On May 18th, 1952, in the tiny town of Poteet, Texas, a future king was born. George Strait, one of the most celebrated recording artists of all time, has released 28 studio albums with one theme tied throughout: pure country. He has sold more than 69 million LPs, charted 60 Number One hits and won 23 CMA awards. And though the 63-year-old entertainer has now retired from touring, he’s still making music — he has at least five more albums coming, per his MCA Records deal, and in April released a new single, “Let It Go.” To celebrate the undisputed King of Country Music’s birthday, we asked Rolling Stone Country readers to vote on their favorite songs from his unparalleled catalog. Here are your top 10 picks.
George Strait has many virtues, but a poker face surely isn’t one of them. This chart-topping country single finds Strait having some fun at his own expense, acknowledging just how terrible a liar he is by playing up false bravado for humorous effect. If you leave him, he won’t miss your or take you back ’cause he don’t even love you, no way, no m’am. And if you buy that, well, he’s got an ocean-front lot in the middle of the desert he’d be happy to sell you, with the Golden Gate Bridge as a freebie bonus. It’s among the greatest of the icon’s punchline hits.
One man's lovesick blues is another man's unfathomable devastation. The Aaron Barker-penned lyrics to 1988's "Baby Blue" read like a nostalgic breakup song: Its narrator remembers a life-changing relationship with a girl who made a big impact in a criminally short time. ("She always held it deep inside, but somehow I always knew/She'd go away when the grass turned green and the sky turned baby blue.") But given it was released two years after the death of Strait's 13-year-old daughter from a car accident, many believe the singer's own interpretation of the ballad hits closer (and harder) to home.
A Top Five hit from 1996, "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" is the kind of cowboy song that makes you root for the bull. When a rodeo man gets fed up with the circuit, he decides to finally come home. But when he calls ahead and the woman on the other end tells him not to bother, he's quick to change his mind. He'll try to make the next rodeo circuit stop in Cheyenne after all, confirming her suspicions in the process, no doubt. If it was a test, he failed miserably. Aaron Barker and Erv Woolsey wrote the tune, boldly avoiding a typical happy ending.
"Give It Away" is a modern hit that sounds like a classic. Carefully crafted by the generation-bridging trio of Jamey Johnson, Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, the song feels like it has always existed, even though it was released in 2006. And Strait was the perfect singer for it, delivering the my-baby-left-me storyline like he still couldn't quite believe it himself. Full of vivid details too specific to sound made up, the gold-certified song went to Number One on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart and won both Song and Single of the Year honors at the 2007 ACM Awards.
Strait has had so much obvious, visible fun over his decades as a travelin' song-and-dance man that the downside is easy to miss. But it hasn't been a free ride. Even though 2008's "Troubadour" commences with the then 56-year-old singer declaring that he feels "25 most of the time" and still has his hell-raising bonafides in order, this late-period backward glance is an acknowledgement that we all lose our charms in the end. Strait confesses that he's not entirely thrilled with what he sees in that "damn old mirror," but he is who he is and will be to the end: "I'll be an old troubadour when I'm gone." A heck of an epitaph, but he's not gone yet.
Strait has always kept romance at the heart of his music, and "Carrying Your Love With Me" is a prime example. Sung about a guy who's often away from home but never packs much, the singer gives voice to the deepest kind of love a man can have for a woman — the kind that can sustain him entirely. The way Strait sings it, he doesn't need food or clothing, just a goodbye kiss: "It's my strength for holdin' on/Every minute that I have to be gone." Written by Steve Bogard and Jeff Stevens and released in 1997, "Carrying Your Love With Me" was another Billboard Number One.
Whether it's sung by Strait or by "Dusty Chandler," his alter ego in the film Pure Country, "I Cross My Heart" is the love ballad that every girl dreams will be written in her honor. Full of selfless promises of devotion and mixed with an irresistible bit of bravado — "In all the world, you'll never find/A love as true as mine" — it was enough to win him a rodeo queen in the movie, and it's probably helped out a few Regular Joes, too. The Steve Dorff and Eric Kaz-penned track went to Number One in 1992.
"Well, excuse me, but I think you've got my chair." Truly, only George Strait could get away with an opening-line gambit like that. And he does, relying on all his charm and wiles as he makes his way through the stations of the pickup progression: bumming a light, buying a drink, getting her name, asking to dance and offering a ride. Finally, he admits, "To tell you the truth, that wasn’t my chair after all." By then, he's already in like Flynn. Between the singer's crooked bashful grin and the period Eighties' hairstyles of his paramours, the video belongs in the nightlife hall of fame, too.
Whether it’s by plane, train, car, cab or Nikes, this lovestruck narrator just wants his lady to hurry up and get to him. A weepy, steel guitar-led intro sets a yearning tone from the start, making way for Strait to show a rarely seen vulnerable side. After the first two, rather raw verses, emotions heighten in the soaring chorus as he pleads with the object of his affection to “Run/Cut a path across the blue skies.” Written by Tony Lane and Anthony Smith, “Run” was the first single from 2001’s The Road Less Traveled album and also appears on several subsequent compilation LPs.
"Amarillo by Morning" has been a rodeo-circuit hit since 1973, when Terry Stafford wrote and recorded the original version following an all-night drive from one rodeo stop to another. But it took Strait to do the definitive version of this ode to the troubadour lifestyle, which recounts broken bones and loves lost by a journeyman cowboy who owns nothing but the clothes on his back. And for all the wistfulness of Strait's stoic delivery, he also conveys a Zen sense of being in the moment and on the right path: "I ain't got a dime but what I got is mine/I ain't rich but Lord I'm free." The show must go on, but it's not a burden. The keening tones of Buddy Spicher's high, lonesome fiddle takes it all the way home.