George Strait’s record-setting goodbye

by Ryan Snyder

It had been precisely five years and a week since attendance at a Greensboro Coliseum concert had cracked 20,000 when Bon Jovi and Daughtry brought in a Top 5 audience, but then a cowboy rode into town.

A crowd of 20,910 came out to see what might be George Strait’s last visit to Greensboro during his supposed farewell tour A Cowboy Rides Away on Saturday night. His two-hour, 29-song performance edged out a smoky set by Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band on April 20, 2002, and fell just short of the Dixie Chicks’ peak-Bush hysteria attendance in May 2003. The tour is not entirely a retirement, per se. Strait says he will continue to record, with his next album due in May, along with the occasional one-off. There will be no more long runs after this one, he insists, but if anything, the strength of his performance suggested that Strait might be hanging up his spurs a little too soon.

Supported on this final run by Martina McBride, whose voice remains as crystalline as his is oaky, Strait announced his intentions immediately with “Here for a Good Time.” Unlike his stoic stop here in 2010, Strait’s warm smile was as much a part of his ensemble and his dark felt Stetson. His choice of an in-the-round stage setup supported the record-setting crowd (Bieber would have likely shattered this number if not for his proscenium configuration), but what it wasn’t its most significant quality. The stage’s only adornment was his 11-piece Ace In the Hole Band and four microphones, one facing each side of the coliseum that received clockwork visits, a modest aesthetic that’s essentially gone from arena-sized country shows and likely will be entirely once Strait is off the road.

His fondness of traditionalism isn’t only reflected in production values; Strait always acknowledges his masters. In 2010, he showed it through a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Seashores of Old Mexico” and on Saturday, he tipped his hat to Johnny Cash through a duet with McBride on “Jackson” and an encore of “Folsom Prison Blues.” They were islands in a sea of hits though, and it’s hard to fathom the scope until you look at what he didn’t play. His luminary status was acknowledged by the pre-show video exaltations recorded by the likes of Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift, Jamey Johnson and at least dozen others.

Other than one rather momentous pause, continuity was a hallmark of Strait’s performance, though he did come armed with stories of his coming up, including one about Billy Bob’s Texas, which was name-checked in his opener. He welcomed some unexpected guests after “River of Love,” namely a retired lieutenant general with a belt buckle as big as Texas itself and the demeanor of a game-show host, who then introduced Triad Army veteran Ryan Hamilton and his wife, Cherie, who were bestowed with the keys to a new home and other amenities as a part of the Homes 4 Wounded Heroes that Strait’s tour is supporting.

It was a beautiful and touching gesture, even if the presentation felt somewhat like a framing exercise. The general, Leroy Cisco, told of Hamilton’s experience in an IED blast, followed vociferously by, “But he’s okay!” Cosmetically, maybe. There were no evident injuries, but his bio spoke of a traumatic brain injury, progressive nerve damage, complex regional pain syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder — not exactly in line with the civilian definition of “okay,” but nothing a new house, a flat-screen TV from WalMart, groceries for a year, and 20,000-plus people chanting “USA!” can’t fix.

Certainly, the scene was followed by Strait’s biggest hit, “Give It Away,” because the old cowboy doesn’t bother with deep subtlety. He’s the embodiment of the idiom, “What you see is what you get,” so maybe when he closed his show with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” he might just mean it.