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Country stars salute George Strait as ACM's 'Artist of the Decade'

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George Strait sat by and watched a new generation of country musicians take top honors Sunday night at the 44th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, but Monday night was all his as most of those performers tipped their hats to the veteran Texas troubadour, singled out as the ACM’s "Artist of the Decade."

Strait, his wife, Norma, and son George Jr. watched from a booth set up at the side of the stage for nearly three hours as a parade of stars including Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and even Jamie Foxx expressed their admiration for Strait’s nearly three decades of country hits. The event was taped and will be edited down to two hours for airing May 27 as a CBS-TV special.

Garth Brooks, the academy’s 1990s honoree, showed up to pass the torch to Strait, whom he described as “the man who pretty much has full responsibility for why I am standing here. I wanted to be George Strait.”

Foxx didn’t skimp on the laughs, but was utterly serious about his appreciation for Strait and his music, which he first heard as a kid growing up in Terrell, Texas. He spoke of his excitement at age 14 on hearing that Strait would be coming to play in Terrell, and despite being warned that it wasn’t a good idea, vowed that he would “cross whatever tracks I had to go over, but I’m going to see George Strait.” Then he sang Strait’s 1983 hit “You Look So Good in Love,” putting a slow-jam R&B burn on the song.

Later, Strait quipped, “Jamie, you’re making me rethink the whole way I sing [it].” Swift gave an energetic reading of “Run,” a hit for Strait in 2001, when she was 12, turning it into a credible plea by a teenage girl for a love interest to return. 

Most of the guests were members of country’s new guard; Jackson and Brooks were about the only performers whose careers predate the 1990s. Several referred to getting crucial early exposure opening for Strait, whose 57 No. 1 country hits have put him ahead of all other acts in the genre’s history. Strait rarely writes songs, and performers lauded his ability for choosing material by other writers and so consistently turning them into hits.

The night’s other performers included Montgomery Gentry, Martina McBride, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, Sugarland, Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson, John Rich and Jack Ingram. Strait, a Gary Cooper-like figure who rarely gives interviews or says much onstage during his own performances, offered a few words when Brooks presented him the Artist of the Decade statue.

“I’ve been trying to think of something good to say,” Strait said. “I don’t have enough time. There’s only two hours….This all sounds kind of like a farewell deal, but I ain’t ready to go yet.” From one of the upper decks in the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, one of the 11,000 onlookers shouted, “20 more years!”

Strait concluded the evening by singing his 1987 hit “Ocean Front Property” and “Write This Down” from 1999, then leading the assembled roster of admirers through a group sing on the title song from his most recent album, “Troubadour.”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of George Strait: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

 
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