Relaxed in a crisp cotton shirt and his signature creased Wranglers and smiling under his black felt hat, George Strait hardly looks like a man who is about to break some bad news to millions of country music fans. The singer is backstage at the Ford Theater in Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, where his own bronze plaque has hung in the Rotunda since his induction in 2006, getting ready to announce his final two-year tour in a Sept. 26 press conference. "Well, you know I'm 60 now, and in two years I'll be eligible for Social Security, so the timing seems right," Strait says with a chuckle.
But in a rare interview, the legendary Texas singer admits that the decision to retire from touring was actually far more difficult. "I lost a lot of sleep thinking about it," says Strait, who, since signing his first record deal in 1981, has sold more than 65 million albums, notched more than 50 No. 1 hits and scored more CMA and ACM awards than any other solo country artist. "Seriously, it's been in the back of my mind for a couple of years," he says. "It was a hard decision to make, it really was. I had second thoughts about it, and third thoughts. Walking up onstage is still so much fun for me. Such a thrill. That minute when you come out onto the stage and the fans are there, it's so exciting. There's nothing like it. I'll miss that. But the traveling has always been kind of a pain. It's the bus, then a hotel, then the venue, then the bus again. You don't see anything but the inside of those places."
Even so, Strait is quick to point out he's not quitting the music business he entered back in 1975, when as a young Army vet he posted a flyer reading "Country Singer Needs Band" on campus at what was then Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. In fact, he already has plans to start working on a new album this fall and will still do the occasional live performance. "This is all I've really ever done for more than 30 years," he says. "I'm not retiring. I'll just pick and choose."
The 2013 leg of "The Cowboy Rides Away" tour-named after the bittersweet 1984 hit he uses to end his stage shows-begins Jan. 18 in Lubbock, Texas, and wraps June 1 in his hometown of San Antonio. The 2014 dates are still being determined, as is what exactly Strait will do when the 2014 leg is over. He says he hopes to spend more time with Norma, his wife of 40 years, as well as his son Bubba, 31, a songwriter, and daughter-in-law Tamara, who had their first child in February. But beyond that, "I don't have any crazy plans," he says. "You know, the way I've been touring the last several years, it's not like I haven't had time to do most of what I've wanted to do. I could still travel, go to the ranch. I was off for hunting season. I could fish. I do have a new grandson who I plan to spend a lot of time with. Maybe take him fishing. I'll probably play a lot of golf."
As he looks forward to that next chapter and to playing one more time for fans in some of his favorite cities, Strait sat down with PEOPLE Country writer Kay West and spent some time taking stock of a life he says has been filled with blessings. "I can't count them all, there are so many," he says. We asked him to try.
GEORGE COUNTS HIS BLESSINGS
It will be 41 years this December. Norma and I are so blessed that we found each other 41 years ago and were able to do all of this together, experience this life together, to support each other through everything, good times and bad. We do almost everything together. She stayed home until Bubba got out of high school and went to college, but since then she's come on the road with me too. We love each other and we still like each other. A lot!
MY NEW GRANDSON
This year my biggest blessing has been my new grandson, our first grandchild. He's a third, George Harvey Strait III; we call him Harvey. Bubba and Tamara live down the street, so we spend a lot of time with him. We're lucky they found each other and chose to live close by so we can see Harvey as much as we want. He's so special, you just have no idea until it happens. We're all excited about Baby's First Christmas!
[The singer's 13-year-old daughter Jenifer was killed in 1986 when the teenage driver of a car she was riding in lost control and crashed near their Texas home. Even now, Strait won't discuss the accident. The memories are too painful. Still, he says, no list of his many blessings could be complete without her.] "We were blessed to have been able to spend 13 years with our beautiful daughter Jenifer," he says.
My dad is still with us. He's 90, he'll be 91 in January. He's given me so many life lessons and things he probably doesn't even know he does and did. He gave me my faith in God. Growing up, even when I didn't want to go to church, he made me go. He still teaches me today. I've been blessed my whole life with his presence and his guidance. I'm so blessed to have him in my life for so long, and for him to be here for his great-grandson's birth too.
After my parents divorced, my brother and I were with our dad, who raised Buddy and me as a single father. His mother, our grandmother, was such a big part of that; she was always there for us. He had to work, and she really stepped into the role of helping raise us.
I've been blessed with the ability to sing, and that has taken me to so many places I never would have gone otherwise. I've had great people around me from the beginning. I've had the same manager and record label from the start. And they never tried to make me someone I wasn't. The people in the office are great. Two of my band members have been with me since the beginning, and my tour manager started out as my drummer way back then. Most of my band has been with me for years. I'm so lucky to have had that loyalty and consistency throughout.
I remember the first time I ever heard my song on the radio in 1981. I was going around Texas with my manager Erv [Woolsey] and the MCA guy, Roger Ramsey, to meet local radio stations. I had my vinyl 45 of "Unwound" with me and was hoping they would play it. We went into KKYX in San Antonio and met Jerry King and asked if he would play my record, and he said, "Sure, I'll play it." I said, "Wait, let me go to the car so I can hear it on the radio!" I went outside, got in the car and heard my record on the radio for the first time. It was a thrill then and still is. Radio has been so good to me.
A HOLE IN ONE
I had a hole in one in April. I was on a course in Mexico, the El Dorado. It was the 16th hole, 135 yards, a 9-iron. It's the second one in my life, I had my first one sometime in the '80s, so if I'm averaging one every 30 years, that might be the last one I have.
MY RANCH IN TEXAS
I call Texas "The Great State." Except for the Army, I've never lived anywhere else. I'm blessed that I've been able to have the career I have and live there. It has allowed me to have my ranch, a beautiful piece of God's creation down there in south Texas. I don't do much when we're there. I look at all the things that need to be done and then I don't do them.
GOOD SONGS & GREAT SONGWRITERS
I wrote some before I got a record deal, but I never had a lot of success with it. When I came to Nashville, there were so many great songwriters here it made me a little bit lazy about writing. I kind of depended on the writers in Nashville, and I'm glad I did, because they wrote me some great songs. I've had some go-to writers: Dean Dillon, Jim Lauderdale, Whitey Shafer, just to name a few. And now I've been able to write with my son. Bubba really got me back into writing. That's been a great experience for me, to be able to watch him grow and blossom as a songwriter. He's lovin' it, he plays guitar and he's doing really well. It's been such a blessing to work with him at this stage of my career.
WRANGLER JEANS & RESISTOL HATS
I've had a great wardrobe over my career thanks to Wrangler and Resistol. I can't say how many pairs of Wranglers I've worn out. I've saved a lot of money on stylists!
I love to fish. It's a very exciting sport. You can go hours without anything happening, and all of a sudden a big blue marlin comes into the spread and it's cockpit chaos! There's nothing like catching a big blue marlin. The biggest I've ever caught is probably about 600 lbs. My dream is to catch a grander, a 1,000-pounder. Hopefully I'll do that one day before I hang up the fishing pole.
I have fans who have been coming out to see us since we first started out. They've been coming since the '80s. It's hard to believe that they still want to come see us. They don't seem to get tired of me.