George Strait’s ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ tour was a two-year final live journey around the USA from one of Country music’s finest ever artists. The legendary Texan, now aged 62, announced that he was coming off of the road after more than three decades. The tour kicked off in Lubbock, Texas on 18th January 2013 and featured another 20 performances that year, before the second leg took place this year with a further 26 shows. The final show found Strait back in his home-state of Texas, at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington on 7th June 2014. An astonishing 104,000 fans were in attendance for a record-breaking night, this new album captures performances from that historic concert.
In all honesty this album review is fairly light on actual reviewing, any self-respecting Country fan will be more than familiar with much of Strait’s music, a wonderful cross-section of which is available on this new release. Since bursting on to the scene with his debut single ‘Unwound’ in 1981 this unassuming superstar has notched up an incredible 60 number one singles, from his first ‘Fool Hearted Memory’ to his most recent ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’. Along the way he has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, as well as collecting 22 CMA Awards and 14 ACM Awards amongst others. His longevity in a famously fickle industry is truly astonishing, proof if it were needed that if the emphasis remains on the quality of the song and an earnest delivery from a gifted vocalist, you have an absolute winning formula right there.
All across ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ tour George Strait was joined by a whole host of other Country music stars, opening shows for him and sharing the stage with him to sing along with their hero on some of his classic hits. His final show at the AT&T Stadium found the singer inundated with fellow artists jostling for the opportunity to duet with ‘King George’. Those duet performances provide some of the most intriguing tracks on the live album, adding to the unique magic of the night which it hopes to capture. First up Vince Gill shares the fun on ‘Love Bug’ a cover of the George Jones track that Strait made a Top 10 hit in 1994. Impossible not to get caught in the sheer energy of the track and its breakneck paced lyrics, the two veteran performers serve up a cracking performance. Next up, that first chart-topper from 1982 ‘Fool Hearted Memory’ sees one of the biggest stars of the current scene, Jason Aldean, trade lines with the star of the show. The jaunty pace and spritely fiddle belie the sadness in the lyrics of a song that still sounds incredibly fresh despite it being over thirty years old, this version with Aldean on board only serves to enhance that view.
‘Cowboys Like Us’ narrowly missed out on topping the charts when it peaked at number two in 2003. A lament to cowboys who ‘ride out on steel horses‘ and staunchly Country, it therefore comes as a slight surprise to hear Strait joined by rabble-rousing Eric Church. What also comes as a surprise is how well the pairing works, well renowned for adding some real rock to his Country, Church also has a real appreciation for the tradition of the music. Given the chance to be part of this event Church slots in perfectly and delivers a vocal performance that fits superbly with the famously laidback Strait.
Sheryl Crow is making a name for herself in Country music and proves why when taking the stage to add vocals to ‘Here For A Good Time’. One of a number of recent co-writes by Strait himself with his sun Bubba (who also appears on the album), this 2011 song more than lives up to its’ title. Rip-roaring fiddle and a virtuoso performance from George make this rocker one of the highlights from the twenty tracks on offer. Five-time CMA Male Vocalist of the Year Strait is then joined by four-time Female Vocalist of the Year Martina McBride for a rendition of ‘Jackson’, a hit for Johnny Cash and June Carter in 1967. With all of those ingredients it is no surprise that this is an absolute joy, a track tailor-made for hardcore-Country loving Strait and a vocal from McBride suggesting that a classic Country covers album should be high on the list for future projects.
A trio of strong female duet partners concludes with Faith Hill and her contribution to ‘A Showman’s Life’, an unreleased track from Strait’s 2011 album ‘Here For A Good Time’, on which Hill originally collaborated. A mournful tale of the sacrifices made by a singer on the road, drowned in steel guitar and fiddle, ‘A Showman’s Life’ fits like a glove for Texas’ finest who gives an emotionally note-perfect performance. Along with his buddy Alan Jackson, Strait caused quite a stir with ‘Murder On Music Row’ back in 2000, a song which criticised the trend of Country / pop crossovers being churned out by Nashville (an argument still raging on some fourteen years later). Fellow legend Jackson was on hand to perform the hardcore shuffle in Arlington and the result is Country music bliss.
‘Run’ was a number two hit in 2001 and is an unlikely inclusion here, not being one of the obvious tracks that spring to mind. A more contemporary sounding song, it actually serves to add to the overall sound of the album with a different ‘flavour’. Of course the song’s cause is helped hugely by the fact that Miranda Lambert adds her unmistakable vocals, hard to imagine a track that would not benefit from Lambert’s inclusion. Her voice and Strait’s work superbly together, ‘Run’ proves to be an unexpected treat. He may not have toured himself in 2014 but Kenny Chesney made a rare live appearance to duet on ‘Ocean Front Property’, a number one hit from 1986 (in a run of eleven consecutive chart-toppers). The years have been kind to a song which sounds wonderful, aided by the affection that many of us hold for a tune synonymous with Strait and his unique career.
Another track impossible not to mention when discussing George Strait is, of course, ‘All My Ex’s Live In Texas’. The number one hit from 1987 is here in all of its glory and sees all of the duet partners mentioned previously re-take the stage to accompany Strait. Everyone is clearly revelling in the opportunity to sing on such an iconic song at such a landmark event, but special mentions for Vince Gill and Miranda Lambert who absolutely nail their lines.
For those fearing that their favourite Strait tracks are missing (admittedly some will be, such is his back-catalogue), brilliant solo performances of more of his biggest hits are included. From early successes ‘Marina Del Rey’ (1982) and ‘The Chair’ (1985), to later top-sellers ‘Check Yes Or No’ (1995) and ‘I Can Still Make Cheyenne’ (1996), all the way through to the fabulous ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’ (2013); the entirety of three decades of tremendous Country music is represented.
For the thousands of George Strait fans unable to be in attendance at his final ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ show (or indeed any of the shows featured on that tour) this album gives us all a chance to experience what those incredibly fortunate 104,000 fans enjoyed back in June. The Texan is famously reserved off-stage and far from outspoken, so it is particularly pleasing to hear him sharing stories on-stage regarding tracks performed and hear him interact with the crowd. The only regret for UK fans listening is that Strait never did make the trip over the Atlantic to perform for us. Having retired from full-time touring the singer is still recording, having recently signed an extension to his record deal with MCA Records (which has now endured for 33 years) and will hopefully continue to make live appearances but I fear not on these shores. This absolutely collection of live tracks will have to suffice and comes as highly recommended as any release in quite some time.