From Jenni’s interviews with her father:
When did you meet George Strait?
I met George Strait in 1975, but I already knew all the guys in the Ace in the Hole band. When we opened Cheatham Street in s’74 we did it so musicians had a place to play and the guys in the Ace in the Hole band were in several different bands. People would be trading out and everything. There was a band called Texas Star and most of the Ace in the Hole guys played in that. Then
there was a band called Stoney Ridge, and Jay Dominguez was the leader of that band and the guys in Ace in the Hole were playing in that band. They broke up one night and Jay Dominguez got another group of people for Stoney Ridge and the other guys were looking for another lead singer, so they were advertising it around.
I think they put out some little cards around campus and places. They were a working band that had gigs and as soon as they got together they knew they could play at Cheatham Street. So anyway, they advertised around. I think George had just gotten out of the Army and he and Norma had moved to San Marcos to go to school and George was looking for some country players so he could start a band. Everybody was looking for each other. One day, the Ace in the Hole guys said they had a new guy they were going to try out and see if he’d be a good lead singer, and then they brought him by right after the tryout and introduced me to George. And that started a long, long friendship.
Tell me about the original members of the Ace in the Hole Band.
The first night they played, it was Mike Daily on steel guitar. He had a Sho Bud steel guitar. Mike Daily is the grandson of Pappy Daily and the son of Don Daily who owned Big D Distribution. That family had been in the record business for a long time and Pappy Daily was a very important person because he’s the one who developed George Jones and the Big Bopper and numerous other people. He was the co-owner of Starday Records, which is really important in country music. That was Mike Daily’s grandfather.
Then there was Terry Hale. Terry was from Fredericksburg and he was a bass player and he was enthusiastic about music, very serious about music. There was Ron Cabal who a guitar player and also serious about music. Tommy Foote had been the drummer in the Stoney Ridge band, but Tommy had gotten a job in Houston so he was gone when they were putting together the original Ace in the Hole band. Ted Stubblefield, who was my drummer at the time, started the band out (for about a month). Of course, George Strait was the lead singer and rhythm guitar player. He was the new guy in town. They practiced up and their first gig was October 13, 1975, and then they played practically every week until 1982, I guess.
Describe your first impressions of George Strait.
He was a very likeable guy, a real cowboy. He was just out of the Army and he was enthusiastic about music. He had a great voice and looked great, sounded great. He was mighty fine. They had a good front man for sure.
What do you mean when you say George was a real cowboy?
Yeah. Real cowboy. He ropes and rides horses and stuff and there’s more to being a cowboy than horsing and stuff. It’s a mental thing. Being a cowboy is a way of thinking, a lifestyle. It’s honor in your heart, honor toward the world. I mean, there are bad cowboys, too. It’s just a thing about how you live your life. It’s following the code of the West. You have to just understand it. You have to grow up that way. You can’t grow up in Houston and ever achieve the “cowboy way.”
You are known for honing songwriters. Was George Strait a songwriter?
Well, he’s more of a songwriter than people seem to realize. At that time, we were just getting it rolling good, and songwriters were really important. You know, George wrote some really nice songs. He wrote several of the songs he recorded on D Records. D stands for Daily. I believe they put out three flip side 45s. George wrote three of them, I believe. One of them was (singing), “ It don’t change the way I feel about you, just the way you feel about me.” That song was really a good song. He wrote a song called, “I Don’t Want to Talk It Over,” which is a song very similar to one I wrote and was doing at the time. Well, the song wasn’t similar but the title was.
Did you two hit it off right away?
Yeah, I’ve always liked George. We would talk about music. I had a reel-to-reel- back then, everyone used reel-to-reel tapes, and I had a reel-to-reel record, so sometimes we would listen to stuff, different things. Later on, it was the stuff that Erv would send him. I remember listening the first time with George to “Marina Del Ray.” I never really liked “Marina Del Ray, but anyway…
Describe the crowd in the early days of George Strait and Ace in the Hole Band.
Actually, we were the only place in town at the time when they first started. There hadn’t been any music in San Marcos. Right away, there started to be a bunch of places popping up, but at first, everybody came to Cheatham Street. It was the only place to go. We were pretty magical at the time. I would get there before noon every day and wouldn’t leave until closing time. That was every day. Seven days at week. That first year that we were open, I took off to go to Willie’s Picnic. Other than that, I was at Cheatham Street working all day long. And when I say working, I wasn’t just sitting around. I was booking it, making things happen, cleaning out bathrooms, doing all the stuff you have to do. I dedicated my whole life to it for several years there.
What made George compelling as a performer early on?
