Culture / Entertainment

George Strait Shatters Records, Gives Away a House in Greatest Houston Rodeo Concert Ever

66-Year-Old Country Legend Plays an Incredible 30 Songs — and His Friends Are Pretty Good Too

BY // 03.18.19

This wasn’t our first Rodeo Houston, and it won’t be our last. The unforgettable 2019 season might be over, but it definitely went out with a bang  — to the tune of a record-shattering 80,108 fans at Sunday night’s concert finale.

The arena floor had been transformed into extra seating, with row after row of chairs flanking the stage’s sides. You’d better believe it was packed.

It was a triple whammy of Texans country musicians. Legendary Lone Star State singer-songwriters and longtime friends Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen primed the crowd for the royal treatment: a performance by the King of Country himself.

That’s right. We got George Strait.

And it was just… eh. There was no dancing, no standing ovations, no encores, no covers, no surprises.

Just kidding. If you’ll buy that, I’ll throw the golden gate in free.

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It was an epic night. After a stunning performance by Lovett and Keen, taking turns in each of their signature styles before culminating in a delightful duet, the 66-year-old Strait put on a concert for two hours — plus a whopping 20-minute encore.

You’d expect nothing less of Strait at his 30th Rodeo Houston performance. This might be a brand new attendance record, but it beats the one Strait set himself, with the help of Martina McBride and Randy Rogers Band, back in 2013.

The country superstar, at once mythic and relatable, consistently charming and charmingly consistent, somehow outdid himself. As ever, he’s Strait-forward, what you see is what you get. And Houston wouldn’t have it any other way.

George Strait’s now played for more than one million Rodeo Houston fans.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Long before Strait strolled down the makeshift red carpet up to the stage, Lovett and Keen kicked things off like the pros they are.

No Ordinary Opener

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo didn’t reveal that “The Front Porch Song” crooners would be opening for Strait until last September. Fans couldn’t believe the get. And last night, they weren’t disappointed.

It didn’t hurt that the duo are hardly Rodeo Houston first-timers. Keen wowed the crowds from 2000 to 2004, then again in 2006, and Lovett knocked it out of the park in 2001 and 2002.

Friends since their college days at Texas A&M University, Lovett and Keen knew just how to play off each other’s energy, sharing the stage and building each other up. They went back and forth, playing five songs each, letting each other shine.

It was a great combination. Lovett soulful and sort of solemn, Keen with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye.

As soon as the stage lit up, Lovett went full throttle with a lively rendition of “Cute as a Bug,” backed by an impressive band of keyboards, drums, vocals and many, many types of guitars.

Everyone was looking sharp in suit and tie, even if Keen’s version was a brocade blue and silver blazer and jeans to Lovett’s classic outfit.

lovett and keen
Those two were more than just an opening act.

After the applause, Lovett turned on heel to face his friend. “This is Robert Earl Keen!”

The musician soon proved he was “Feelin’ Good Again,” as the crowd erupted in cheers and whistles. And when he’d wrapped that one up, of course he had to tip his hat and shout “Ladies and gentlemen, Lyle Lovett!”

And the crowd did love it, from Lovett’s “If I had a Boat,” dedicated to his cousin David, who was in attendance, to perhaps its polar opposite, Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” a little less wistful, a little more whiskey.

It’s no secret that Houston Rodeo fans love a good reference to their beloved state. Lovett delivered in a big way.

“Thank you so much, Houston, Texas! We both grew up in Texas. We are so proud to be from a place where people come from all over in the world to live,” Lovett said. He shared his love for these types, “who turned out to be pretty good Texans.”

That was the perfect lead in to “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” The song gives Texans by choice a big, Texas-sized welcome. “That’s right, you’re not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway.”

Still, Lovett topped it with his performance of “Church,” bringing some spirituality to NRG with a gospel-style song that features some good ol’ country music cleverness.

It starts off serious, with church starting right on time, but the preacher begins waxing poetic about judgment day while the congregation starts thinking more and more about their dinner.

But “the moral of this story,” as Lovett sings, is “God knows if a preacher preaches long enough, even he’ll get hungry too.”

The crowd ate it up. And they went into a downright frenzy over what came next. Keen stirred things up and then some with “The Road Goes on Forever” and its winning refrain, “and the party never ends.”

