“Country band looking for singer” was all it said, with a phone number. From that seed of torn paper stuck on the cluttered bulletin board at the Southwest Texas State University student center in August 1975 grew a chapter of country music history that’s still a page-turner.
The first person to answer the ad, placed by three students who were former members of the band Stoney Ridge, was an agriculture major just back from a hitch in the Army.
“I remember that audition like it was yesterday,” steel guitarist Mike Daily said of the day George Strait walked into his life. “George sang two lines, and it was over.”
Forty-four years later, Strait, 67, is an unprecedented country music success story, with 44 No. 1 Billboard singles, more than any other act of any genre. And Daily and original bassist Terry Hale are still in Strait’s aptly named Ace in the Hole Band, regarded in the industry as the best road group in country music, until Strait stopped touring a few years ago.
“They’re probably the greatest ambassadors of honky-tonk music ever, in terms of the number of people they’ve played in front of,” said Austin songwriter Monte Warden, who has had a song recorded by Strait.
“George wants to concentrate on his singing, so he surrounds himself with professionals, ” said Tom Foote, who played drums for the Ace in the Hole Band from January 1976 until he switched to tour manager in 1983. “Some acts have a lot of rules for the band, but we have only one: Be on time.”
Directed by Austin-based keyboardist Ronnie Huckaby, the Ace in the Hole Band today is an 11-piece marvel of musicianship, with the ability to play both Western swing and lush country ballads. But in the beginning, it was more of a bar band, with Daily, Hale, Foote and lead guitarist Ron Cabal (who died in a 1996 car accident) backing Pearsall native Strait, who had begun performing in the early 1970s when he was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and fronted a band of homesick country boys.
Originally, the San Marcos group was billed as “The Ace in the Hole Band with George Strait,” but as the frontman’s good looks, charisma and pure country voice made him a star, the billing was simplified to “George Strait.” But you’ll hear no complaints from the band, which released a lone album under its name in 1995.
“We didn’t even know what success was in the music business or how to get it,” Foote said of the group’s early years. “But the first time I heard George sing, I thought, ‘Well, this my chance to find out.’ “
Ace in the Hole Band played Texas dives, roadhouses and dance halls for six years before Strait got a record deal. Foote’s uncle, writer Horton Foote, modeled the upstart band in his Oscar-winning script for 1983’s “Tender Mercies” on the band’s early days.
The group’s first show was at San Marcos’ ramshackle Cheatham Street Warehouse on Oct. 13, 1975. A year later, they were regularly packing Gruene Hall. But breaking into the Austin market was a challenge. The “outlaw country” movement was the rage in the ’70s, but even as major labels were signing just about every singing hippie in a cowboy hat from Texas, Strait refused to modify his traditional country style.
“We had a hellish time getting booked in Austin,” said Daily, the grandson of George Jones mentor Pappy Daily. “Finally, James White gave us a shot at the Broken Spoke, and we started building up a following.”
Foote recalled that Spoke debut, opening for Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys. “We got everybody from Cheatham Street to cheer us on, so Mr. White would think we were a big draw,” he said. White booked the band once a month for $400 to $500 a gig.
Unlike his bandmates, Strait was married and had a young child to support when he joined the band. Growing up, he loved working on his family’s ranch near Big Wells, so Strait had a tough decision to make when he graduated from college in 1977 and was offered a job with an agriculture company in Uvalde.
“He had the ambition to be what he is now,” Daily said, “so he decided to give the music business one more shot.”
In the summer of ’77, Cheatham Street Warehouse owner Kent Finlay, songwriter Daryl Staedtler and Strait drove a two-seat cargo van from San Marcos to Nashville, Tenn., taking turns sleeping on the Army cot in the back.
“George really needed a record deal,” Finlay said, “so we loaded up 10 cases of Coors beer and brought a six-pack to each label. You couldn’t get Coors in Nashville back then, so it made it easier to get a foot in the door.”
Ironically, Strait got his big break in San Marcos, when the band played at Erv Woolsey’s Prairie Rose nightclub in the late ’70s. After about a year of running the club, Houston native Woolsey returned to his job at MCA Nashville, where he persuaded the other execs to sign the singer from San Marcos. Woolsey eventually quit his label job to manage Strait, who rarely does interviews.
Strait’s first single, “Unwound,” reached the top 10 in 1981. The first No. 1 hit came the next year with “Fool Hearted Memory.” Strait has had at least one No. 1 single a year since. In 2006, Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he’s the only member still recording No. 1 hits.
The Ace in the Hole Band rarely plays on Strait’s albums, as his Nashville-based producer Tony Brown prefers to work with session players. But live is where the players, whose training ranges from honky-tonk taught to fiddler Gene Elders’ classical background, find room to shine. Like Willie Nelson’s Family, formed just a couple of years before the Ace in the Hole Band, there is an almost telepathic connection among the players.
Many of the San Marcos haunts of the band’s early years, including the Cheyenne Social Club (formerly the Getaway), the house on Uhland Street where Strait auditioned, and George and Norma Strait’s house, directly across Riverside Drive from Herbert’s Taco Hut, have been torn down. But the band born from such humble beginnings has kept its musical passion alive. Sometimes during shows, the members will grin at each other as if to say, “Can you believe we’re getting paid to do this?”
The hit 1992 movie Pure Country, in which the band members played themselves, helped keep Strait’s career vibrant during the Garth Brooks-led “young country” boom. In the film, Strait plays Dusty, a fame-warped country singer who lost his way, playing his music behind garish special effects. Eventually he returns to his traditional country roots. But Strait’s real career path has never been anything but simple and steady.
“If I had to use just one word to describe George Strait, it’s ‘authentic,’ ” said Foote. “There’s nothing contrived about him. When the label folks wanted George to move to Nashville, he stayed in Texas because that was home. When they wanted him to take off his cowboy hat, he kept it on because it felt comfortable. “
There was also pressure from Nashville for Strait to replace the Ace in the Hole Band with more seasoned Nashville players.
“George resisted, giving everyone the chance to grow into their position,” Foote said.
And the Ace in the Hole Band has never stopped growing.