by BRAD ROLLINS
Performing for the first time with Garth Brooks, George Strait — San Marcos’ elusive adopted son — delivered an adaptation of his melancholy single “The Cowboy Rides Away” at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Los Vegas last night.
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From the album:
From the album:
From the album:
From the album:
The duet memorialized radio and TV personality Dick Clark, the longtime producer of the ACM Awards show who died a year ago April 18. From what precious little I know about country music, it seemed like an odd pairing. That may have been the point.
Garth Brooks is the most prominent pusher of pop-country. George Strait, on the other hand, does not abide these things. On stage, Brooks came across as almost solicitous of Strait’s approval, at one point literally proclaiming him “the king.” Strait looked like a man who will never, ever forget that Chris Gaines absurdity.
Strait will end the 2013 leg of his “The Cowboy Rides Away” farewell tour on June 1 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, just down the road from the San Marcos honky-tonk where he landed his first regular gig nearly 40 years ago. Strait’s long goodbye will involve a second victory lap of sold-out arenas and ballparks next year; after that, however, he says he is finished with life on the road.
“I’m not saying after this tour is over that it will will be the last I’ll ever be on stage. I hope I still have a lot of those left in me. … [But] as far as a structured tour goes, that’s going to be it,” Strait said in September when he announced his quasi-retirement.
It’s safe to say he‘s had a good run, career-wise. Strait has sold more than 70 million albums and recorded 59 No. 1 singles. He’s been the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year twice and was named ACM’s artist of the decade in 2009.
Born in Poteet and raised in Pearsall, Strait arrived in San Marcos in 1975 after a term in the army. In the service, Strait encountered the double good fortune of being both stationed in Hawaii and being detailed to a country-western band assigned to entertain the soldiers at Schofield Barracks.
He’s told interviewers throughout the years that his army experience whetted his appetite to be a performer. You might say he had to pay his dues singing for Uncle Sam before he was good enough to entertain Sam Houston’s children. We tend to take our country music seriously.
Shortly after his 1975 arrival at Southwest Texas State in pursuit of an agriculture degree, Strait saw a “Singer Wanted!” poster distributed around campus by a band-on-the-rebound after being dumped by their lead singer. They wanted to start fresh with a new name. Ace in the Hole Band was born. Later, it was born again as George Strait and Ace in the Hole Band.
With a weekly berth at Cheatham Street Warehouse, Strait soon became an area favorite. In 1977, local singer-songwriter-sensei Kent Finlay arranged a road trip to Nashville where Strait cut a demo record. They met with music executives but none of them we’re terribly interested. Strait was still running a cattle ranch as the 80s approached and playing honky tonks and hole-in-the-wall dives on weekends.
“He did great great demos but they were doing the pop-country thing at that time and he wasn’t going to do that. George, you know, he didn’t do anything pop. It was all George Jones kind of stuff, Bob Wills kind of stuff. The demos were all straight-ahead country,” Finlay said.
MCA Records finally came calling in 1981 and, according to Finlay and other folkway purists, Strait’s baritone charisma revitalized commercial interest in old school country.
Even after he safely anchored in international celebrity, Strait and his wife Norma lived in San Marcos until 1986, the year his 13-year-old daughter died in a particularly messy car wreck near the family home off Hunter Road. A few minutes after Jenifer told him she was headed to Sonic, Strait was called to the accident scene where his daughter was pronounced dead.
Investigators said they had no evidence that alcohol was involved, but the 18-year-old driver was nonetheless prosecuted, unsuccessfully, for felony voluntary manslaughter. When that didn’t stick, prosecutors convinced a second grand jury to indict the guy for criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. The second, lesser charge was dropped when a new district attorney took office, according to a contemporaneous article in the Dallas Morning News (paywall). The driver was cleared in January 1987 when a third grand jury to hear the case declined to hand down indictments.
From all accounts, Strait packed up and moved on after Jenifer’s funeral, held less than 48 hours after her death. One family friend has said he does not know if Strait ever set foot again in the home where his little girl “brought color to my life that my eyes have never touched,” as he lamented in the 1988 tear-jerker “Baby Blue,”
For nearly 30 years now, Strait has never publicly discussed his daughter’s death. That’s sort of an astonishing fete of stoicism in our confessional culture that, for example, compelled even the alarmingly imperious Lance Armstrong to seek Oprah’s absolution, or at least go through the motions of doing so.
Strait did come to town in 2006 to receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters conferred during a private ceremony. When it comes down to it, its hard to know if San Marcos will ever see much of George Strait again. I don’t guess we can blame him if we don’t.
For those of us, however, who think it would be a meaningful community milestone to see Strait pack Bobcat Stadium, here is this little nugget of hope from that farewell press conference:
“Don’t think I’m retiring because I’m not. If a special event happens to come up somewhere that I want to do, by all means, I’m going to do it,” he said.
As Strait contemplates life in semi-retirement, let’s keep faith that San Marcos — the pleasant and not only the painful — will be on his mind, just like Amarillo. There aren’t many events more special than an overdue homecoming.
COVER: At the ACM Awards on Sunday, George Strait performed with Garth Brooks in something that resembled a duet.SCREEN CAPTURE VIA YOUTUBE
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