With his aw-shucks manner, neatly pressed shirts and handsome, clean-shaven face, George Strait would have been a perfect hero in those old grade-B Westerns. This country singer, who appears tonight at the Golden West in Gardena, is generally credited, along with John Anderson and Ricky Skaggs, with keeping alive the sound of "real, honest country music."
Strait's own heroes are traditionalists like Merle Haggard and George Jones--guys who look as if they never had a good day in their lives. But Strait, 32, looks as if he never had a bad one.
"I guess a Mr. Clean image is better to have than the other side of the coin," Strait said with a drawl and a gentle laugh in a phone interview from a tour stop in Palo Alto. "I'm not at all upset with that. It's the way that I want to be. That's the kind of person I am--offstage, too."
Strait has been a steady presence on the country charts since "Unwound," his first single for MCA in 1981. Strait's hits, including "Fool-Hearted Memory" and "A Fire I Can't Put Out," almost always find him in the role of a brokenhearted character who just can't forget. Strangely, it hadn't occurred to him that the heartache of lost love is his favorite subject.
"I wasn't even aware of that," said Strait, who seldom writes his own material. "It must be coincidental, because I'm not doing it intentionally.
"If you stop and think about it, my singles are about the broken hearts and drinkin' and stuff like that. Those are things that happen to people all the time and, I don't know, I guess that just makes a good country song."
Though he sang with some garage-style rock bands in his teen-age years, Strait, born in Poteet, Tex., didn't get serious about music until he married Norma, his high school sweetheart, and joined the Army in 1971. Stationed in Hawaii, he learned guitar and sang in the commanding officer's country band.
Back in Texas, he formed the Ace in the Hole Band and spent the next several years playing clubs, weddings and private parties.
He came "very close" to quitting a few times, but Strait admits that the bluesy twist in his vocals comes more from imitation than suffering. "I certainly paid my share of the dues. My band was together, I guess, eight years before I signed with MCA--playing about four hours a night.
"In honky-tonks you get a lot of experience singing. I wasn't singing original songs, but more or less what people wanted to hear from the radio. They wanted to hear it sound as much like the song on the radio as it could. So if I did a Merle Haggard song, I'd try to sing it just like Merle Haggard. Or Hank Williams or George Jones, or whoever. I guess my style kind of developed out of that."
If the hard road up didn't warp him, strait isn't about to let the ride on top destroy him either. Female fans may sometimes rip at his clothes, but George keeps his shirt on his back and his feet on the ground by limiting his tours to relatively short trips. In the middle of them, he frequently flies back to his home near San Marcos, Tex., to be with his family (he has a daughter, 12, and a son, 3).
"I try not to take all this too serious," he said of his popularity. "I don't look at myself as a big star. I do worry about it a lot. When you've got two buses out on the road, and 13 people, it's a lot of responsibility. "Time with my family is important. We have two days off here in L.A., and I'll spend them at home. We used to take longer tours in just one bus, but the last time we did, we were about to kill each other by the end. I just don't see how people can go out on the road for three months at a time anymore."