The last goodbye's the hardest one to say: George Strait's not retiring. He's got a new single – his 115th – called Give It All We Got Tonight on the country charts, and a new album in the works. When it comes to touring, though, the end is in sight. Strait's two-year farewell tour, The Cowboy Rides Away, begins Friday in Lubbock, Texas. "I always had it in the back of my mind that when I turned 60, it might be the time to start thinking about it," says the Country Music Hall of Famer, who turned 60 last May, in announcing the tour. "Also, I didn't want to book a tour where nobody came." The 21 dates on this year's tour last through June 1, when Strait plays the Alamodome in San Antonio; Martina McBride opens.
You've got to have your Ace in the Hole: Strait started fronting the Ace in the Hole Band at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, playing his first gig there on Oct. 13, 1975. "Our biggest night was Wednesdays," Strait recalls. "Fifty cents at the door, ladies free." The players bonded over their love of Texas swing. "Back when we were doing the honky tonks, Western swing was all we did," Strait says. "We'd play four hours of nothing but swing." Bassist Terry Hale and steel player Mike Daily still play with Strait, and former drummer Tom Foote now works as his road manager. And Strait still cuts the occasional swing song, when he hears a new one he likes. "It's kind of hard to find good swing song," he says. "Occasionally, I'll come across one and we'll do it, but I don't get as many sent to me anymore as I used to. But I still love that music."
Something special: The performing bug bit Strait during his U.S. Army service in the early '70s. "I bought a guitar and started learning how to play it with these old songbooks that had the chords there," he says. "I got to where I thought I was pretty good." When did he know he was? "I guess the first time I got up on stage and sang with a band and a microphone and real speakers. I'm thinking, 'I love this, and I really want to make a career out of it. Maybe I can.' "
The road less traveled: Strait came close to changing his life's course when he almost took a job in 1980 with a company that designed cattle pens. He and his wife, Norma, decided he'd give music one more year. He signed to MCA Records and released his first single, Unwound, in 1981. His first big tour came when he opened a series of West Coast dates for Ray Price. "Ray was one of my heroes," he says. But the two singers' first encounter didn't go well. Strait joined up with the entourage and left his guitar on Price's tour bus, then checked into his hotel room. He came back to find Price chewing out the band. "I'm just sinking down in my seat as he goes, 'Whose guitar is this? These guitars go under the bus!' " Strait says. "Still, to watch him sing each night was amazing."
Somewhere down in Texas: As part of The Cowboy Rides Away tour, Strait will play the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on March 17. He has played the event more than 20 times, the first coming 30 years ago as an eleventh-hour substitution for an ailing Eddie Rabbitt. "I thought it was a joke" when the offer came in, Strait says. "I was able to round up my guys, and they sent a plane for us, flew us up to Houston. We were probably there 30 minutes before we walked out on stage. It was pretty scary, but that's what started the relationship I had with them."
Playing Strait through: If Strait did nothing but play his No. 1 hits (he's got more than 50) back to back, his show would push four hours, and it wouldn't include fan favorites like 1983's Amarillo By Morning and 1985's The Fireman. How does he pick a set list? "It's a tough thing to do," he admits. "There are songs you have to play or you might get booed off the stage. It's hard, year to year, to put your list together and still change things up."
Hat act: If there's one thing Strait must take with him on the road, it's his Resistol hat. "Most of my stuff stays on the bus all the time," he says. "But I've left my hat (at home) on one or two occasions and had to borrow a hat from one of my guys. I can't go out there without my hat. That's just me."