Issue Date: January 21, 2007
He doesn't exactly "give it away," but we have roped press-shy superstar George Strait into revealing some sweet memories about his family and career.
By Dennis McCafferty
More than 25 years ago, George Strait was an unknown singer playing for beer and pocket money in Texas honky-tonks. He worked at a ranch during the day and made some demos in hopes of getting a recording contract. There were times, he admits, when he had doubts. "I was getting a little nutty. I questioned whether my attempts at getting on a Nashville label were doing any good," Strait tells USA WEEKEND. "Today, Nashville signs up artists all the time. But, back then, every four or five years, they'd sign just three or four people."
Fortunately for Strait -- as well as country fans everywhere -- he didn't give up. In 1981, MCA signed him. In 1982, his "Fool Hearted Memory" landed at No. 1 on the country charts, launching an astonishing streak; 53 of Strait's songs have gone to No. 1, an all-time record.
The 53rd one, "Give It Away," is from his latest album (another No. 1), "It Just Comes Natural." The album title neatly summarizes Strait's lasting appeal: He doesn't force anything, and fans know what he'll bring to the occasion. He's always the singer in the Resistol cowboy hat. The band is nearly always Ace in the Hole, dating from his early honky-tonk days. And his handsome rancher look and gentlemanly demeanor have helped give him a fan base that crosses gender and generational boundaries.
USA WEEKEND caught up with Strait, 54, at his manager's office in Nashville, just before the November Country Music Association Awards, where Strait performed and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, live on TV. He then headed back to his ranch, which is about 150 miles south of San Antonio, the city where he lives with his wife, Norma. Their son, George Jr., also lives near San Antonio. (The Straits' daughter, Jenifer, died in 1986 in an auto accident at age 13.)
He seldom gives interviews. "You will not get George Strait," a Nashville publicist told me two years ago. "He doesn't do media because he doesn't have to." This made me even more determined, but, sure enough, getting the singer to do a cover story was an on-again/off-again affair -- inevitably ending in off.
Until now. When we chat, I am pleasantly surprised to find that Strait is far more affable than aloof, with a gentle Texas drawl and an easy laugh. The trademark hat is nowhere to be found, and in his wire-rimmed spectacles, he looks professorial. For more Strait talk on his early days playing in honky-tonks, life on his ranch and what makes for a classic country song, read on:
You just wrapped up your winter break at the ranch. What is it like to celebrate the holidays on the Strait homestead?
There's no place I'd rather be. The ranch is brush country. It's desolate-looking. I love it. During the winter break, we're all together as a family. It's me and Norma and our son. On Christmas, I get up early, while it's still dark, and make a big fire. The rest of the family is still asleep. I have presents hidden all over the house, and I'll bring those out. I'll get out the cookies and milk. I still like to do that for Santa because he's always hungry.
That's very sweet. How old is your boy?
He's 25! (Laughs.) But it's tradition, ya know.
How do you feel about getting into the Hall of Fame?
You're in awe to be in that kind of company. I've gone to these awards, and I've seen so many get in. "Hag" -- Merle Haggard. Dolly Parton. Kris Kristofferson. I never thought about it until I got a record deal, and even then, not until the 1990s maybe.
Why have you kept your original band? Even Springsteen goes without the E Street guys at times.
I like people who are loyal to me, and I like to be loyal, too. Plus, they're great players. We started out at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, a honky-tonk by the railroad tracks. We'd play Wednesday night, 50 cents at the door and ladies free. You'd be playing the song and -- whoosh! -- you'd hear the train go by. It was a cool place back then. We didn't make much money. One time we left a club with $7 apiece in our pockets. But we always got the beer free.
When you're getting ready to record, how do you know what material is going to work?
I get asked all the time, "What is a George Strait song?" I know it when I hear it. I don't seek a specific tempo or lyric or melody. It just has to make sense. Maybe it is natural because I was given the gift to sing.
What about a song like "You'll Be There?" It's about loss, which you've experienced with your daughter. But it's never heavy-handed.
That song hit home for me for obvious reasons. I'm a religious person. I honestly believe we will see each other in heaven someday. I wanted to do the song badly. The writer, Cory Mayo, held that song out because he knew I wanted to do it, and he waited until I had the chance. It was kind of him to do that.
Is there a song that, at first, you were like "no way," and it turned out to be great?
Yeah, and it turned out to be a No. 1 hit.
Man, it's killing me now. I can't remember the title. (Starts to sing.) Caught a fish/Caught a breeze and a thousand red sunsets ...
Well, don't expect me to know it -- it's your song!
I can sing it -- I just can't remember the name of it! I've cut a lot of songs, man. (Laughs.) (Note to readers: The title of the song is "Living and Living Well.") Obviously, I was wrong, because it went to No. 1. I just didn't think it was strong.
A Strait consistency is a love of Texas. What was it like growing up there when stations such as KBUC ruled the airwaves?
Actually, my dad didn't listen to those stations. He taught math, and on weekends and summers, we'd head to our ranch. We listened to mostly news and the farmer's report. (Laughs.) But the great thing there is that you can hear live bands in every town. Live music is very important in Texas. It was good for me to go through that. I may not have been ready to play big arenas without that experience. Hell, I still get nervous about performing.
Do you think you'd make it in country music if you were starting out today?
That's tough to say. There are so many artists now coming out all the time that it's harder to hang on, but if the music is good, it's good, right? The record companies don't keep you around if you don't sell. There are still a few of us out here doing well, even at our age. (Laughs.) That's funny to me because I don't really feel that old.
Cover illustration by Roberto Parada for USA WEEKEND
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At a glance
Name/vitals: George Strait, born May 18, 1952,in Poteet, Texas
Vital stats: a record 53 No. 1 singles on the country charts; a record 32 platinum albums; and 65 CMA award nominations, with wins for Entertainer of the Year twice (1989 and 1990)
New release: "It Just Comes Natural"
Other pursuits: hunting, fishing, golf, skiing and rodeo; an active member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Strait presents the 25th annual George Strait Team Roping Classic competition in San Antonio March 23 and 24
Tour: launched this month; go to georgestrait.com for dates and venues