Not Even Waylon or Willie Bridle at George Strait's Ride to Country Music Stardom
To his fans Strait's traditional country and Western sound is as hot as a fresh-baked cathead biscuit. He has cut four albums in the last four years and, with tunes like Amarillo by Morning and You Look So Good in Love, has ridden the Top 100 country-singles chart like a broncobuster with Krazy Glue on his jeans.
Strait's throwback blend of lilting guitar licks, keening fiddles, plaintive pedaled steel and taut, lonesome cowboy vocals has put him in the vanguard of country music's counterrevolutionaries, those performers who have refused to abandon old-time simplicity for Nashville slick. George puts it all more modestly. "It seems pretty obvious that there's a shift back to more country-sounding records. I guess I'm in the right place at the right time."
He almost missed his chance just a few years back. The second of three children born to a high school math teacher and his wife, George grew up in Pearsall, Texas, tried college briefly, eloped with his high school sweetheart, Norma Voss, and eventually joined the Army. At the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in 1973 he auditioned to be lead singer in a country and western band being formed to entertain at Army functions. There his style took hold, shaped by the enduring echoes of Hank Williams (whose music he studied while learning to play guitar) and the legendary Bob Wills.
Returning to Texas after his discharge in 1975, Strait resumed studying by day at Southwest Texas State University and traveling by night in a pickup truck to honky-tonk gigs as far away as 200 miles. Several pilgrimages to Nashville in pursuit of a recording contract came to nothing, and by then, "I was 27 or 28 years old," Strait recalls. "I didn't think I was ever going to really get anywhere in the music business. I began to have doubts about my abilities. It was time to think of other things."
After graduating (with a degree in agriculture and education) he applied for a job with a firm that manufactured metal fence posts and other ranch equipment and was told to report to Uvalde, Texas in two weeks. But, says Norma, "George was moping around the house so much I couldn't stand it. I figured I didn't want to live in Uvalde with him like that, so we talked about his hopes in music. I wanted him to give it one more try."
Within eight months George, with the help of a record company executive who is now his manager, finagled a recording session with MCA. One of the numbers, Unwound, went to No. 4 on the charts—unheard of for an unknown singer doing an unknown song—and MCA signed him. Since then not a single week has passed when he hasn't had at least one song in Billboard's country Top 100. Early attempts to alter his style, to add some glitz to his good ol' boy manner, met stiff resistance. "If you start messing around with changing yourself," says Strait, "you'll end up screwing up." Last month, when the Country Music Association was about to present him with their Male Vocalist of the Year award, he was not to be found. Honoring a previous commitment, he had taken off for Bimini with his family on a fishing excursion being filmed for television.
Success has meant more time on the road (250 dates booked so far this year) and less at home on 10 acres of land in San Marcos, Texas with Norma and the children, Jennifer, 12, and George Jr., 4, nicknamed Bubba. Norma and the kids join Strait on the road as often as possible, flying to intercept his bus as it rolls across the country. With a more settled future in mind, George is now shopping for a 50-acre spread nearby. "He hates being gone so much," says Norma. "He says if he could make that much money and not travel so much, he would." But, as George explains: "I'd be crazy to slow down right now; things are going too good. I have to hit it full steam until I can't stand it anymore."
Strait's only original composition to see vinyl is I Can't See Texas From Here and he admits he "probably should write more myself. But I've been so lucky in finding songs that are right for me that I haven't had to do it." As for all those adoring followers waving frilly garments and nearly swooning in front of the stage, "Some of them do amaze me," George admits. "I can't understand how I'll see some fans in Texas one night, and then the next night I'll see them again in another state. I know we have to drive nonstop all night and day to get there, so they must have done the same thing. It's very flattering that anybody would do that." Flattering, yes, but that's not the final word. "I don't really feel I have made it yet," says George. "What I want is someday to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame." A big wish for a modest man, perhaps. But he just might deserve it.