Music News & Reviews

George Strait's Ace in the Hole

George Strait will perform with Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack on Feb. 19 at Intrust Bank Arena.
George Strait will perform with Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack on Feb. 19 at Intrust Bank Arena. Courtesy photo

"Country band looking for singer" was all it said, with a phone number.

From that piece of torn paper stuck on a 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."

Thirty-four years later, Strait, 57, 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 touring group in country music.

Tonight, Strait and the band — along with country singers Reba McEntire and LeeAnn Womack — will perform just the second concert at Intrust Bank Arena. It opened last month with a country concert headlined by Brad Paisley.

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 1994.

"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 is my chance to find out.' "

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 near there.

"He had the ambition to be what he is now," Daily said, "so he decided to give the music business one more shot."

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, Woolsey returned to his job at MCA Nashville, where he persuaded the other execs to sign the singer. 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.

Ace in the Hole Band's current members

Terry Hale, bass

Mike Daily, steel guitar

Ronnie Huckaby, keyboards

Gene Elders, fiddle

Benny McArthur, electric guitar, fiddle

Rick McRae, electric guitar, fiddle

Mike Kennedy, drums

John Michael Whitby, keyboards

Joe Manuel, acoustic guitar

Marty Slayton-Jordan, backing vocals

Thom Flora, backing vocals