Early Friday afternoon, before the doors opened at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena for only its second pair of Strait to Vegas shows of 2016, George Strait stood in the nearly-empty arena thumbing his Merle Haggard Signature Telecaster, contemplating his setlist for the night. As his Ace in the Hole Band ran through selections from the man the Dallas Morning News dubbed as “the most influential genre artist of the last 30 years,” BMI Icon Award winner and longtime collaborator and friend of Strait’s, Dean Dillon, sat in for the rehearsal, almost as if an extension of the tight-knit, 11-piece backing band for the King of Country. For those few witnesses in the soon-to-be-at-capacity, less-than-a-year-old arena, it was a sign of what was to come – a night where Strait’s smooth vocals spotlighted the poignant writing and influencers that have contributed to his storied career – one that has amassed 60 No. 1 singles and counting.
As the arena filled to capacity, the energy was palpable. With nearly five months since his last show, Strait’s fans were brimming with anticipation. Seemingly appropriate, he met their excitement and kicked off the night with “Here For A Good Time,” a song Strait penned with Dillon his son Bubba that became Strait’s first No. 1 as a songwriter.
“You have no idea how good your voices sound tonight,” Strait commented before taking a detour just a few songs in to pay tribute to one of his biggest influences, Merle Haggard, again enlisting the telecaster he teased in rehearsal. “I’m going to play a few songs from someone who was my musical hero and probably the reason I’m standing on this stage right now…” Strait shared before playing a medley of “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and “My Life’s Been Grand.”
Next, Strait pulled up two wooden stools and invited the man with whom he shares 55 songs with, Dillon, up to the stage, only insisting he sit adjacent to him this time and share the spotlight and tales. The pair swapped memories – and praise for each other – while the crowd relished in their storied exchange.
“I’ll never forget. A buddy of mine pulled his car up on the sidewalk on Music Row one day playing George Strait [in the car stereo] and asked, ‘who does he sound like?’,” shared Dillon. “I said, ‘well, I think he’s got his own thing.’ We had this thing; we just wrote and was gonna pitch to Johnny Paycheck, but he was in jail, and so instead we pitched it to George. And that song was ‘Unwound,’” Dillon continued, candidly revealing the song’s origin while grinning. “I don’t get nervous [saying that] until I’m sitting up here with the King of Country Music.”
Strait was quick to return the admiration, “That’s nice of you to say that, but I’m a bit nervous up here with you! I’ve been really fortunate to write some songs with Dean, and hopefully we’ll do that some more,” he said while smiling at his friend. With that, they traded verses while performing “Honky Tonk Crazy” and “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” before Dillon left the stage to a standing ovation.
Strait retired the stools after those two songs with Dillon and went into the latter part of his 30+ song set before reinvigorating the crowd with a four-song encore that closed with his hit from 1984, “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
For an artist with so many celebrated successes and hits, it was clear from tonight’s show that Strait’s focus right now is on the craft, the songs and the stories. For the five-time Entertainer of the Year, it was a chance to celebrate his influences as well as look ahead to some things he’s yet to say. For the 17,000+ crowd, it was a night they won’t soon forget.