It was not an easy goodbye.

It never is when you're saying farewell to one of the truly great ones -- and there have been no greater artists in country music than George Strait.

Yet, it still had to be done. Thus, some 18,000 ardent admirers turned out on Thursday night to see the Bay Area stop of what is being billed as Strait's final tour.

They jammed into the SAP Center at San Jose, forming what's likely to be the largest crowd the arena will see all year, and they hooted and hollered as their favorite cowboy sang some of their favorite songs. There were far more smiles than tears, yet everyone seemed to recognize the significance of the moment.

I guess it had to happen eventually. Strait, who's been packing arenas and stadiums for more than three decades, couldn't stay on the road forever. And if you have to go out, why not go out on top? That certainly describes Strait's scenario. His lengthy Cowboy Rides Away Tour has been doing banner business across the nation since it commenced early last year.

If you're wondering what all the fuss is about, the answer is: plenty. Strait is riding away as arguably the most successful country artist of all time. Although Garth Brooks has sold more records, Strait has amassed the most No. 1 albums. He's also notched 60 No. 1 single, more than any other artist -- in any genre -- in history.


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Strait obviously can't play all his No. 1s in a single concert, which for him routinely runs around two hours. That means there are dozens of No. 1 hits that don't make his set list. Dozens. That's astounding. Just consider that the Eagles, the enormously popular rock band that also played the SAP Center this week, has tallied a total of six No. 1 hits during its career.

The King of Country received a royal welcome as he made his entrance, walking along the arena floor through the rapturous crowd, to the "in-the-round" stage.

Like always, it was a bare bones production. There were no fireworks or fancy light shows, dance routines or fog machines, gimmicks or gags. You don't need those things when you have a songbook for the ages.

The 61-year-old Texan opened the show with the longtime fan favorite "The Fireman," which, ironically, never made it to No. 1, and then moved right into a pair of chart-toppers, "Check Yes or No" and "Ocean Front Property."

He was calm, cool and collected, barely resembling the wild young men with whom he shares the country charts today. He never even seemed to break a sweat. He certainly doesn't put on the most visually stimulating show, moving about the stage in a fashion that glaciers might find slow. His strength isn't in entertaining, but rather in just being George, a classy cowboy who can carry a tune with the best in the business. Plus, he comes across as so authentic, in a way that the Luke Bryans and Jason Aldeans of the world probably never will.

Backed by his 11-piece Ace in the Hole Band, Strait was all-business for most of the night. He wasted little time as he unveiled one No. 1 hit after another, mixing in the occasional "rarity" -- which, in Strait's world, would be anything that didn't chart in the top 5. His voice didn't sound particularly strong, or weak. It just sounded like George -- which is the true X-factor that has propelled 60 of his songs to No. 1.

Strait has sported a rotating cast of opening acts for this tour. San Jose lucked out and got the great Martina McBride, who easily ranks among the top 10 female country vocalists of all time. She delighted fans during her own set, later returning to the stage to sing two duets with the King of Country.

Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.