It was already almost 8 pm on a Sunday night, the last night of spring break, but everyone wanted to believe that the party truly would never end.

Lovett and Keen’s chapter did, with a heartfelt performance of the song harkening back to their college days, “The Front Porch Song.”

Keen, who wrote the song, took the lead, with the colorful and striking opening line, “This old porch is just a big old red and white Hereford bull.”

Lovett joined in later, singing true and clear about days gone by in College Station. At the end, the two harmonized  — even better than you’d expect.

Their show wasn’t just an appetizer. It would have made for a satisfying main course almost any night at the Rodeo. We were just lucky we had the chance to overindulge, thanks to George Strait. If Lovett and Keen were the sausage on a stick, Strait was the turkey leg.

Over the course of his Sunday night, the iconic Strait played an incredible 30 songs. He may have sung “I ain’t here for a long time, I’m here for a good time.” But the truth is he was at NRG Stadium for both.

His sweeping performance covered classics like “Amarillo by Morning” and “I’ll Always Remember You,” some newish material like “Cold Beer Conversation,” and the extremely new “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar.”

And the songs hot of the presses were showered with love, too. Some were greeted with as much applause as more storied songs, if you can believe it. Because that’s the thing about Strait’s music.

He was heralded for being a new traditionalist when we came on the scene, and he’s stayed true to that. All the new George Strait songs sound like they could be decades-old George Strait songs. What’s new is old again.

The iconic Strait paid sweet tribute to his own icon, the towering Merle Haggard, and even tipped his cowboy hat to Tom Petty with a countrified “You Wreck Me.”

To top it all off, he made some surprising introductions, welcoming both an American veteran and hero to the stage, and his own grandson, microphone in hand.

He even admitted to playing favorites with his songs, admitting he cared for one above all others.

You could say he kept things interesting.

A Legendary Good Neighbor

There’s no denying that Strait is a celebrity, but it was still quite the sight, watching him walk down the partitioned path to the star-shaped stage. With the additional seating in place, there was definitely no room for the signature black Ford truck.

Watching him take the walk, all smiles in a brown cowboy hat, a pale blue button-down and blue jeans, you had to believe he meant it when he sang the Rio Grande is in his veins.

He waved to the whole stadium as an instrumental version of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” poured out over the speakers.

People all over the stadium craned their necks and pulled out their phones like a sea of amateur paparazzi, 80,000 souls strong.

If anyone doubted it would be an incredible show, all bets were off as soon as Strait picked up his guitar and slung it over his shoulder.

“Write this Down” was the first of the night, just one of his treasured ditties about the power of the written word when it comes to romance.

People immediately jumped to their feet and started singing along. It’s hard to say what the perfect Strait opener would be, since there are so, so many to choose from, but this was a pretty damn good one.

george strait belt buckle
George Strait put on an unforgettable show.

Strait, simultaneously larger-than-life and reminiscent of your nicest neighbor, shifted gears with “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” his voice getting a little softer, a little gentler. “I know this rodeo’s been hard on us all,” he sang. True for the lyrics, nothing further from the truth for the fans.

“Thank you so much! How’s everybody in Houston tonight?” Strait called out. “It’s great to be here.”

Even if he wasn’t always sure he’d be back. In 2013, he did say that perhaps that Houston Rodeo show would be his last. “Never say never, right? Y’all didn’t, and I won’t!”

“We’ve got a lot of songs to play for y’all tonight. We’ll do one that’s about the great state of Texas!”

That intro didn’t narrow it down too much. But “Take Me to Texas” took over the stadium, the “child of The Alamo and the Yellow Rose,” praying for transport back to the only home he’s ever known. It’s a feeling the entire crowd could relate to, and did.

But Strait kept us guessing, not toying with our emotions so much as heightening them. You never knew what was next — there’s a hell of a lot to discover in his discography. It’s Strait, but it’s not narrow.

“I Saw God Today,” brought as much gentle swaying as it did teary eyes. And then, suddenly, it was “Here for a Good Time.” It didn’t take long for people to react to the musical whiplash. People toasted, raising everything from Shiners to those frozen daiquiris.

“Folks are always dreaming about what they like to do,” Strait nodded, “but I like to do just what I like.”

