Popular singer is real-life cowboy

Since his debut with 1981's "Strait Country," every year of the singer's landmark career has been marked with two predictable points: A top 10 hit on the country charts and a cowboy hat on his head.

George Strait
Country singer George Strait holds the record for the largest concert ever at the Fargodome. Strait drew more than 27,000 fans in 1997. Associated Press

Since his debut with 1981's "Strait Country," every year of the singer's landmark career has been marked with two predictable points: A top 10 hit on the country charts and a cowboy hat on his head.

Strait was "modern country's first 'hat act,' " wrote Mark Bego in his 2001 biography, "George Strait: The Story of Country's Living Legend." Strait, who will play the Fargodome this Friday with opening act Reba McEntire, wasn't doing interviews for this tour, but it's pretty clear how he feels about hats. (Have you ever seen a picture of him without one?)

But while it's become a way to describe some of the more respected traditionalists in country music, the term "hat act" can mean different things depending on who is saying it and who is wearing the hat.

(And no, history buffs, in this case "hat act" doesn't mean the 1732 legislation by England's parliament to limit American hat manufacturing.)

Drop of a hat


For some, "hat acts" were the wave of country singers that found their way in the early and mid-'80s by cutting away the glitz and pop of musicians like Kenny Rogers and going back to more traditional country and western music.

For example, Strait and his Ace in the Hole band were influenced by the western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as well as the honky-tonk of Lefty Frizzell.

"He opened the door for 'hat acts' like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn and Mark Chestnutt," ACM Executive Director Bill Boyd says in the "Hat Acts" chapter of Richard W. Slatta's "The Cowboy Encyclopedia."

But Slatta and others also wield the term like a sharp knife, saying the phrase also can describe posers who only dress the part.

"We give the name 'hat acts' to country singers who dress cowboy but sing country," he says, adding, "neither the singer nor the song had anything Western about them."

The chapter goes on to lump Strait in with decidedly hatless acts like Billy Ray Cyrus and the 1992 Alvin and the Chipmunks album "Chipmunks in Low Places."

Lower yet, Urban Dictionary , a hipster website for new words and phrases, describes "hat act" as:

"A term used by critics to describe the bland, generic, formulaic, assembly line, manufactured male country music performers that have dominated country radio for at least the past 10 years ... It's a real challenge to tell these performers and their songs apart ... Keith Urban and Eddie Rabbitt are not hat acts. They'll be remembered 20 years from now."


Which is enough to make a true Texan's hat spin.

Urban is one of the biggest country stars on the planet (he headlined the first night of WE Fest this year), but his style is more rock than Western. Rabbitt was from New Jersey, and while the late singer made a home in Nashville, his slick, crossover, '80s pop hits like "I Love a Rainy Night" and "Drivin' My Life Away" were the things that Strait's swing rebelled against.

Even the New York Observer weighed in on what "hat act" really meant in a 2000 piece it published on singer Gary Allan.

"Strictly understood, the phrase denotes the wearing by a male country singer of a cowboy hat - even when that singer does not perform cowboy music, exactly," the article stated. "Yet along the way, the musical achievements of famous hat-wearers like George Strait and Allan Jackson notwithstanding, 'hat act' has come to connote a certain flimsiness of artistic intent."

Some traditionalists steered away from the head gear. In the early 1990s, honky-tonk revivalists Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart called their road show the "No Hats Tour" and instead called themselves a "hair act."

The no-hats trend might still be dominating the Nashville scene.

In fact, of the 15 main-stage acts at this year's WE Fest country music festival outside of Detroit Lakes, Minn., only two-and-a-half performers (Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean and Montgomery Gentry singer Eddie Montgomery) wore cowboy hats.

Even with few hats on stage, Strait's influence was still felt at WE Fest.


Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley nailed Strait's Western swing hit "All My Exes Live in Texas," even if they had no hat to hang in Tennessee.

If the hat fits ...

If the term "hat act" implies fighting words, some country artists just won't swing to that.

While some lidded singers like Gary Allan have said they want to be seen as more than just a hat act, Aldean has embraced the label, even if his pierced ears and amped-up performance at WE Fest aren't strictly traditional.

"When you hear 'hat act,' it puts in your mind old-style country," says Chris Hanson of Bob 95's "Chris, John and Jane in the Morning" show. "I don't think the term 'hat act' we used to hear really plays to what today's country artists are into."

Hanson points to Aldean and Toby Keith as popular contemporary artists who today would be considered "hat acts."

Hoppy Gilmore, program director at Froggy 99.9 radio in Fargo defines "hat act" as "somebody more in the traditional style of country music, not so much the pop sound like some country music artists now."

He points out that one contemporary artist who often leans to the traditional style of country, Zac Brown, always wears a stocking cap, giving a different direction to the "hat act" debate.


"It's really getting hard to box up country artists," Gilmore says.

No act

"I don't take it as a negative deal," says Richard Freeman, singer with the Fargo-based country band Boomtown, adding that to him the term connotes "the classics."

Freeman wears a cowboy hat onstage, just like he wore a hat growing up working on a farm in Mississippi.

"You throw on a straw hat, and you get to work," he says.

"George Strait is pretty straight-forward country, like Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and all those guys," Freeman says. "They pretty much set the trend for the hats."

Which brings us back to Bego's comments about Strait as modern country's first hat act.

Strait was raised on a ranch south of San Antonio. After leaving the U.S. Army in 1975, he got his agriculture degree and took over the family ranch.


Strait is a big backer of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, has his own line of clothes with Wrangler and, yes, a cowboy hat with Resistol hats.

"While he initially took a ton of flak for wearing a hat ... he wears it not as a stage prop or as a costume for effect, but because he is a real-life cowboy," Bego writes.

Strait's hat is no act.

Strait, McEntire hold Fargodome records

George Strait returns to the Fargodome Friday with a pretty good track record.

The singer/guitarist holds the record for the largest single-event crowd in the Fargodome, drawing more than 27,000 when he first played in 1997. Strait returned in 2006 and drew more than 15,000 for that gig.

This time, he's bringing Reba McEntire, who will set her own Fargodome record for most appearances by a touring artist with seven. A yearly regular in the 1990s, this will be her first show at the Dome in 12 years.

If you go


  • What: George Strait, Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday
  • Where: Fargodome, 1800 University Drive N.
  • Info: Tickets are $71 and $91. (800) 745-3000

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

George Strait
Richard Freeman, singer with the Fargo-based country band Boomtown, thinks the term "hat acts" denotes "the classics." Special to The Forum

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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