vy Chris Varias, Cincinnati
On the surface it’s easy to see why a seasoned hitmaker like George Strait was handed the song “Troubadour” to record. The ballad has a reflective tone, taking a look back at a life spent making music. Strait struck the Top Ten last year with “Troubadour,” and it was a centerpiece of the country superstar’s hour-and-40 minute show at Riverbend Friday night.
“I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song, and I'll be an old troubadour when I'm gone,” sang Strait, who had his first hit 28 years ago.
Looking deeper, the tune might not fit at all. It seems unwise to imagine Strait going away any time soon. At 57, he is the one holdover that youth-crazed Nashville radio refuses to turn away, and he’s more likely to be making hits a decade from now than either of his two much-younger opening acts or any number of today’s country-pop performers.
Strait’s 26-song set mixed old songs and new – hit after hit after hit – in his typical no-frills, ultra-laid-back style, making for a pleasant ’09 Riverbend season opening night.
The one complaint: Strait omitted his usual western swing tribute, where he does a couple of songs in the middle of the set made famous by his hero, the eternal king of Texas country music, Bob Wills, and lets his nine-piece band have at it. But there was no “Right or Wrong,” no “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” no “Milk Cow Blues.” If ditching Wills in favor of more contemporary hits is Strait’s gesture to the younger crowd who only want country music of the heavy-rotation radio variety, we do not approve.
However, Strait just about made up for it with some other covers. He did nice versions of John Prine’s “I Just Want to Dance with You” (a No. 1 song for Strait in 1998) and Merle Haggard’s “The Seashores of Old Mexico” (a 2006 Strait hit). In the encore he did Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is sort of a beaten-to-death selection, but the performance was inspired, as the band rocked it louder than any other song in the set. Some tunes came close, like “The Fireman,” with a memorable twin electric-guitar solo by Benny McArthur and Rick McRae. But the overall tempo was moderate, between the glut of ballads and more poppy recent material such as “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” and “I Hate Everything.”

Blake Shelton, one of Strait’s opening acts, said he was given advice by the headliner before the start of the tour: play something everybody knows to get the crowd going. So Shelton played a jingle about waiters dressed as pirates from a ubiquitous commercial for a credit-report service. It was part of a diverse, entertaining 45-minute set that jumped from puns (“Some Beach”) to outlaw country (“Ol’ Red”) to ballads (“Austin”).
The first act, “Dancing with the Stars” alumna Julianne Hough, excited the crowd with a version of the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight,” but overall the singer’s spunky, giggly demeanor seemed better suited for musical theater than for the first slot on a George Strait three-way package show.