Garth Brooks said it best himself as he passed the mantel as reigning Academy of Country Music artist of the decade to George Strait last night: “No one does a Strait song like the man himself, George Strait.”
But that didn’t stop more than 15 artists from trying last night at the taping of the George Strait Artist of the Decade special, which will air on CBS on May 27. The show was filmed before a live audience at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas April 6 to take advantage of the star power that had been there the night before for the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Like few artists in history-maybe Sinatra or Elvis- Strait has an unerring sense of knowing what songs work for him. He doesn’t write much of his own material, but once he’s recorded a song, he makes it his own and it’s hard to think of anyone else singing it (although anyone who’s played in a country band in a bar better have a steady repertoire of Strait songs to draw on). The King of Country’s reign includes 57 No. 1 songs—that’s more than any other artist in all genres of music—more than the Beatles or Madonna. And he’s not done yet. Strait brings an unrushed effortlessness to his singing style that no other artist can replicate. Additionally, in this world of scandal and tell-alls, Strait’s life is off limits. He gives few interviews, is never photographed at the Ivy or shows up in the tabloids. He gets up on stage and sings. That’s it. And it is more than enough.
Many of the artists gave fairly straight forward readings of Strait hits: Tim McGraw’s sexy take on “Marina Del Ray”; Brooks & Dunn’s “Cowboy Rides Away,” Dierks Bentley’s “Blue Clear Sky,” Toby Keith's rueful "Unwound" or Alan Jackson’s playful “The Fireman.”
But some added their own twist: Sugarland provided a particularly spicy, rollicking spin to Cajun burner “Adalida,” teen queen Taylor Swift delivered a slowed down version of “Run,” real-life couple Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton turned “It Ain’t Cool to be Crazy About You” into a spirited duet. Similarly, Jamey Johnson and Lee Ann Womack, in what some considered the highlight of the night, turned the Johnson-penned “Give It Away” into a poignant tale of a couple’s divorce distress instead of just one side of the story. The most original reading came from Jamie Foxx, a long-time Strait fan, who delivered a soulful, old-school R&B infused version of “You Look So Good in Love” that received the night’s first standing ovation.
Most performers shared their stories of Strait, who is apparently a man of very few words. When Swift opened for Strait (virtually every one of the artists on the stage has toured with the perennially playing Strait) three years ago, she asked him if he had any advice on how to play in-the-round. He just looked at her and said “Just do it for 25 years and it will feel real natural.” Johnson thanks Strait again for cutting “Give It Away,” which revived Johnson’s failed career and led to his getting a new record deal. However, he added, “Every time we’ve spoken, it’s been brief. I’m not sure you like me so much.” Strait laughed, but, from his seat on the side of the stage in a box with his family, didn’t dispute the claim.
The four previous artist of the decades were also feted: Keith Urban performed a trio of 1960s honoree Marty Robbins’ songs, including “El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” Faith Hill sang a defiant, sassy “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” in honor of ‘70s recipient Loretta Lynn, Montgomery Gentry delivered a spot-on version of Alabama’s blue-grass flavored stomp “Mountain Music” to herald Alabama and Martina McBride, Brooks’ former opening act, did the ‘90s artist of the decade proud, with an elegant version of “The Dance.”
After Brooks’ unannounced appearance, it was Strait’s turn. As anyone who has watched tributes knows, they can take on an almost “I’m watching my own funeral” feel for the recipient, and as performer after performer talked about growing up on Strait or—to really dig in the dagger- Bentley talked about how his dad loved Strait, the 56-year-old honoree must have felt he was as old as the hills.
As he joked after receiving the award from Brooks, “This is like a farewell deal and I’m not ready to go.” He amply proved that he is still in his prime as he launched into “Ocean Front Property,” “Write This Down” and “Troubadour,” during which he was joined by the other artists.
Strait, as country artists are wont to do, thanked God during his acceptance speech. “I’m glad he pointed me toward county music,” Strait said. So are the millions upon millions of his fans.