They love Strait, and let it show
Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson and others honor the country music hit maker, and it all makes for good TV.
The two-hour program, filmed last month in Las Vegas the night after the Academy of Country Music's latest awards ceremony, is packed with current country stars who were in town for that event, among them Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Brooks & Dunn, Miranda Lambert and Toby Keith.
They even roped in Jamie Foxx, introduced as "a man who has won absolutely no Academy of Country Music awards," but who turns out to have been a Strait fan as a kid growing up in Texas.
"Black fans too, George; you got black fans too," Foxx says, addressing the evening's honoree in the side-stage box from which he and his family watch the parade of artists who sing his songs. "I'm from a good old town called Terrell, Texas. . . . You came to Terrell, Texas, one time when I was 14 years old, and I told everybody, I don't care what side of the tracks I gotta go over, I'm going on the other side of the tracks to see George Strait.' I took a big risk that night."
Strait was chosen in part because of his unmatched to- tal of 57 No. 1 country singles dating back nearly three decades.
The show also includes brief musical salutes to each of the four other acts the ACM similarly recognized: Marty Robbins (1960s), Loretta Lynn (1970s), Alabama (1980s) and Garth Brooks (1990s).
Brooks turns up at the end, not to sing, but to hand Strait his trophy.
The stories all these musicians tell about their love for Strait and his music are uniformly heartwarming, the songs chosen thoughtfully and delivered sincerely for the most part. Oddly, there's little evidence in this show of one of the key strengths of Strait's music: its connection with one of his biggest influences, Texas swing pioneer Bob Wills.
Strait's Ace in the Hole band is a top-notch Western swing outfit, but the songs here skew toward his big ballads, presumably to better appeal to country's current core demographic, suburban women.
The award itself is more of a reward to someone who has never been one of country's innovators. Had that been the goal, Alison Krauss might have been the ideal candidate for the 2000s for all she's done to stretch the boundaries of country with a consistently inspired musical vision.
Strait is neither a masterful vocal interpreter on a par with George Jones or Emmylou Harris, nor a writer to join the ranks of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard.
He does, however, keep the wheels of the country music machine turning by recording songs that give country radio stations hits they can rely on year in and year out, and that spread the wealth among a broad spectrum of writers, music publishers and concert promoters.
In this day and age, it's no wonder the country establishment sees that as a tradition worth this kind of special recognition.
Photo: The honoree of "George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All-Star Concert" with his wife, Norma. Credit: Monty Brinton / CBS