsy and I would sit and listen, leaning our heads against the car windows, listening as George spun tales of love and loss and family, mile after mile after mile.
After spending a few days with Dad’s family, we’d load up the car for another long day of driving, this time to my mom’s hometown, outside of Dayton, Ohio. We’d leave early to get a jump on the day, sometimes stopping for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel after we’d been on the road a few hours. We always brought along travel games – Yahtzee, Uno, Outburst – but so many of those miles unfolded to the sound of George’s voice. We occasionally slid in other albums for variety – a cassette of Elvis classics like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock,” an album of Eagles hits like “Take it Easy” and “Desperado” – but my memories of those trips are laced with “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and “Ace in the Hole” and “Baby Blue.”
My sister and I memorized all those songs before we knew what they meant, before we knew that some relationships are “easy come, easy go,” that “you can’t make a heart love somebody,” or what “The Fireman” was really doing when he “put out old flames.” My dad always took Mom’s hand in his during “I Cross My Heart,” and he’d reach back to the backseat and squeeze my hand or Betsy’s during “Love Without End, Amen,” which is about a father’s love (and which still makes me cry).
We laughed at the “grits and red-eye gravy” line in “My Heart Won’t Wander Very Far From You,” tapped our toes at “Adalida” and “Lovebug,” and I loved hearing the names of towns I knew during “Amarillo By Morning” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.” Even though I was years away from falling in love, I used to get a lump in my throat at “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye” and “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her.” I couldn’t explain the melancholy, though I knew even then that many of the best love songs are sad ones. But we listened to those songs, over and over, till they became as much a part of me as the hymns I sang at church every Sunday.
Recently, browsing Waterloo Records in downtown Austin, I found two of those vintage George Strait albums – the Pure Country soundtrack and Greatest Hits Volume Two – for next to nothing, and I snapped them up. “The Chair” still makes me smile, “Heartland” still sets my toes tapping, and especially as George has conducted his aptly named farewell tour, my eyes well up at “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
His music is safety, stability, a steady voice matched by a twinkle in his green eyes. It’s those road trips when I was a child, Dad driving and Mom in the passenger seat, painting her nails or flipping through a magazine. It’s those hours spent unraveling strands of white Christmas lights in the living room, singing about how “there’s a new kid in town” or “for Christ’s sake, it’s Christmas.” It’s Wrangler jeans, a white cowboy hat and a crisp, starched button-down shirt. It’s a man and his guitar, singing about love and heartbreak and faith, with a little gambling or rodeo thrown in once in a while.
Thanks for the memories, George. You’ll always be the King.