The REAL Significance of George Strait’s Record-Setting Concert

photo: @alivecoverage

On Saturday (6/15) at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, George Strait officially shattered the all-time record for attendance at a single concert with 110,905 tickets sold. The attendance breaks the previous record of 107,019 fans in attendance at a 1977 Grateful Dead show at Raceway Park in New Jersey. Other festivals and multi-day events (Woodstock, et al.) have pulled bigger attendance numbers, but this is the record setter for a single concert. Parker McCollum and Catie Offerman opened the show.

Lots of folks were sharing photos and congratulations for George Strait on Saturday and Sunday, with many of the posts going viral from the eye-popping images and numbers. These days, if something goes viral on social media, it’s often because it’s false. That is what makes it so unbelievable. But in this case, it was 100% true. Still, people couldn’t believe that a guy that hasn’t been relevant in mainstream country and on country radio in over a decade could pull such a crowd.

George Strait is the record holder for the most #1 singles in country music history. But his last Top 10 song came in 2012—twelve years ago—and his last major CMA award was in 2013. He has released multiple singles since then, but similar to what happens to most every aging country star, at some point, the industry and radio puts them out to pasture.

Sure, part of of the eye-popping attendance numbers from Texas is a supply/demand situation. George Strait “retired” from touring in 2014. But over the last couple of years, he’s been adding more and more one-off stadium dates. The record-setting show at Kyle Field where the Texas A&M football team plays is one of ten stadium shows Strait is playing in 2024. So it’s not like there aren’t other opportunities to see him.

But what the record-setting show proves is that Strait is still very relevant in country music. It’s just that he’s no longer relevant in the country mainstream, which is increasingly becoming less relevant to the public at large and more like niche programming itself, while everything ignored by “mainstream” country is becoming the mainstream.

In 2015, then CEO of Sony Records Nashville, Gary Overton, notoriously stated, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Overton ultimately had to eat those words. Even in 2015, this proclamation was already becoming increasingly irrelevant. In 2024, it’s downright laughable. That’s what you need to understanding when oogling at the eye-popping images and numbers from the George Strait concert. It’s validation that the people are in charge of country music now, not the Music Row power brokers.

Sure, radio still has some sway. But as Eric Church said last year,

There’s people in the country music industry that have had multiple No. 1 songs that couldn’t play their own high school, and there’s guys out here that have never, ever been on country radio that are doing eight thousand tickets.”

Forget 8,000. Try 110,905. But perhaps George Strait is the exception, not the rule. After all, he had more #1’s than anyone else in country music, even if that’s all now in the past. At least, this is what some in the industry would retort with. But at the same time George Strait was entertaining 110K in Texas, Zach Bryan was in Denver, Colorado at Mile High Stadium on consecutive nights, and both shows to sold-out capacity.

photo: Zach QRTed on X

Zach Bryan has never had a song do better than #20 on country radio, and has only had two songs chart in the Top 40 on country radio in total.

At this point, it’s almost redundant to point all of this out. The power dynamic has been so inverted in country music, it’s a new day, and grousing about “gatekeepers” on Music Row feels silly.

But it’s not just the country industry that continues to try and peddle a false narrative about what’s important and popular in country music. The Academic class that is curiously obsessed with country music continues to push the idea that it’s radio that defines what country music is, and that country is almost solely centered around Nashville.

As supposed country music “historian” Amanda Marie Martínez said recently, “Country radio continues to be the most effective way to obtain listeners for artists working in the genre. Success within the format also determines eligibility for Country Music Association (CMA) awards. In short, it’s both the surest pathway to legitimacy in a tight-knit industry as well as a source of financial benefit.”

Whenever you hear Academics or journalists outside of country music speak about the genre, they always parrot out these radio-centric and Nashville-centric talking points because it affirms their worldview that a few select people are in control of country music, and the genre is inherently racist and controlled by “old White men.” Historically, this isn’t that far off. But it in the present tense, it’s hubristic, incorrect, and irresponsible.

But even historically, it overlooks the Outlaw era and what Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others were able to do. Back at the beginning of the Outlaw era in the early ’70s, folks were astounded when photos started emerging of Willie Nelson’s Dripping Springs Reunion in 1972 (aka Hillybilly Woodstock), and his subsequent 4th of July concerts.