I started telling people right away that he was going to be a star. In fact, there’s a story that was written about ’76, I guess, in Action magazine. Sam Kindrick wrote it and it quotes me as saying George is going to be a star. Everyone was like, “Ha-ha-ha . How would he know?” Well, you know, there’s something about it. You just know. You can’t analyze it. It’s like hearing a good song. Wow. That’s a hit. That’s a great song. If you try to overanalyze it, how do you know? That other song has all the same things that that one did, but it doesn’t have that little pizazz. George had a certain magic about him. He still does.
Let’s talk more about George’s first trip to Nashville with you and Darrell Staedtler in the yellow van.
Oh yeah, we were all excited about all the stuff we cut. I recorded “What Makes Texas Swing” with Gimble and them. George wanted to record that song, and I wouldn’t let him. I wanted to do it. Can you imagine? The gaul. It turned out to be so incredibly great. I mean, Gimble playing on it. Oh, wow. And D.J. Fontana – Elvis’ drummer – was the drummer. It was just wonderful. Buddy Spicher played on two or three of George’s demos and maybe Gimble and Spicher together…It was just incredible. The songs just all turned out so good. We were so excited.
George had recorded a song that Darrell wrote called, “This Morning I’m Hung Over Over You,” and it was a drinking song, and drinking songs were out at the moment. And Vic McAlpine, a great old-time songwriter who hung out a lot with Hank Williams, I remember him saying, “that is a hit song.” Everyone else was sort of was playing it down, and he said, “Take it from me. I know a hit song when I hear one and that is a hit song.” He said that, and I thought, I totally agree with you. It never has been released, but it really is a good Darrell song, like a Merle Haggard kind of a song.
Tell me what happened when he won his first CMA award.
We always celebrated the anniversary of Ace in the Hole – first anniversary, second anniversary – and it was always big party. We’d always make it a great big thing. We’d have balloons and such. I know one year, we had girls with picket signs marching on campus: “Ace in the Hole Anniversary.” On the tenth anniversary, we were, of course, going to celebrate it on October 13, 1985, but George couldn’t be there because he was nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year. All the guys in the band were there at the party because this was before George was famous enough to use his own band at the awards. I don’t think he even got to play. So, the Ace in the Hole except for George was at Cheatham Street and we were celebrating their tenth anniversary. We broke our all-time rule and brought in a TV so we could watch the Country Music Awards because George was nominated. I’ll be damned if he didn’t win. What a great tenth anniversary. I’m crying right now remembering. How wonderful.
How proud where you that night?
Oh really, it was just great. I put a sign out on the front porch. You’ve seen photographs of it: “George Strait: Male Vocalist of the Year. I told you so – Kent Finlay”
Who came to the anniversary party that night?
Oh, I guess everybody did. All the guys from the band were there. It was a big, exciting celebration. How could it have been any better? It was the tenth anniversary and George wins Male Vocalist of the Year.
Did George come back and play Cheatham after that?
Well, that was ’85. By ’85, they were so busy on the road, and they were the hardest working band in the world. At first they had a motorhome and just ran the wheels off it and then finally they got a bus. They were out there all the time, 250 nights of the year out there, playing and selling those records, getting themselves up that ladder.
Did you stay in touch when he was out there on the road and see him play?
Sure. I went to see them play Austin City Limits and things like that. I just couldn’t have been prouder. It was great. George is great.
Explain George’s longevity as a performer.
It’s because he’s so good and partly because he didn’t fall in the trap so many people do and get swallowed up by the business. George kept control. He and Erv kept control of George’s career and he didn’t ever go move to Nashville. He didn’t ever start getting too encumbered with the Nashville music business and music business sometimes has a way of building someone and then destroying them as quickly as they build them. George has stayed aloof from all of that and he did it from Texas. That’s a big part. Plus, he’s just so good. I mean, how are you going to stop George Strait? He’s just damned good. It’s like, how do you stop Willie Nelson? Now, Willie’s career got swallowed up by the music business early on and he had to move to Texas and become Willie. George always has been George. He’s just lived a straight-ahead honest life. Not only is he a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but also he’s in the Cowboy Hall of Fame for roping.
You saw him last at his San Antonio show of his farewell tour in 2013. Tell me about that.
Well, there were 70-something thousand people there. Everyone was just eating right out of his hand. George was playing to every one of us like he was standing on the stage at Cheatham Street, talking about our first trip to Nashville and starting at Cheatham Street. I mean, he didn’t have to give credit like that, but he did. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that a good thing? I’m just so proud of George. I knew he was going to be a big, big star from the beginning. I told everyone. I’m really happy he didn’t make a liar out of me.