Never mind BC and AD. In terms of country music history, it’s more like BG and AG: Before and After George. Difficult as it is to imagine a time when he was new on the scene, we’re turning the clock back to 1981, when George Strait arrived with his debut album, Strait Country.
Ace in the hole
After growing up on a cattle ranch and being steeped in country music as a youth, George Harvey Strait got married young in 1971 and joined the US Army the same year. During his subsequent, delayed college years of the later 70s, the country wannabe paid his dues on the stages of his home state of Texas, notably with the Ace In The Hole Band.
Strait released three unsuccessful independent singles between 1976 and 1979, but, as so often, all roads led to Nashville. If they seemed at first to be cul de sacs – or, at best, detours into other jobs to pay the rent – he finally landed a tentative, one-song deal with MCA early in 1981.
That song was “Unwound,” written by Frank Dycus and Strait’s fellow-unknown Dean Dillon. They could never have dreamed what they were starting. Released on April 23, the song’s old-school feel, with prominent fiddle and pedal steel, began to attract programmers who were knee-deep in the crossover “urban cowboy” styles of the day. Here was a new artist, albeit one approaching his 29th birthday, who would rather update the sound of heroes such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck than pretend to be a Tennessee popster.
Dycus and Dillon had, indeed, written “Unwound” for Paycheck, but as has frequently been reported, the longtime star was in jail at the key moment. Of all the fateful incidents in country history, the writers were encouraged to give it to an anonymous hopeful. The song wound up at No.6, Strait landed a full contract and Dillon went on to be a prolific contributor to George’s vast index of hits. The pair continue to work together to this day: six of the songs on 2019’s chart-topping Honky Tonk Time Machine are Dean co-writes, all with the star and his son George, Jr, otherwise known as “Bubba.”
‘Putting his own warmth and shadings into lyrics’
By early July 1981, Billboard was raving about the newcomer with the debut hit. Its Nashville Scene column wrote: “MCA may have itself a potential new superstar in George Strait, judging from his recent Fan Fair and Radisson Hotel appearances in Nashville.” The story went on to rave: “He has a way of putting his own warmth and shadings into lyrics, and there are no traces of Texas dust or slang in the way he wraps his voice around a song.”
Strait’s second-ever single, “Down And Out,” another from the Dillon-Dycus songbook, arrived in late August, a week before the release of his debut album, Strait Country. While it didn’t charm quite as many playlists or fans as its predecessor, the similarly amiable “Down And Out” made No.16 and spent 17 weeks on the Billboard country chart, only one fewer than “Unwound.” A third release, “If You’re Thinking You Want A Stranger (There’s One Coming Home),” kept George on the radio in the new year of 1982, and turned into the biggest hit of the lot, rising to No.3 in a 22-week span.
Released on September 4, 1981, Strait Country entered the country charts on October 3 and built its sales steadily, as its singles converted ever more listeners to the artist’s old-but-new sound. Even though it never went higher than No.26, and didn’t make the all-genre countdown at all, Strait Country spent 57 weeks on the country charts.
The album was still inside the Top 40 when George’s second set, Strait From The Heart, arrived in July 1982. The first record continued to sell, too, turning gold in 1988 and platinum in 1999.
Strait Country fully delivered on the promise of that Billboard review, which concluded: “George Strait represents the new breed of modern-day (forget urban) cowboy: authentic, intelligent, good-humoured, handsome and skilled at more artistic ventures than roping cattle.”
Buy or stream Strait Country.