From outside of Nashville (Texas) and apart from the conventional Music Row system, they were able to cultivate a country music revolution that eventually saw the first million-selling LP in country music, Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976.

A similar scenario is transpiring in country music right here, right now. All across the United States, megafestivals are popping up with crowds of 25,000-30,000 people traveling to hear artists that have never been heard on mainstream country radio. In fact, there are so many of these events, they’re starting to cannibalize each other. But they also happen to feature lineups with better quality artists, and incidentally, more diverse artists.

Here was Charley Crockett playing to some 25,000 people at Under The Big Sky Fest in remote Montana in 2023, 30 miles from the Canadian border.

What about Black women? Yes, in the live context in country music, many of them are supported in eye popping numbers at live country events too. This was acoustic guitarist Yasmin Williams playing for 10,000 people at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2023.

In the world of Sony Nashville’s Gary Overton, or “data experts” like Dr. Jada E. Watson who boils down country radio charts via identity, none of these artist or their fans “exist” because they’re not on mainstream country radio.

But country music doesn’t live on radio charts. It doesn’t live on X/Twitter. It doesn’t live in the halls of Academia, or in media think pieces, or online at all. It happens out in the wild. And unless you’re out in the wild, you’re missing the bigger picture. And when you see the pictures from the wild—whether it’s George Strait or Yasmin Williams—they’re often astounding, and paint a different picture from what some would have you believe.

Of course some will say, “Okay, that’s all fine. But what about the numbers?” Zach Bryan has better sales and streaming numbers than any other artist in country music at the moment not named Morgan Wallen. Tyler Childers has been a Top 10 most popular artist in country music for going on seven years. Sierra Ferrell has 2.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Sure, there are still so many worthy artists being overlooked, and that will always be the case. But whether it is oldtimers like George Strait, or scrappy up-and-comers like The Red Clay Strays who now have over 6 million average monthly listeners on Spotify, the numbers don’t lie. It’s a new era, and mainstream country radio is on the outside looking into it.

The reason it’s important to point all this out and underline it is that if you act like there is only one way to the top—and that’s country radio or major labels—you’re already putting a limitation on where independent artists of all stripes can go, including women, Black and Brown artists, LGBT artists, and all outsiders to the mainstream.

This is why so many of the efforts to find equality for women continue to fail, because they’re not looking to take advantage of the new avenues, and they misunderstand the problem. They continue to grouse about not being played on the radio as opposed to taking advantage of the other opportunities out there in the marketplace. As we’re seeing with Caitlin Clark and the WNBA, numbers can change, and dramatically. That same possibility could happen for country music with the right superstar.

One of George Strait’s biggest songs now is “Carrying Your Love With Me” from 1997. It was a #1 song when it was first released, but probably wouldn’t have been named by people as one of their favorite George Strait songs. But after another artist used the song in a sample, people started sharing the original version of “Carrying Your Love With Me” on Tik-Tok, and went viral.

As many people continue to agitate for country radio and mainstream awards to open up or even truly become a meritocracy, technology is changing the game. Instead of grousing about how “country music” won’t allow artists to “make it,” many are leveraging the new avenues imparted by technology like Tik- Tok, Instagram, and YouTube to go directly to consumers. This is how The Red Clay Strays, Wyatt Flores, Dylan Gossett, and other surging artist have found their way to success. This is how Oliver Anthony got to #1.

But this isn’t just about massive stars playing to stadiums or racking up millions of streams via viral videos. This is also about the artists out there playing to clubs packed to the gills, or to appreciative and attentive audiences in theaters, or even songwriters playing house concerts or small venues and cultivating intimate connections with fans one-on-one.

This is country music, and all of it has value, whether it appears on a chart, or draws a massive crowd. And those that attempt to define, or confine country music to whatever is getting played on the radio or winning big awards are doing the public a gross disservice, as well as meaningful artists making real connections with fans. Country radio only represents country radio and the increasingly niche audience it serves, nothing else.

George Strait isn’t selling out massive stadiums due to luck, or even Tik-Tok. It’s because he put together a career of quality songs that withstood the test of time. And so even when the country industry at large virtually abandoned him, he was just fine. In fact, he doesn’t need country radio and the CMA Awards. It’s country radio and the CMAs that needs George Strait, Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, and Charley Crockett. Because otherwise, they’re the ones that are going to be relegated to the dustbin of history, and will have difficulty drawing a crowd.

© 2024 Saving Country Music