Like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, George Strait does it his way.
From being the first modern country act to wear a cowboy hat to pulling the plug on concert tours in his prime, Strait calls his own shots.
At 60, the King of Country Music — who performs Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington — will stop touring after his Cowboy Rides Away tour ends next year, but he will continue to make music. He plans to record more albums, hoping to add to his unprecedented run of 44 No. 1 hits on Billboard's country chart.
"He does everything on his terms," said country radio programmer Gregg Swedberg in Minneapolis-St. Paul. "He's worried about his life, not his career. The length of time that he's been successful is completely unprecedented. How many artists are popular for 30 years in one (radio) format? There's nothing like George Strait."
Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder have been making music since the 1960s, but when was the last time any of them had a No. 1 single? Elton John and Bruce Springsteen emerged in the '70s and still fill arenas, but can you name either's last big hit?
Dolly Parton, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have been stars much longer than Strait, but they've been missing from the upper reaches of the country charts for a long time. Alabama and Ricky Skaggs launched their careers in Nashville about the same time Strait did, but when was the last time they made noise on the radio?
Strait keeps going strong — in 2011, he landed Here for a Good Time at No. 2 and Love's Gonna Make It Alright at No. 3, and all of this year's tour dates are sold out or nearly so.
And he doesn't just appeal to old-timers.
"It's as cool at 18 to say you're a George Strait fan as it's ever been," Swedberg said, "and he's grandpa age."
Strait writes a lot of relationship songs in a straightforward way. "He doesn't do a lot of fluff," said Swedberg, pointing to Strait's Lovebug as one of his few lightweight hits. To be sure, the singer is fond of using the occasional cute turn of a phrase (see: All My Exes Live in Texas, Where Have I Been All My Life), but he usually travels the tried and true (I Cross My Heart, I Just Want to Dance With You).
While Reba McEntire, who started before Strait, tries to modernize her sound and Garth Brooks, who modeled himself after Strait, try to experiment, Strait is about as consistent as his outfit: Resistol cowboy hat, starched button-down shirt and creased Wrangler jeans.
"He's Gary Cooper cowboy," said longtime country music journalist Michael McCall, now an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame. "You can rely on him."
Unlike other country superstars who take a couple of years between albums, Old Reliable "puts out songs every single year," Swedberg said. "They're high-quality, well-written songs. He doesn't vary much. He's old-school."
Ranching is the first love for the Texan who toiled as a kid on his dad's 2,000-acre cattle spread and eloped with his high school sweetheart.
"He has an active ranch and a golf course in San Antonio," said veteran Minneapolis-St. Paul country radio executive Mick Anselmo, who knows Strait personally. "His son is in rodeo."
Plus, Strait's first grandchild was born last year.
"He works his ranch," McCall said. "It's a big part of his life — in some ways more than country music."
When it comes to music, the country king does it the Strait way. He doesn't make videos anymore, doesn't do the talk shows, and doesn't schmooze with radio programmers or grant many interviews to print journalists. And he's never been a king of the road, preferring to do a limited number of concerts outside of Texas.
Strait's farewell trek comes at a time when he's still one of the biggest attractions in country music.
Strait explained himself in September in a rare news conference to announce his Cowboy Rides Away Tour, which includes only 20 shows this year.
"I have a new grandson, and so we'll certainly be spending a lot of time with him. I'll help try and steal him away from his parents for a while," he joked, "maybe take him fishing."IF YOU GO
George Strait, Martina McBride
When: 7:30 p.m. March 2
Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine St.
Tickets: $71.50, $91.50; Available by calling (859) 233-3535, visiting Rupparena.com or through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.