NASHVILLE, Tenn. With his cowboy hat, Texas-sized belt buckle and plaid Western shirts, George Strait isn't exactly a dead ringer for Mick Jagger.
But before he sang country, Strait loved British Invasion rock by groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and thrashed at an electric guitar in garage bands.
''I knew my three chords,'' the 51-year-old singer said from his Texas ranch in a telephone interview. ''We played 'Louie Louie' and 'Gloria.'''
It was a phase that came and went, like the lava lamp and the pet rock. And that's probably a good thing. Strait's tastes turned to Merle Haggard and Bob Wills, and he went on to sell more than 56 million records as a country artist.
His new album, ''Honkytonk-ville,'' finds him again singing with the soulful, sophisticated edge that sets his records apart. A fan of classic pop crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, he avoids the over-the-top twang of some of his contemporaries while balancing traditional and contemporary styles.
''I think my voice is pretty distinctive,'' Strait said. ''When you hear one of my songs on the radio, you know it's me. I've always had that, but it's not something I make an effort to do. It's something that just happened.''
As for the songs, Strait has an uncanny knack for picking them. He's had 38 No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts since he signed with MCA in 1981 tying him with his idol Haggard and placing him second only to Conway Twitty's 40 Billboard chart toppers.
''I've always said that when I look for material, I don't look for traditional country songs,'' Strait said. ''I end up cutting a lot of those songs because I love them. But I'm always looking for a good song, one I can sing and pull off.''
His new album is a good example. Co-produced by Tony Brown, it contains a dozen tracks by some of the genre's best writers, including Bruce Robison, Jim Lauderdale and Dean Dillon. The first single is the bluesy ''Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa,'' a Red Lane tune that Haggard recorded 17 years ago.
''I had forgotten about it,'' Strait said of the hit song. ''When I heard it, it refreshed my memory and I really wanted to do it. But it's intimidating to do something that Haggard's already done.''
There's also ''Cowboys Like Us,'' with its soaring pop chorus, the love song ''As Far As It Goes,'' the gospel number ''I Found Jesus on the Jailhouse Floor'' and the title cut in the honky-tonk mold for which Strait is most famous.
When Strait arrived in Nashville at the height of the Urban Cowboy era, he was heralded as the great hope for traditional country. He inspired many artists who have come and gone while he continues a streak of hits unabated by changing tastes and styles.
''I grew up absolutely loving everything he did,'' said Tim McGraw, who has toured with Strait. ''I cut my teeth in the clubs singing George Strait songs. He's the Merle Haggard of our generation, as far as vocalists go.''
Even Strait can't quite explain his success. ''If I had to pick a reason, I'd have to say it's the songs, the material. I kind of know what fits me and what I like, and fortunately there's been quite a few other people who like the same stuff.''
He has an easier time putting his finger on the thing that drew him to country music. It was Haggard's 1970 tribute album to Western swing player Wills, called, ''A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World).''
''It blew me away,'' Strait said. ''I've been a swing fan and a Haggard fan ever since.''
In January, Strait will launch another tour, this time a series of arena shows. For years he toured stadiums as the headliner in an all-star lineup that included acts like McGraw and Alan Jackson.
Strait said he's happy to be back in the smaller venues where he enjoys a closer link to the audience. He'll do 20 or so dates next year, a slower pace from his earlier years. But don't look for him to slow down too much.
''I have no retirement plans,'' he said. ''I'm having way too much fun for that.''
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