The King is in a good mood.
The atmosphere is far from regal, but George Strait couldn't be more content. Sitting at a small wooden table in the corner of the famed Gruene Hall – the oldest dancehall in Texas – Strait drinks in his surroundings.
"It's exactly the same," he says of the club, whose history leaps out of every corner, from the faded ads that ring the venue to the pot-bellied stove near the bar.
"These were all here when I was here," Strait says, gesturing at the hundreds of publicity shots plastering the walls. Some are artists for whom the venue served as a launching pad to great heights and others, moving on the opposite trajectory, for whom the historic hall was a noble downsizing. And for still more, like Strait himself on this day, it provides a one-off of intimacy between bigger gigs, a return to the start.
Coincidentally, the patch of real estate near where Strait sits in a brown cowboy hat, crisp Wranglers and a blue and white striped button-down is a veritable Lone Star State music hall of fame. Ernest Tubb, Joe Ely, the Texas Tornados, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett and early Strait ally and supplier of songs Clay Blaker all peer down. (Kitty-corner to Strait's baby-faced photo is Merle Haggard, to whom Strait will later pay tribute during his set.)
One wall near the entrance is dedicated exclusively to Strait, including a photo from the back of his first album that was shot at the club. A caption underneath the pictures notes the history of the Ace in the Hole Band and their "handsome lead singer" at Gruene Hall and how they lit out for Nashville in 1981 for one last shot at the country music brass ring.
It has been more than 30 years since Strait was a staple at this establishment outside of San Antonio. As a hungry newcomer in 1975, Strait recounts trying to win over the owner to get a nighttime gig at the venue after a low-paying Sunday matinee audition. Obviously, he and the band succeeded. They continued to play regularly at Gruene Hall for seven years before Strait caught that ring and was launched into the country music stratosphere.
"We all know the rest," further reads the caption. And the rest is quite a story. The stats are staggering, with 60 Number One hits under his very shiny belt buckle – 61 if you count his participation in the recent all-star "Forever Country" single – over 100 million albums sold worldwide and a trophy collection to rival any artist in any genre, including the most CMA nominations and wins in Country Music Association history.
Today he has returned to New Braunfels on the occasion of an album release party of sorts, to celebrate his new collection Strait Out of the Box: Part 2, released last Friday exclusively at Walmart.
The three disc, 56-track collection – a sequel to his best-selling 1995 box – compiles the 26 Number Ones he's scored in the last 20 years as well as personal favorites and two killer new cuts, both of which he will premiere later in the night for the 300 lucky guests at Gruene Hall and worldwide via online streaming.
The first, "You've Gotta Go Through Hell," co-written by Strait, his son Bubba and longtime collaborator Dean Dillon, is a raucous ditty about the virtues of indulging in vices in order to see the light. ("You've gotta go through hell to get to heaven" goes the sassy refrain.) A male chorus of call and response has a fun throwback feel, but contemporary production makes it country-radio ready. The second, "Kicked Outta Country," probably won't be making any mainstream playlists, as the song – co-written with Jamey Johnson – takes programmers to task for leaving behind legends like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.
Strait, now 64 but easily mistaken for 10 years younger, announced his retirement from large-scale touring in 2012 and concluded his historic Cowboy Rides Away Tour in 2014. But he has been far from idle, continuing to record – his latest being 2015's Cold Beer Conversation – and launching a series of shows in Las Vegas at the T-Mobile Arena this year.
Prior to the show at Gruene Hall, Strait announced a new batch of Vegas dates for 2017. The weekend engagements – slated for April, July, September and December and dubbed "2 Nights of Number 1's" – will find Strait singing 30 chart-toppers each night, along with other favorites from his 35-year career.
But the King isn't resting on his throne. Granted a rare audience with the famously press-averse Strait, he talked with Rolling Stone Country about Strait Out of the Box: Part 2, the Vegas gigs, his recent foray into the tequila business and, most importantly, plans for a new album.
Had you ever considered coming back and playing small clubs like this once you graduated to arenas and stadiums?
I've always thought about doing this. I think every artist wants to go back and do these kinds of things, so this was a really good excuse for me to get off my butt and really do it instead of just talking about it. I'm really happy to be here. Just getting back on that stage brings back so many memories.
You've got two news songs on the box set. What was the inspiration for "You've Gotta Go Through Hell"?
I walked in and Bubba and Dean had the idea and they were working on it so I got into it. My dad was a very religious man, a strict Southern Baptist – he passed away a few years ago at 92. My brother and I, he raised us on his own, and as much as he tried to push us in one direction, we were pushing just as hard in the other direction and so it really kind of struck a chord with me.
Do you wonder if recording the second new song "Kicked Outta Country" will make radio programmers less disposed to play "You've Gotta Go Through Hell"?
It was kind of a poke at country radio and it's because it is harder for me to get 'em to play my records now. But I knew that was going to happen at some point and I always said I was going to accept it, there's nothing I can do about it. And now it is happening and I'm trying to accept it. [Laughs]
It sounded easier in your head when you said it probably.
Yeah, it did. [Laughs]
But given your long string of hits, you've had a much longer ride than some of the guys you sing about in "Kicked Outta Country." You don't get to 60 Number Ones without radio support.
