George Strait, too good to get old
by Dan Deluca, Inquirer music critic
Country music used to be a tradition-bound genre that kept its elder statesmen close at hand, even as the twangy old coots eased into their dotage. But a youth movement has been afoot for over a generation, as fresh faces with pop appeal push aside wrinkly legends lucky to be honored in name but rarely heard on the radio.

George Strait, 61, is the exception that proves the rule. On Friday night, the almost-ageless wonder made the sold-out Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia a stop on his 'The Cowboy Rides Away' tour, a victory lap which is purported to be his last.

Strait scored his first hit with 'Unwound' in 1981, and since then the clean-cut Texan in the starched-and-pressed shirt tucked into his Wrangler jeans has had one of the most consistently successful careers in music. In a 21/2-hour show Friday in which he was backed by his superb 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band - fiddler Gene Elders was standout soloist - he had his deeply relaxed way with 33 songs, closing out, naturally, with 'The Cowboy Rides Away.'

Four were covers. There were duets with opener Martina McBride on Johnny and June Carter Cash's 'Jackson,' and George Jones and Tammy Wynette's 'Golden Ring,' plus an extended band workout on Cash's 'Folsom Prison Blues.' The show's one left turn was a wholly effective take on Tom Petty's 'You Wreck Me.'

Do the math and that leaves you with 29 superbly sung, pleasantly swinging George Strait songs. Meaning he only got to do about half of his hits. The square stage was set up in the center of the arena, and beginning with 'The Fireman' and 'Check Yes or No,' Strait stood at one corner and did two songs, then moved counterclockwise to the next to do two more. And so on, and so on, until almost all bases had been covered, from levelheaded heartbreak ('Amarillo by Morning') and understated honky-tonk ('Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her') to mildly maudlin balladry ('I Saw God Today') to mildly raucous party songs ('Here for a Good Time'). He didn't have time to get to everything: 'All My Ex's Live In Texas' was performed as an encore, but apparently doing 'Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind' didn't enter his.
Strait doesn't go in for gimmicks or excess. No fireworks were exploded at the Wells Fargo Center. And even in the video clips showing him roping and riding, he didn't appear to break a sweat. His dignity is the foundation of his durability.

He did make two broad appeals to the crowd's patriotism, but both were handled with class. On the opening 'The Fireman,' the band was joined by Sgt. Aaron Mast, a guitarist just back from Afghanistan whose family, in the audience, seemed genuinely shocked to see him.

Later, before Strait sang 'Give It Away,' he brought out retired Army Gen. Leroy Sisco, founder of the Military Warriors Support Foundation, who gave a house in Kearney, Mo., to Lt. Trent Brining, who has undergone multiple operations since being wounded in Iraq. Brining and his fiancée shook hands with the grinning Strait, and were presented with a year's worth of groceries and an even better giveaway: every George Strait album ever released.