I have a thing for heroes, and I love a good story. I can read for months and talk for days on the likes of Ernest Shackleton, John Wesley Powell, or Lewis and Clark. I recognize the genius in Michelangelo, Gauguin and Banksy, or Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson. Don’t get me started on Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan.
And yet there is a central paradox in the making of a legend: When you live through the time they are creating their legend, how do you really know? Today, with TMZ, Buzzfeed and a “24-hours-and-shrinking” news cycle, it’s even harder to separate true greatness from the hype. This past month, in putting together the July issue, I felt like I got to walk with a few legends.
First, George Strait, our cover boy. When people name country music legends, they might call out Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson and a few others. Strait can walk tall beside any of them, whether you look at his career from the standpoint of raw numbers, as in sales and chart-toppers, or from the mutual loyalty and affection with fans—for more than 35 years.
I freely admit to being a Johnny-come-lately regarding Strait. I had heard some of the hits over the years, but didn’t really get to know the magnitude and importance until last year, when I joined the first leg of The Cowboy Rides Away tour for three nights as a guest of John and Martina McBride, who opened for him through 2013. I did my research, listened more deeply, then experienced the performance—back to back to back. Incredible. I recognized true greatness as it rocked the stage and saw true recognition of that greatness in the eyes of 19,000 fans each night. On June 7 of this year outside of Dallas, in his home state of Texas, Strait played his final show on his farewell tour, in front of 104,739 fans.
The bonus is that Strait’s a genuinely nice guy, with a 43-year marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Norma, a penchant for supporting charities, and a life that straddles the ranch and the studio/stage. He’ll be back. Not for a full tour, maybe, but surely on records and special TV events and one-offs. It’s been an amazing career so far, absolutely the stuff of legends.
I also had the privilege in early June of moderating a conversation, in front of a live audience and a bunch of cameras, between two of the greatest mixers of the past 30 to 40 years: Bob Clearmountain and Chris Lord-Alge. When I was hired by Mix back in the late 1980s, I heard the names Clearmountain and Lord-Alge within the first couple of weeks. Later I would know more. Bob practically defined a decade or two of sound, from the mid-’70s on, and remains every bit as vital today. He was, it could be argued, the first of the red-hot mix engineers. Lord-Alge followed Clearmountain by about 10 years and has amassed a credit list that speaks of variety and sales and impact to rival any other.
Film has its legends, so do art and business and politics. In our small world of music and recording, there is Alan Lomax, Bill Putnam, Tom Dowd, Rudy Van Gelder, Cosimo Matassa, Bruce Swedien, Al Schmitt, Les Paul, George Martin, Phil Ramone and a handful more who can be considered legends. Look around, you’re bound to spot a few more.