But he wanted to make sure he wasn’t alone. “We’re havin’ a good time tonight, right?” he called out. The Bayou City reacted in full force, whooping and laughing and cheering.

Next, a sentimental warning with “She’ll Leave You with a Smile.” It’s either women like that, or ones that’ll have you “Wrapped” around their little finger, as he sang next.

For as many “Thank yous!” as Strait shouted out, there were inaudible ones, him grinning as he adjusted his guitar or stepped away from the mic. 80,000 people cheering him on and still, he was that humble.

And funny. When it came time to pay homage to one of his heroes, Merle Haggard, Strait couldn’t help himself but inject a little comedy. “This one was written about his wife — at the time,” Strait said with perfect pause placement.

“I think she wrote it about him, but he sang it for her. It’s called ‘You Take Me for Granted.’”

His voice got deeper and smoother over the song, and “Are The Good Times Really Over,” accompanied by images of Haggard on the screen from all different periods of his life.

George Strait’s First Rodeo

The nostalgia didn’t stop there. Strait shared the story of his very first rodeo. The year was 1983, and he got a call from his manager asking him if he wanted to play The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that night since the original headliner, Eddie Rabbitt, had fallen victim to the flu.

Strait was looking for his dog when he got the call. “I’m still looking for him,” he chuckled.

At first, he believed his manager was joking with him. But he made it happen. “We made history for the Houston rodeo — and for us.”

The crowd collectively screamed when “Check Yes or No,” started revving up. Who better to sing about that kind of love than a man who actually did marry his childhood sweetheart?

“Check yes or no!” the crowd cried with the chorus over and over.

He sailed through sentimental ballads like “Give it Away” and “Baby Blue,” which inspired the crowd to shine the lights from their phones.

Strait was excited to share “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” with the crowd  — it’s not set to come out until the end of this month. The screen lit up with a kind of lyric video, and people started singing along — even though this was probably the first time they’d ever even heard of it.

It took 16 songs for Strait to even consider taking a break, and this was no small moment to catch his breath.

“It’s a really special part of the evening for us.” Strait said mysteriously before introducing Retired Lieutenant General Leroy Sisco of the Military Warriors Support Foundation and a veteran. The crowd leapt to their feet to applaud the soldier.

He received a key to a new home from the foundation, with the help of Strait. The pair fist bumped and shook hands.

The next song took everybody back to the 1980s. “I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona” is a line you’ll likely never forget.

“God and Country Music” was from the upcoming album, the quintessential country song — “God and country music, they both never change.” Strait’s grandson joined him on stage, gripping a mic with wide eyes. The little blond boy didn’t sing until the very last lines, but he gave it his all.

“That’s a heck of a place to begin your singing career! 80,000 people,” he chuckled.

The next song may have just been the one we were all waiting for — it was clear it was the song Strait himself was waiting for.

“I’ve been asked a lot ‘What’s your favorite song you ever recorded?’ I got one. It’s called ‘Amarillo by Morning.’ ”

Imagine the reaction you’d expect, then multiply it threefold. You got the sense that if the concert ended right then and there — when in reality there were actually 10 whole songs left — people would have loved the show all the same.

“I’ll Always Remember You” felt like the true goodbye, Strait ditching the script to tell the crowd that he thought he’d have five good years to sing songs for us. “Now, it’s 30.” Even when he stops playing, he’ll never forget our cheers and screams, he insisted, Still, we gave him some crazy loud cheers and screams just in case.

But the concert didn’t conclude until “Troubadour” and “Unwound” — or so we thought.

It was 10:30 exactly when Strait left the stage, walking down the path and waving at the receiving line. He vanished from sight, but everyone stood their ground, stomping their feet and shouting “encore!”

He made us sweat for a good few minutes before spotlights started dancing on the ceiling, a high-tech beacon for some songs Houston just couldn’t leave without hearing.

For starters, “All My Exes Live in Texas” was quite the reward for everyone’s patience. But a one-song encore wouldn’t cut it. Next came “I Cross My Heart” and a surprising spin on Tom Petty with “You Wreck Me.”

The true end was perfect. This cowboy rode away right after he finished “The Cowboy Rides Away.” It was painful to hear him sing about the credits roll, but we knew it was time.

And it’s all good. We’ll remember what he forgot to say — I wrote it down right here.

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