George Strait is eternally the “King of Country” and still very much lives up to the moniker. He has more No. 1 singles than Elvis or The Beatles, some 60 including such classics as “All My Ex’s Live In Texas,” “Amarillo By Morning,” and “Check Yes or No”; he’s won armloads of CMA and ACM Awards and a Grammy; and he’s played to more than 12 million fans over the course of his storied career, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. The first report dates back to February 1982, when he played before 550 at the Texas Concert Hall in Baton Rouge, La. Strait’s most recent performance was March 20, where he made his record-setting 31st appearance at Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo with Ashley McBryde before 79,456 fans at NRG Stadium, bringing his total Houston Rodeo audience to nearly 1.8 million, which helps explain why he calls his relationship with the rodeo “special.”
“I don’t ride the horse around anymore because we have the stage set up in the round there and there’s no room for that,” says Strait, who is the real-deal Texas cowboy and helped run his family’s ranch in Big Wells.
Not only has he ridden horses around the Houston Rodeo, but he’s also the real-deal roper, that is practiced in the art of roping cattle while on horseback. In fact, for some 35 years, the country music legend hosted the George Strait Team Roping Classic.
“George is Texas,” says Strait’s longtime promoter Louis Messina, founder and chairman of Messina Touring Group, who’s promoted his tours since the ’90s, including the annual George Strait Country Music Festival. “You say Texas, and you have to say George Strait. I was watching ‘Yellowstone’ and one of the characters sent one of the ranch hands to be a cowboy in Texas. He goes, ‘There’s only three things you need to know about Texas: blah, blah and George Strait.’”
It makes all the sense in the world, then, that Strait, on April 29 and 30, will play the Grand Opening of the Moody Center, Austin, Texas’ ‘New Headliner.’ It’s a world-class, $375 million, 15,000-plus seat arena constructed and operated by Oak View Group (Pollstar’s parent company), in partnership with the University of Texas, Live Nation and C3 Presents.
“I’m really looking forward to the grand opening,” Strait says, modestly downplaying the significance of his own appearance while noting his excitement over the bill’s other acts.
“Playing with Willie (Nelson & Family) is going to be great,” he enthuses. “What an icon he is. We also have Randy Rogers Band (of the Texas Red Dirt scene) on that show, so it should be a great two nights.”
That’s an understatement. The music and cultural significance of this legendary Lone Star bill in the capital of the Lone Star State is historic – and a brilliant piece of programming at that.
“Opening a building, your goal is to pay homage to a state or region,” says Michael Owens, Moody Center’s VP of Programming. “I don’t know if there’s a name that is more synonymous with the State of Texas than George Strait.”
Erv Woolsey, Strait’s longtime manager, who met the musician in 1978 at The Prairie Rose, a club he owned in San Marcos, Texas, concurs.
“George and Willie are friends, George and Randy are friends, I can’t think of two better guys, fellow Texans, to play the building with him. It’s going to be great, I know that,” he says.
Worth noting: Woolsey and Strait haven’t had a contract throughout almost the entirety of their partnership.
For some, there may be no greater stamp of approval of the Grand Opening bill than the one from a certain Minister of Culture for the University of Texas and an Austinite.
“Two classic icons. Both from Texas, one from Austin,” says Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey (see page 25), who’s consulting for University of Texas and the Moody Center. “It’s perfect parlay to open grand.”
Strait is semi-retired since his 2013-14 “Cowboy Rides Away Tour,” but when he does play, he makes it count. This past January, he topped Pollstar’s Live 75 chart on the strength of two headlining shows on Dec. 3-4, part of his ongoing “Strait to Vegas” residency at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, for which 30,350 turned out. Those performances marked his 31st and 32nd performances at the venue dating back to April 2016. His total ticket count for the residency is now north of half a million (562K) and shows no signs of flagging.
“I love playing the T-Mobile Arena. It’s the first place we played after taking almost two years off after the ‘Cowboy Rides Away Tour,’” Strait says. “I was extremely nervous that first night, but after waking on stage it was like we never left…”
In the last year, some of Strait’s other impactful performances included November shows at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium with Eric Church and Caitlyn Smith; Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium with Chris Stapleton and Little Big Town; and, the month before, a headlining gig at the famed Austin City Limits festival.
“George Strait was one of the all-time greatest performances I’ve seen at ACL Fest,” said Charles Attal, co-founder of Austin-based C3 Presents, which promotes Austin City Limits and is working with the Moody Center. “It was an honor to have him play both weekends.”
And the cowboy keeps riding on. Following his Moody Center shows, Strait this summer plays Kansas City’s GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. He also says he wants to “make another record soon” for MCA, the label he’s been signed to his entire career. If that weren’t enough, his Código 1530 Anejo Tequila was recently named one of the best celebrity-owned liquor brands.
