The Strait Dope

It's time again for the George Strait Country Music Festival. Actually, it's time again for the "Nokia presents the George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival." But if you can get past the ubiquitous presence of overbearing sponsors, who've helped create a day that welcomes you to either the "Jack Daniels Live Stage" or the "Bud Light Beer Garden," you'll find that this Bubbapalooza proves rockers have nothing on cowpokes when it comes to the outdoor all-day concert. (Just check out the three Jumbotron screens added this time around.) Last year's installation was the highest-grossing festival tour of 1998, and this year's stadium run should do just as well, thanks to the time-tested appeal of nice guy Strait and a strong list of supporting acts that includes Tim McGraw, the red-hot Dixie Chicks, Kenny Chesney, Jo Dee Messina, Mark Wills and the perpetually underappreciated Texas swingers Asleep at the Wheel.

Arguably the biggest name in the genre today (sorry, Garth), who continues to play country in the traditional vein, Strait upholds his wholesome appeal with a clean-cut "howdy, ma'am" image and equally boring music. Much of Strait's recent work is --much like the carefully posed PR shots of him covering his new CD, Always Never the Same -- far too groomed, neat and ultimately lackluster. The comfort level of the stolid veteran has obviously led to creative stagnation. Though his extensive back catalog, which should make up a good chunk of the show, includes such remember-this-one gems as "Amarillo by Morning," "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?" "The Fireman," "Ocean Front Property," "All My Ex's Live in Texas" and dozens more, the veteran performer can't rely solely on these old melodies to propel an entire show. It could easily be stolen by firebrand McGraw or the infectiously fun Dixie Chicks, who this year are savoring a huge success that has left even them surprised, though older fans bemoan the trio's move away from a bluegrass-based sound to pop-country on the nevertheless-megaselling record Wide Open Spaces. And the all-American Emily, Natalie and Martie are easy enough on the eyes to make even Cletus T. Judd forget all about that Canadian girl named Shania.

So if the weather's nice, sport your Stetson with the extrawide brim -- or a lot of sunscreen -- to avoid chippin' 'n' flakin' in the Rice Stadium stands. And beware of any fashion faux pas. Remember: Leather boots and running shorts do not go together. And, whatever you do, don't ask to two-step with the beer-and-hot-dog guy.

The George Strait Country Music Festival takes place Saturday, April 17, at Rice Stadium, 6100 Main. Gates open at noon; show starts at 1 p.m. Tickets are $29.50, $39.50 and $49.50. Call (713)629-3700 or access and click on the tour icon.


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