By: Edward Morris
There’s just no way around it — George Strait is the coolest country singer that’s ever been.Sure, Ray Price was cool. Gentleman Jim Reeves was cool. Sonny James was cool. And Willie is way cool. But Strait is the King of Cool. To lapse into the vernacular, he be so cool his bus don’t need air-conditioning.
George Harvey Strait — he of the crooked grin and liquid stride — was born May 18, 1952 in Poteet, Texas. Growing up on a large working ranch, he was initially drawn to rock music and even played in a few garage bands while in high school. After graduation, he got married and joined the Army. While serving in Hawaii, he auditioned for and won the lead vocalist spot in a country band. That prompted him to study the music of such hillbilly luminaries as George Jones and Merle Haggard. He’s been country ever since.
Following his stint in the service, Strait returned to Texas and continued to play in local bands, working the club circuit. One of those clubs was owned by Erv Woolsey, who would go on to become the head of promotion for MCA Records’ country division. When Strait came calling on Nashville in search of a record deal, Woolsey remembered how impressed he’d been by Strait’s performances and succeeded in getting him signed to MCA in 1981.
Strait’s first release for MCA, “Unwound,” went to No. 6 and immediately established him as a rising star. This was the same time music videos were coming into prominence as a marketing tool, and fans were drawn to Strait’s crisp good looks, mellow, unaccented voice and confident but low-key stage presence. He didn’t work the stage; he simply owned it wherever he stood.
Not a songwriter himself, Strait relied on a steady stream of hit material from such reliable craftsmen as Dean Dillon, Frank Dycus, Hank Cochran and, later on, Aaron Barker. It was also clear from such choices as “The Fireman” and “The Chair” that Strait liked a little humor in his music. Within five years of his breakthrough, he had racked up nine No. 1 and five Top 5 hits, including “Amarillo by Morning,” “Fool Hearted Memory,” “You Look So Good in Love,” “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” “The Fireman” and “It Ain’t Cool to be Crazy About You.”
In 1992, with 14 more No. 1s under his belt, Strait starred in the movie Pure Country, in which he played a country singer who’d become burned out by the demands of fame and had to return temporarily to a less-frenzied existence. Strait did a creditable job acting, but he still came off as the generally calm and low-key superstar he was in real life. The movie yielded the hits “I Cross My Heart,” “Heartland” and “When Did You Stop Loving Me.”
Although competing with a new generation of country titans — among them Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Shania Twain — Strait regularly topped the country charts throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s. With Jackson, he won the CMA’s vocal event of the year award in 2000 for “Murder on Music Row,” which he confessed he viewed as a novelty song. His last single to go No. 1 — “River of Love” — came in 2007. To date, he has 44 No. 1’s to his credit.
In 2007, Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Here are 12 of Strait’s best:
Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.