Pollstar caught up with the living legend before his historic Moody Center appearance to find out more about his ongoing and record-setting live career, his recording plans, his award-winning tequila and why the cowboy thankfully has no plans to ride away from touring anytime soon. “I really, really love doing it,” Strait says of performing. “I’m so appreciative that my fans still love to come hear us.”
Pollstar: Your touring numbers are astronomical. Pollstar Boxoffice reports dating back to 1983 indicate you’ve sold some 12 million tickets, that’s more than the population of some countries, how do you process that and what does it mean to you?
George Strait: It’s definitely not easy to process. I’ve always said I have the best fans out there. They’ve been extremely loyal throughout my career – and they don’t seem to be slowing down any.
You recently topped Pollstar’s Live 75 chart, headlining two huge shows as part of your “Strait to Vegas” concert residency at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and selling 30,350 seats on Dec. 3-4. Those were your 31st and 32nd performances of your historic residency that began there in April 2016, which now has a total ticket count there of more 562K and shows no sign of flagging. How does it feel to have that kind of success there and how long will you continue playing there?
I love playing the T-Mobile Arena. It’s the first place we played after taking almost two years off after the “Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” I was extremely nervous that first night, but after waking on stage it was like we never left. It was brand new at the time and the acoustics are great in there, which is not always so for arenas. I’m not sure how long we’ll play there … but a few more, I reckon.
You also just closed out the Houston Rodeo with Ashley McBryde drawing 79,456(!) fans to NRG Stadium. What does that event mean to you? What always happens at HLS&R that you can count on? Do you still ride your horse around the venue?
The Houston Rodeo has always been a special place for me. Everyone knows the story of how I got started playing there so I won’t repeat all that (filling in at the last second for an ailing Eddie Rabbit in 1983), but we’ve had a special relationship ever since. I don’t ride the horse around anymore because we have the stage set up in the round there and there’s no room for that. I do miss that though.
What will it mean to you to play the Grand Opening of Austin’s new Moody Center with Willie Nelson?
I’m really looking forward to the grand opening of the new Moody Center in Austin. Playing with Willie is going to be great. What an icon he is. We also have Randy Rogers on that show so it should be a great two nights.
What is your take on the growth of the Austin market from when you first started playing there to where it is today? What were your first gigs there?
Austin has always been a big music town. The big change for me was going from playing the historic Broken Spoke to the Erwin Center and now the new Moody Center. Just bigger venues for me.
With so many shows like Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the ATLive festival, Evansville’s Ford Center and Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, do you actually have any downtime in your semi-retirement? If so, how do you like to spend your time? Did you anticipate working this much when you backed off the grind?
I would say that I’m working at just the right pace for me. I think I’ll do eight shows next year. That’s about perfect. I’ll have plenty of time off and still be able to scratch that itch that I have for live shows. I also want to make another record soon. I just re-signed with MCA records and I’m really excited about that and the fact that they still want me around. They’re the only record company I’ve ever been with, and I guess the only one I’ll ever have. They can bury me under the building when that time comes.
How do you choose your setlists as you have such a massive catalog with more hits (60 No. 1s) than any other artist in history?
My setlists aren’t that hard for me. There are some songs that I absolutely have to do, then the rest I fill in with some of my other favorites. Those I’m able to change around from time to time. Pace is the biggest thing to try and get right when making a set list. Four or five ballads in a row doesn’t cut it.
A couple of days ago, Código 1530 Anejo Tequila was listed as one of the best celebrity-owned liquor brands. How the heck does that happen?
A few years back me and some friends decided to try and share a great unnamed tequila that we had been drinking down in Cabo for quite some time. We all felt it was the best tequila we had ever tasted and wanted to get it out to the rest of the world. We named it Código 1530 and put together a team to market it. We’re very happy with the success of it. It really sells itself. We just have to get people to try it. Once they do, they tend to agree with us. I always say if it’s not your favorite you haven’t tried it. Me, Bubba Strait and Dean Dillon wrote the “Código” song about it.
Not too long after you released your 30th(!) album, Honky Tonk Time Machine, in 2019, the live industry shut down. How did it feel for the first time in 40-plus years to not get out on the road and perform your new songs?
When live music shut down due to COVID, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to play live again. It made me really sit back and realize how fortunate I had been all of these years to be able to do that. I mean, time was passing and I wasn’t getting any younger. It was scary; I wasn’t ready to quit. I think after we were able to come back it gave me a different appreciation for being able to perform for people. I really, really love doing it and I’m so appreciative that my fans still love to come hear us. Like my song says, “I don’t know how many more years I’ve got left to do this, but I figure a few.” It’s true. There’s nothing like it and I can’t describe it. Not many people get to do it at this level and I feel very lucky and blessed to be one of those few. Come see us.