RIDING INTO THE SUNSET
George Strait bows to the frenzied, packed-house crowd and tips his trademark cowboy hat as his Ace in the Hole Band hits the final notes of his classic "I Cross My Heart."
With applause still ringing in his ears, the superstar strolls offstage to a dressing room. He unwinds himself into a chair and lets out a long, drawn-out breath, then a smile.
It's a scene he's played out for the past 20 years - over millions of miles - from city to city, small arenas to massive football stadiums.
But for how much longer?
Sooner or later, the road will have to end, and he knows it. For the past year, George has heard the rumors of his retirement, but never responded to them - until now.
He was going to start cutting back on making records, some said - after all, he had already scaled back on his touring. "Sometimes, it's hard for me to get up for a tour," he admitted recently. Other rumors went even further, pointing in the direction that George was thinking about calling it quits altogether.
After all, what's left to prove? He's had more No. 1 songs - 38 - than any other currently active performer. Nearly every album he's ever recorded has sold at least a million copies. He's also won enough awards, including 12 CMAs, to fill up a moving van. He could easily go out on top and spend more time with wife Norma and son George Jr. at his sprawling ranch near San Antonio.
What's more, the members of the only other superstar act with George's longevity - Alabama - announced that they would be hanging up their touring hats in 2003, following a much-publicized farewell tour.
The question begs asking: Could George be plotting a goodbye of his own?
"I'm not considering retirement anytime soon," he declares flatly. "Music is magic. I feel lucky to be able to be a part of it."
George continues to set the record straight. "When I'm onstage performing, I feel connected to the audience," he explains, "and during that time, there's no place I'd rather be."
That's evident on George's recent live album, For the Last Time: Live From the Astrodome. He performed the final show at the famed Houston arena before a raucous, record-setting crowd of 68,000, which included former President George Bush.
"The live album was something that I had wanted to do for a long time," says George. "Then to get to do the final show in the Astrodome ... well, that was an opportunity too good and too historical for me to pass up. The record crowd at the 'Dome will obviously never be broken, and that's something that me and the Ace in the Hole Band are very proud of."
He's also proud of his current studio album, Honkytonkville, the 31st of his career. It debuted at No. 1 and looks to become yet another million-seller. But George admits that he doesn't measure success strictly in terms of sales.
"That's part of it, but more importantly, success means accomplishing what I've set out to accomplish," he explains. "And that would be finding great songs and making really good records with them."
George has certainly made good on that career goal. Still, he shakes his head in amazement when he reflects on some of the numbers - especially the 31 albums he's put on store shelves.
"I remember seeing Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album in the store, and thinking, 'How could he already have done that many?' And this was back in 1974!" exclaims George. "That's the way I feel now. My career has been long, but it seems short. The saying 'Time flies when you're having fun' really rings true for me."
But how much longer can the fun last? Only a handful of stars over 50 have ever consistently produced hits. And sooner or later, even the physically fit George has to run out of stamina.
But George seems unlikely to suffer a burnout. The past few years, he has taken care to work at a steady - though hardly exhausting - pace. In fact, where other performers grind out a hefty 150 to 200 days on the road, George plays a maximum of 25 dates a year. Some stars also spend months recording their albums in expensive studios, but George recorded his parts for Honkytonkville from his home in Texas, using new technology.
"Alan Jackson told me about it," George dishes. "I really wouldn't call it a studio. It's a very minimal amount of equipment along with a microphone, a laptop computer and some headphones set up in a small room at home."
This new working method suited George perfectly. "Now when I feel inspired to do a vocal, I can do one at my leisure," he explains, "instead of being under the time restraint of a studio situation."
It also means that he didn't have to leave his beloved Texas and travel to Nashville, where he had done his previous albums. "Having that equipment has made a lot of difference for me personally," smiles George. "I love Nashville, but I'm always in a hurry to get back to Texas. This way, I didn't have to leave home."
And just like most people, that's what George craves - a free-and-easy lifestyle with as few career hassles as possible. "Some people," he once said, "live the music business from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed every day of their lives. I'm just not the kind of person who can do that."
But the desire still burns to make music. So don't get the rocking chair out of storage just yet.
"I feel that I am singing as well or better than ever right now," he says, stretching his arms skyward. "Hopefully, I've still got a lot left in me."
So he's sticking around - and who knows? We might still be seeing George on the charts in 2027.
"If I'm in mid-career right now," he reflects, his signature smile cutting across his face, "that would put me finishing up when I'm around 75.
"Sounds good to me!"