George Strait Talks ‘Bittersweet’ Exit and Gets a Garth Tribute

Chris Willman
Our Country

George Strait was asked Monday night how he'd be spending his free time after his "Cowboy Rides Away" farewell tour wraps up in 2014. And, in his typical laconic fashion, he didn't sound like he'd given it an undue amount of thought.

"I'm still gonna do a few things. Maybe five or six things, I’m thinking, in the next few years—see what happens," he said, seemingly referring to possible live one-off events. "But I don’t there’ll be a 'Cowboy Rides Back In' tour or anything," he added, chuckling at the thought of a bait-and-switch comeback.

The notoriously press-shy Strait was having a very rare chat with the media backstage at the ASCAP Country Music Awards in Nashville, where he was being honored with the publishing rights organization's highest honor, the Founders Award. The invite-only event was capped by a tribute to Strait that featured Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Lee Ann Womack singing a handful of his 60 No. 1 hits.

Strait is also up for Entertainer of the Year at Wednesday's CMA Awards, a category he hasn't carried since 1990 and even been nominated in since 2009. "I think everybody knows why" he made a comeback in the category, he said, alluding to the farewell tour. "It's such an honor. It's been a while. Any time you get nominated for Entertainer of the Year, which is the award of the night, it’s very, very special. I’m excited about it and I’ll be very nervous that night."

He wasn't one to make predictions about how life will change after his retirement from touring. "I’ll have to see. It’s gonna be different, because it’s been my life for a long, long time. So I don’t know. I’ve got mixed feelings about it still. When we do the last one in Dallas, it’s gonna be probably a little emotional... It’s gonna be bittersweet, for sure, the whole tour next year."

There was only sweetness for Strait at Monday night's ASCAPs tribute inside Nashville's spanking new convention center. The on-stage tribute capped with Garth doing a medley of "Unwound," "Amarillo By Morning," and "The Fireman," preceded by Womack's rendition of "Troubadour."

Jackson started off the salute by talking about how hard it'd been to pick one tune to cover, choosing between "'Amarillo' and 'Fort Worth' and 'The Chair' and 'All My Exes,' and of course all the Dean Dillon stuff—everything he’d done was memorable. I started thinking I wanted to do something I had more of a personal connection with, and I chose this song that was on my set list when I was singing in the bars down in Georgia, and it was still on my set list when I came to Nashville… It was just the kind of song that made me want to sing country music." That song was "Let's Fall to Pieces Together."

On the red carpet, we asked some of the attending stars for their favorite Strait songs or memories.

Said Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, "We opened for him once in Texas — which means that everybody in Texas was there! I love him as a live player, really. I know that he’s saying that he’s hanging up his hat, but I love that he’s been out there pounding the pavement for so long and bringing it to the fans, because not every artist is so multi-dimensional. He can bring it in the studio, because he’s got a sling of No. 1 hits, but he can also deliver live. I love that he’s brought it to the fans in that way, because to me that’s what it’s all about."

"If you don’t love George Strait, then you’re crazy," said Angaleena Presley of Pistol Annies (who was getting an award for co-writing Miranda Lambert's "Fastest Girl in Town"). "I like 'The Fireman,' just because I remember that song when I was little, when I thought it was really about a fireman, but then I grew up, and I’m like, ohhh—that’s what that means! And I love 'The Chair'—I love the twist at the end. He’s just a troubadour and he’s been around for decades and been a trailblazer and has staying power. He never puts out a bad song. He’s a role model for all of us."

"My favorite song of his is 'The Chair'," agreed hot newcomer Brandy Clark (who opened the ASCAP show with her own song, "Get High"). "He’s cut a lot of timeless melodies, a lot of them written by Dean Dillon, who’s being honored tomorrow night at the BMI Awards." (In friendly Nashville, you're allowed to mention the competition.)

Greg Bates, of "Did It for the Girl" fame, said, "I grew up listening to him in my mom’s station wagon on my way to baseball practice. As soon as I picked up a guitar, I had to learn 'Amarillo By Morning.' It spoke to me for some reason, even as a 10-year-old kid; I guess I wanted to join the rodeo or something. Trying to play that fiddle lick on an acoustic guitar just doesn’t quite work. But I tried it anyway."

Deana Carter, who has her first album in six years on the way, recalled a photo shoot she did with Strait in the '90s that was supposed to go on the cover of People magazine. It got scotched when Princess Diana died, but she still savors the photos, one of which has her polishing Strait's boots. "He was really gracious and encouraged me with open arms as a new artist to do my own thing and be myself. I hate to sound corny about it, but he just always had a smile and something warm and good to say. I know him as a very quiet, kind man. And he’s always been that way—he’s never changed—so I love him. And he’s still handsome as the day is long, so I love that too!"

Legendary singer/songwriter Paul Williams, the president of ASCAP, represented the fandom that exists in the pop world. "Even though I’m 12 years older than he is, there is something about Geore Strait that is like the daddy cowboy to me, the way that I remember Roy Rogers and Rex Allen. That whole energy of the cowboy hero is there, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m really excited to meet George... Every songwriter here tonight can probably say with the tip of a hat, 'Thank you for making my business world a little more complete by the audience you brought to it.'" Even to the writers whose work Strait never cut, said Williams, "he's been a gift, because the country audience grew as he brought tons of people in, in the beginning of his career, to the record store… And to the songwriters writing for him — I would kill to have George Strait’s name on my list of people that have done my songs," said Williams, who had two cuts on the latest Daft Punk album.

Sure enough, as Strait was doing his press conference, Williams, the guy who wrote "We've Only Just Begun" and "Evergreen," interrupted the interview to hand Strait a CD of his demos.