By Kay West
April 10, 2013 12:00 PM

It’s just after 9 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18, and every seat in United Spirit Arena in Lubbock, Texas, is filled. As the lights dim, a video of the highlights of George Strait’s Country Music Hall of Fame career begins playing on the four screens suspended over the stage in the middle of the floor, and 15,200 people rise to their feet in one mass rafter-raising roar. It’s the first night of Strait’s final tour, and the air is electric as fans realize this is probably the last time they will ever get a chance to see a live performance by the country singer who is as iconic as his beloved home state of Texas.

Backstage, however, the man himself is the picture of calm. Hand-in-hand with Norma, his wife of 41 years, Strait makes his way from his tour bus to the thick black curtain that leads out to the stage. With a big grin on his face, he peeks out to watch the crowd watching the screens.

Four months earlier the modest cowboy with more than 50 No. 1 hits under his rodeo belt buckle announced that, after 30 years of touring, he would be saddling up for just one more ride. Lubbock is the kickoff of the 2013 leg of the two-year “The Cowboy Rides Away” Tour, and the impact of the first night of the tour is weighing heavily on the dozens of people backstage: his manager Erv Woolsey, tour manager Tommy Foote and the Ace in the Hole band. “This is history-making,” says Martina McBride, who is opening for Strait throughout 2013. “It’s a big deal to be a part of it, and it’s very emotional.”

Giving Norma’s hand a quick squeeze, Strait nods at Foote and says simply, “Let’s do this.” Foote pulls the curtain aside, and the crowd erupts as they see Strait’s signature Resistol hat emerge. Bounding up the five steps onto the stage, he straps on his guitar and plows into “Here for a Good Time,” a rollicking reminder to live every day like it’s your last. The poignancy of the lyrics isn’t lost on Strait, who turned 60 last May 18. “It’s always hard to make the set list for a tour because you don’t want to disappoint anyone,” he tells PEOPLE. “For this last tour I want to do some old songs that I hadn’t done in many years.”

Strait makes the Lubbock concert one to remember, telling stories, reminiscing and laughing through 29 touchstone tunes. “Amarillo by Morning,” “Check Yes or No,” “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Marina Del Rey,” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” are crowd pleasers, but it’s “I’ll Always Remember You” that adds tears to the smiling faces. “I wanted to say how much you guys have meant to me over the years,” Strait says as he introduces the song he wrote with son Bubba and Dean Dillon. “So I figured the best way to do that was in a song.”

Ending the night with “The Cowboy Rides Away” and strolling the perimeter of the diamond-shaped stage, he points to each section as he touches his heart, opening his arms wide in a farewell embrace. Standing backstage afterward, the normally taciturn Strait is clearly emotional, his head down and his hand on his heart as crew members who had seen him perform hundreds of times greet him with congratulations, hugs, handshakes and even mock bows. “Whew,” he says, shaking his head and sharing a smile with Norma. “That was something.” In fact, sitting on his tour bus in Oklahoma City the next day, he is still reeling from the reception. “I’m not sure if it was the song or just me knowing that it was my last time to walk out of that building in Lubbock, Texas, but when I was leaving the stage it hit me hard, really hard,” he says. “I came as close to losing it as you can come without losing it. I didn’t really expect that. But now I know I’ve got to do that 20 more times this year, and it’s going to be tough.” Saying goodbye always is.