One last rodeo for George Strait

JON BREAM | Updated 2/21/2013

Country king George Strait rides through St. Paul on his farewell tour.

George Strait
Photo by CARLOS GONZALEZ

Like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, George Strait does it his way.

From being the first modern country act to wear a cowboy hat to pulling the plug on concert tours in his prime, Strait calls his own shots.

At 60, the King of Country Music — who performs Friday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — will stop touring after his Cowboy Rides Away Tour ends next year, but he will not cease making music. He plans to record more albums, hoping to add to his unprecedented run of 44 No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country chart.

“He does everything on his own terms,” said Twin Cities country radio programmer Gregg Swedberg of K102. “He’s worried about his life, not his career. The length of time that he’s been successful is completely unprecedented. How many artists are popular for 30 years in one format? There’s nothing like George Strait.”

Dolly Parton, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have been stars much longer than Strait, but they’ve been missing from the upper reaches of the country charts for a long time. Alabama and Ricky Skaggs both launched their careers in Nashville at about the same time Strait did, but when was the last time they made a noise on radio?

Strait keeps going strong — in 2011, he landed “Here for a Good Time” at No. 2 and “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright” at No. 3, and all of this year’s tour dates are sold out.

And he doesn’t just appeal to old-timers.

“It’s as cool at 18 to say you’re a George Strait fan as it’s ever been,” Swedberg said, “and he’s grandpa age.”

Natalie Beavers, 21, of Cannon Falls, grew up listening to Strait with her parents and grandparents.

“It’s really classic country music,” said Beavers. “You can relate to him. His lyrics are just really simple, about everyday-life issues.”

While Reba McEntire (who started before Strait) tries to modernize her sound and Garth Brooks (who modeled himself after Strait) tries to experiment, Strait is about as consistent as his outfit: Resistol cowboy hat, starched button-down shirt and creased Wrangler jeans.

“He’s Gary Cooper cowboy,” said longtime country music journalist Michael McCall, now an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “You can rely on him.”

Ranching is the first love of the Texan who toiled as a kid on his dad’s 2,000-acre cattle spread and eloped with his high school sweetheart.

“He works his ranch,” McCall said. “It’s a big part of his life — in some ways more than country music.”

Strait explained himself in September in a rare press conference to announce his Cowboy Rides Away Tour, which includes only 20 shows this year.

“I have a new grandson and so we’ll certainly be spending a lot of time with him. I’ll help try and steal him away from his parents for a while, maybe take him fishing,” he joked.

McCall was at the press conference.

“He doesn’t like talking about him- self,” said the journalist, who has interviewed Strait a handful of times. “He’d rather talk about songwriters or his band. He’s very articulate and listens and answers your questions. He’s very humble.”

This retirement from the road is real. Though he may do the occasional one-off show, no one expects Strait to pull a Garth Brooks, who took a music-biz hiatus to raise his daughters, then took up a residency in Las Vegas on weekends.

Why won’t Strait change his mind?