Yeah, that's probably so. I'm not saying anything bad. Country radio has treated me so good over my career, it's been an amazing career. I've got a lot of good friends out there that I've made in country radio. I'm not really putting them down, I'm just poking fun at that notion and it does happen in every genre. I can remember when it happened to Jones, I can remember when it happened to the Hag, and they were still making good records.
In every single era of country music, someone has complained about the changing sounds, but you have been very supportive of contemporary artists, having them open for you throughout your career, including Kacey Musgraves in Vegas, so it's not as if you're saying you disavow modern country music.
It's so hard to make it in this business. I'm just saying that – if I ever say anything that even sounds bad about it, it's just that it's not my taste in music. Everybody has their taste. But to be able to have success in this business is hard and so if you're able to do it, more power to you.
How important was it to you to have new songs on this box set? You did it last time with "Check Yes or No" and it went very well. You got another Number One out of it.
I think it's important to get something new out there. A lot of the songs that I chose to put on here I felt like I had looked over as singles back in the day only got leftover because you can only do so many of them. Record companies deal with putting product out there and to keep a record out for enough time to put 10 singles out from that same record is impossible. [Laughs] So some songs…
...become the album cuts that diehard fans want you to play in concert that you can't play because you have so many hits?
Going back through the last 20 years to pick the non-single songs, were there any you were pleasantly surprised to remember?
There's a few of those. One was called "The Nerve." Bobby Braddock wrote it and it was an incredible song and it should've been a single, it would've been a big record, but for whatever reason we didn't get it out and I've regretted that. Then there's other songs that I cut that were just favorites of mine for years like "Looking Out My Window Through the Pain," an old Mel Street song that I just love. So it was songs like that, and yeah you forget about them when you do so many and they come right back to you.
This may sound strange because you're living inside of it, but do you ever marvel that you have had a career that can sustain two boxed sets worth of music? Does that ever freak you out?
Only when someone points it out. [Laughs] Honestly, I don't think about those things. It's hard to believe it's been 34 years since I've played here because the time has simply flown by. It's just been such a fun, great career that I never dreamed I could have. I mean, getting in the Hall of Fame when I'm still out there.
And that's what's been so remarkable about your career. To win Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs and the ACMs in the last few years, thanks in part to the success of the Cowboy Rides Away Tour and to honor the length and breadth of your career is something that a lot of the legends that we talk about being marginalized didn't have the good fortune to experience.
I think that's part of the reason that it bites a little more [not getting radio play] because I still have those great fans coming out and selling 19,000-seaters out and so I still feel like there's a big audience out there that wants to hear some stuff. And believe me, they gave me a lot of great years, more than I deserve probably.
You swore off the large scale touring after 2014. Have the Vegas shows been a good compromise?
It's perfect for me. It's exactly what I wanted. I couldn't have drawn it up any better. I didn't want to do one-offs. I didn't want to tour. I just wanted to do certain things and when this opportunity came up, [concert promoter] Louis Messina put it together with them. He's amazing, he's got great ideas, he's been a great friend. He's always looking out for me. But when he came with this idea I said, "Perfect, I'm in, sign me up!"
This isn't your first rodeo in Vegas.
I've played Vegas all my career. I started out playing there in the late Eighties. I think the Frontier was the first one. I played two shows a night, I hated that. [Laughs]
So for the upcoming dates of "2 Nights of Number 1's," you're talking about doing 30 songs one night and 30 songs the next. Are you really ready for that?
I don't think it's going to be tough at all. I could probably sing most of them now. I just need a little reminder.
But semi-retirement is suiting you? I know you are doing other things besides the Vegas shows – golfing, the annual roping tournament, the new tequila brand.
Yeah, I'm busy with that and I'm golfing. I'd say when I really started missing [touring] – not missing it exactly but realizing that my life was changing was the first year. I'd been off for a year and then January rolled around where normally I would start going out. I'm going, "I'm kind of in a funky mood." And it took me a while to realize this is why. It's been my life for 30 years and now it's not the same. But I'm really liking it, enjoying myself.
Are you working on a new record?
I am starting to write some for it. The other day when I went in the studio, I did a little rough cut of one that's going to go on there, that actually Bubba and Dean and I wrote the same time we wrote "You've Gotta Go Through Hell." So that'll be on there and then Dean and Bubba and I are planning on getting together. I want to write the whole thing. I've never done it. I think the most I've ever had is six or eight songs on a record.
Does the inspiration come from the same place?
It's different things. You never know when an idea is going to come along and that's the beauty of writing with somebody else – you know you get together and you start throwing ideas out there and you gather it up and pick the best ones and go with it.
So Pure Country 3, when is that happening?
I had forgotten that Kyle Chandler, Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, was in that movie playing the fake "Dusty" character.
How about that? And now he's had a lot of success.
I think it's because of Pure Country, don't you?
Of course. [Laughs] I did watch Friday Night Lights and now he's got another show Bloodline, very good.
So, this is a funny thing that happened one time. I was at a roping [competition] in Oklahoma City and I was about three ropers back waiting to go and this guy was sitting there and he said, "Hey man, when are you going to do another movie?" And I said, "Dude, old Dusty died." And he said "No shit?" [Laughs]
So you just messed with that guy?
I'm telling you! [Laughs]