People who love traditional country music love fiddles. They love pedal steel guitars, suspended seventh chords, one step modulations and spoken lyrics.

And Thursday night at the Salt Palace George Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band gave fans all that in spades.Only a handful of "hard country" singers can walk into an arena and immediately take command. Merle Haggard can; Randy Travis. And Strait.

He saunters out like John Wayne, gives a smile and his understated two-fingered wave, and the audience is all his.

Everything about Strait is understated except the music, in fact. His charm comes from his mixing an easygoing, loping, Texas manner with high-energy vocals.

There was more energy at Thursday's show, for instance, than you'll find in any fusion experiment at the U of U. Singing the standards that made him famous ("Ocean Front Property," "All My Exes Live in Texas," "Baby Blue") and stirring in plenty of the swing sound he inherited from Bob Wills ("Cherokee Maid," "Take Me Back to Tulsa,") Strait seemed to get stronger as the night wore on. He paces himself, he saves his effort for the mike and he doesn't over-sell the songs (like Willie) or trick them up (like Hank Jr.) He just croons and croons and croons.

It's why he's the Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year.

But two other subtle reasons enter into his popularity as well. First, people who like country music like to dance to it. And Strait does the most danceable tunes on the market. Waltzes, two-steps, shuffle tunes, swing dances, all the bases.

Second, Strait's musical roots run deep and he constantly cultivates them. Thursday he opened with a Hank Snow classic ("There Stands the Glass,") soon followed with Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," seeded in plenty of Bob Wills and even resurrected the Delta tune "Milk Cow Blues."

For the bulk of his show Strait pulled cuts from his latest album, "Beyond the Blue Neon." "Hollywood Squares" and "What's Going On in Your World?" stood out among those.

He returned for a quick, two-song encore, then rode away.

In short, give him the Utah award for best band, best vocals and best show so far this year.

-Opening for Strait was Billy Joe Royal. Most baby boomers remember him as the "Down in the Boondocks" boy. He's gone Motown since the '60s, however, with a high, blue-note voice that has more in common with Smokey Robinson than the Smoky Mountains.

After a fine set of hits Thursday ("Burn Like a Rocket," "Out of Sight and On My Mind," "Boondocks," etc.) he retired to the dressing room, where I caught up with him.

-Baillie and the Boys started things off Thursday. The threesome has made a name with hits like "Oh, Heart" and "Get to You."

Compared to the lush arrangements of Strait and Royal, the group sounds a bit thin and tinny (along the lines of a '60s basement band). And they cut a little close to Highway 101 for comfort. (How many different groups can get away with a small, female singer playing a white guitar and dressed in a Spanish style hat, for instance?)

But for the most part they were tight, uptempo and churned out some nice old time rock 'n roll. And that always goes down well in Utah.