The Digital Journalist
Selected photos from Michael O'Brien's The Face of Texas.
© Michael O'Brien

George Strait - More than two decades ago, George Strait was on the verge of abandoning his dream of a music career and signing on, instead, with a company that designed cattle pens. But Norma, his wife, intervened: she encouraged him to turn down the job and give music another try. After a few false starts, Strait got his break in 1981, when he recorded a hit single, Unwound, which led, finally, to a record deal with MCA.

Strait sings country music the way it's supposed to be sung with conviction, vulnerability and poignant artistry. His clear, powerful voice delves into pain and heartache with such compelling vocal phrasing and resonant lyricism that mainstream pop radio stations have changed their tune: Strait is second only to Mariah Carey as radio's most played artist during the past five years, and his influence has increased radio play of other more traditional, less pop-influenced country music.

Strait, born on May 18, 1952 in Poteet, Texas, "The Strawberry Capital of the World," is considered the class act of country music. Handsome, courteous and refined, he has earned a reputation as a gentleman and country artist of the highest order. The singer, whose inspirations included country legends Bob Wills and Merle Haggard, has amassed more Country Music Association nominations than any singer in history. He has been Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year; and he has collected a staggering 47 No. 1 singles. He has sold some 57 million records; and has 25 platinum records to his credit more than any other country artist in history. His four-disc retrospective, Strait Out of the Box, is the biggest-selling boxed set in country music history. His final concert at the Houston Astrodome in the spring of 2002 drew a record crowd of 68,266.

Strait grew up near Poteet on his family's 2,000-acre cattle ranch in Pearsall, TX, near the Frio River; the ranch has been in the family for a century. He studied agriculture briefly at Southwest Texas State University, and then eloped with his high school sweetheart, Norma Voss, the woman to whom he is still married. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Army, planning to resume to his education - - and the ranching life - - when he returned. It was during his stint in Hawaii, where he was stationed, that he began his music career: he bought a cheap guitar and a Hank Williams songbook and auditioned for lead singer in an Army-sponsored band. Rambling Country, which was formed by Strait's base commander to entertain the troops, immediately began to garner attention.

When he returned to Texas, Strait - - a genuine cowboy who learned to ride horses and rope cows before he handled a guitar - - re-enrolled at Southwest Texas State on the G.I. bill, eventually earning his agriculture degree. He also joined a band, Ace in the Hole, which developed a passionate local following. To supplement his music income, he worked as a ranch manager. It was on that ranch in San Marcos when he first heard his song, Unwound, playing on the radio.