George Strait doesn’t grant many interviews, but on the heels of the announcement that he’ll receive Billboard’s Legend of Live Award, he is featured on the cover of this week’s edition of the magazine. He talked to the magazine about everything from his earliest shows to becoming one of the most successful artists in all of music. It all started with a rock n’ roll garage band.
“That story has kind of taken on a life of its own,” George said. “I had a couple of friends, and we knew a couple of songs, “Gloria” and “Louie Louie.” Calling us a band is really a stretch. I hadn’t really gotten into country music back then. It was all rock’n'roll.”
Growing up in a rural farm community near Big Wells, Texas, George wasn’t exposed to a lot of country music. His father kept the radio turned to the news or farm and ranch reports. He did hear a song here and there, playing on jukeboxes around town. He liked what he heard well enough, but it took a while for that like to turn to love.
“I didn’t fall in love with it until I got out of high school and heard a man by the name of Merle Haggard singing songs like “Okie From Muskogee” on the radio. That pretty much did it for me. Then I listened to his tribute album to Bob Wills called A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, and that’s what hooked me on western swing music.
George’s first paying gig was in Hawaii in the early ’70s. He was in the Army and had auditioned to play with a band called Country Kings, comprised of a group of guys and one girl. He received his pay out from the performance, but that was about it.
“I played one gig with them, and I don’t even remember how much they paid me,” he said. “They thought I wasn’t country enough, and let me go. That’s really funny now, but it wasn’t at the time. I didn’t let it faze me much, though. I got another opportunity not long after that [in a band called Rambling Country], which became my Army gig until I got out.
George joined the Army in 1972 and says he wouldn’t trade those days for anything, even though it was tough at times. The Army gave him the structure he was looking for while pursuing his music career and later, gave him the opportunity to go to college.
“I enrolled in college when I got out of the Army on the GI Bill,” he said. “This allowed me to go to school with a small paycheck, and I was able to play music to supplement that. It made it a little easier to feed my family that way. So I wouldn’t say the Army or college sidetracked me at all. In fact, it was just the opposite.”
George realized the very first time he got onstage – with the band that fired him – that he could make a living making music. “That was my dream, and that was what I worked toward from that night on,” he said. “Country music was on my mind from the time I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night. Nobody wanted it more than me.”
With 60 No. 1 songs to his credit, George will wrap his touring career next year with the final leg of his The Cowboy Rides Away Tour. He’s planning a few surprises for his last official run.
“Me and the whole band are going to be dancing onstage next year,” he joked. “Wait till you see the little outfits. We have some surprises up our sleeves, but aren’t quite ready to announce the tour just yet. That will come in September sometime.”
He’s also got a message for the country music industry. “Don’t give up on me just yet,” he said. “I’ve got a lot left in the tank.”