"I first came to Nashville around 1977 and at that time I was told I was 'too country,'" says George Strait. "Later on, around 1981, I wasn't 'too country' anymore."
The irony–of a musical scene that changed enough in just a few years to create a climate in which his Texas-flavored, traditional-country twang could take root and thrive–makes him smile. "Funny, ain't it?"
Since then, he's been laughing all the way to the bank-and the top of the charts.
Now, with the release of his new CD, Here For A Good Time, Strait has amassed a pile of 24 chart-topping country albums, celebrated more No. 1 singles (57 and counting) than any other artist in any genre, and been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"It was my dream, and it's still my dream, to go out and make good records and write some great songs," says Strait, 59, whose hits include "Unwound," "Amarillo By Morning" and "The Fireman."
Those musical dreams began rather unceremoniously in 1972 while he was serving in the U.S. Army.
Stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, the Poteet, Texas, native was working as an Army finance clerk when he scraped together enough money to buy a cheap guitar and some old Hank Williams songbooks. He started plunking out country songs, and within a year, his promising talent caught the attention of a fellow serviceman and musician, Walt Peters.
"The commanding general asked me to put together a soldier band," recalls Peters, now 67, retired and living in Savannah, Ga. "I'd already auditioned about 90 guys, and I didn't have the singer I needed. I auditioned George and the first time I heard him sing, I knew he had something."
In 1973, Strait joined Peters' Army-sponsored band, Rambling Country, and began performing regularly at military clubs and wherever fellow troops needed entertaining. Somewhere over the next two years, Strait made a stylistic decision that would in no small part define his image: He put on a cowboy hat.
The look fit perfectly with his affinity for traditional country and Western tunes. "Our little band really helped George develop his sound," Peters says. "It helped to shape it into what you hear today."
Following an honorable discharge from the Army in 1975, Strait and wife Norma–his high school sweetheart and, today, wife of nearly 40 years–returned home to Texas. He enrolled in Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and set about studying agriculture.
But he never stopped dreaming of music, and one day he responded to a campus flyer from a band in need of a singer. It would become the first incarnation of the Ace in the Hole Band. The group, which still backs Strait today, quickly built a regional following in Texas dance halls, and the music business took notice.
His 1981 debut album, Strait Country, reflected the traditional foundation on which he continues to consistently build.
"Early on, however, there were pressures for me to cut crossover-type songs," he says. "It's hard to resist those pressures when you've first got the record deal that you've been dreaming about and don't want to blow it. Thinking back on it now, that's probably exactly what would have happened had I done that."
That same musical integrity has been passed on to Strait's son, Bubba, 30, who helped write seven songs on Strait's new album.
"I'm very proud of Bubba and the fact that he's taken an interest in the music business like his old dad," says Strait, who'll be touring with fellow country hitmaker Martina McBride in support of Here For A Good Time beginning in January. "That's rewarding for me."
Strait's recent hit single, "Here For A Good Time," shares writing credits with Bubba and acclaimed tunesmith Dean Dillon. Strait recalls that the song was his son's idea. "I think it was the first one we wrote," he says. "Dean said, 'Whatya got, Bubba?' He said, 'Well, I like this, [singing] I'm not here for a long time, but I'm here for a good time.' And that's how that one started."
The writing trio also penned the heartfelt "I'll Always Remember You," a love song to fans that reflects Strait's deep appreciation for his admirers and the unwavering support they've given him over the years. He sings, "I'm not saying' I'm through by any means / 'Cause there's still things that I want to say and do / I hope you won't forget me, cause we've shared a lot dreams / And just know that I'll always remember you."
Even for the veteran performer, it's a tough song emotionally to perform. "It's exactly how I feel, and it's hard to sing it," Strait says. "It was hard to do in the studio. I was choking up, and I'm sure it'll be that way on stage, too. It'll be hard, but I just want all my fans to know how much they do mean to me."
It's a genuine reaction from a soft-spoken superstar who's as humble as he is successful.
"I'm no better than anybody else," he says. "I've been very blessed to be able to do what I do."