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Honky-tonk Beginnings

The early career years of country music king George Strait

BY LAURA PELLERINE

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See George Strait at the Saddledome on July 11. For tickets call Ticketmaster, 403-777-0000.

When it comes to the archetypal cowboy, George Strait fits the stereotype down to a tee. He grew up on a Texas ranch, knows how to rope a steer, wears his Wranglers starched, and is rarely seen without his Resistol hat. He’s got the love of a good woman (he’s been with wife Norma for almost 40 years), is a hard worker (he’s had 57 number one hits) and is musically influenced by “the greats”: Merle Haggard and George Jones.

To the outside world, he is known for being shy—a reputation that longtime friends and crewmates, Tommy Foote and Mike Daily say is not without merit.

Tommy Foote is Strait’s road manager. Back in the “old days” he was the drummer for Ace in the Hole—the band that has been Strait’s touring band since before his manager Erv Woolsey got him signed onto MCA Records. Mike Daily is another original Ace in the Hole band member, he plays the steel guitar.

Both Foote and Daily get nostalgic when talking about their early years. “We were young, doing what we loved to do. It was the best time of my life,” Foote says. When Foote, Daily, Ron Cabal, and Terry Hale were college students, they were in a band called Stoney Ridge.

“We had four band members, but no singer. We auditioned a few people, but none of them worked quite right,” Daily says. “We had a bulletin board in the student centre at the college where we posted signs saying ‘Looking for a singer,’ George saw it and auditioned.”

Once Daily heard Strait’s audition, he knew immediately Strait was the man for the job. “It didn’t take but a few lines of him singing for me to think, ‘Gosh, this guy sings great.’” Daily immediately called Foote, who had moved to Houston after graduating, to convince him to come back to Austin and rejoin the band.

It was a decision Foote has never regretted. “After hearing him sing, I moved back. I knew that this was the first person we had a real chance with. He had the talent and the charisma for us to get to that goal.”

Along with a new singer, came a new name for the band. Though there’s a bit of friendly controversy over how the Ace in the Hole band got its name, both Daily and Foote credit Daily with its inception. The name came to him after searching for inspiration from western and Native culture. “I thought of Ace in the Hole and threw it out there, but the bass player said, ‘I thought of that too.’” He laughs, “Either way, everybody liked it.”

Strait’s arrival also had a new influence on the type of music the band performed. Previously they had played progressive country—a mix of country, folk and rock. But Strait liked his music pure old school, think steel guitars and fiddles, à la George Jones and Hank Williams.

It was a risky move that paid off. Their roots-country approach made them stand out, and they booked four or five gigs a week at honky-tonks, old dance halls, and bars, where the standard of how popular you were was judged by the amount of people up on the dance floor.

“We gathered a great dance hall following,” Daily says. “Then, the drinking age was 18, so college kids could come drink a beer and dance, and it opened a lot of doors for us.”

Though they got paid “practically nothing,” they have fond memories of riding four to the front bench of a pick-up truck with music equipment packed in the back. Foote recalls picking Strait up at his house at 4 o’clock, “after school” and playing gigs until two or three in the morning. Both Foote and Daily say it was Strait’s focused, quiet determination to provide for his wife and family, that eventually led for him to get a record deal in 1981.

Though the record company would have been thrilled had Strait chosen a more experienced touring band, Foote says Strait was insistent that Ace in the Hole stay with him. “He made it known that the band was part of his style,” Foote says, “He’s always been more comfortable around people he knows.”

Strait would go on to become one of country music’s greatest artists. He’s had two hit singles from his most recent album Troubadour, and just this year, the Academy of Country Music named him “Artist of the Decade. ”In 2006 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honour so great that it brought tears to Strait’s eyes when he accepted the award from his hero George Jones.

“We spent a lot of hours in pick-up trucks talking about what he’d like to do one day, and I’m sure that was in the back of his mind,” Foote says. “The amazing thing, is that he did it while he was still competitive.”

Despite their great success, Foote says he still gets a quiet satisfaction when he hears Strait perform one of his earliest songs, “Amarillo by Morning.”

“This was the first song I played drums with him on,” Foote says. “When I hear it, my mind wanders back, it wasn’t a hit single, but it was a touchstone.

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