The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
Truthfully, it’s easiest to name the George Strait singles that didn’t become No. 1 hits. And there’s one in particular that stands as a galling omission from Strait’s Hall of Fame.
That would be “Amarillo By Morning,” a song about the loneliness and restlessness that accompanies the cowboy lifestyle, conceived in an era where country music – caught somewhere in an identity crisis of crossover success, traditionalism and an outlaw revolution – made room for a revived interest in cowboy music.
Both of the song’s writers, however, stemmed from completely different backgrounds than what it might suggest. Terry Stafford, an Amarillo native, was initially a rock ‘n’ roll artist. He made his debut in 1964 with “Suspicion,” a hit in part because people thought it was an Elvis Presley song (and it was – an album cut, though). As he faded from the rock scene trying to follow-up that hit record, Stafford turned to his roots for inspiration. He based his operation out of California, but Stafford, in addition to writing for other acts, also worked in film and television roles as an actor. Buck Owens, in fact, took Stafford’s “Big In Vegas” to the top of the charts in 1969, prompting Stafford to consider a move toward country music. By 1973, he made his way to Nashville.
Around the time Stafford signed a deal with Atlantic, another writer and former rocker (as well as the other writer for this particular song), Paul Fraser, was offered a chance to earn a draw from songwriting. Desperate and in need of money at the time, he teamed up with Stafford to write songs.
Ironically enough, “Amarillo By Morning” might have ended up as a musical score for a movie. That’s what the two had in mind, at least, when they started it. One night, Stafford caught a commercial for a delivery service with the tagline, “get your packages to places like Amarillo by the next morning,” prompting him to work, instead, with that concept. While the two writers had planned to meet later to further discuss the new idea, Fraser, in a newfound streak of inspiration, sat down at his kitchen table and wrote the song in around an hour. Stafford liked the finished product, and his version of the song was now on the market.
Of course, sometimes there’s a difference between a writer and a performer, and Stafford, shy as he was, didn’t want to commit to working live crowds should the tune have taken off; he would have rather stayed home to write more songs. His version – backed by copious amounts of pedal steel over Strait’s eventual fiddle-driven version – peaked at No. 31 on the charts and remained a small hit … at least in Nashville. Down in Texas, the song was a huge regional success, played by every cover band imaginable in the clubs and dance halls, including by a young Strait and his band.
In a way, the two writers shared a kindred spirit with him. Strait was a rancher’s son who learned the way of a cowboy early on in life, and like Stafford and Fraser, Strait didn’t immediately gravitate toward country music. He found inspiration from the 1960s British Invasion and played in a number of garage bands in high school. After he signed up for the U.S. Army, Strait, then stationed in Hawaii, found his country music passion. He auditioned for a slot as singer in an army base in 1973 and immediately absorbed music from Hank Williams, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. After his stint was over, Strait went back home, enrolled at Southwest Texas State University, and formed his Ace In The Hole band, which strictly played country music. Pappy Dailey, the person responsible for giving Jones his first break, owned a Houston record label, where Strait cut “Ace In The Hole,” inspired by his band. The record did well in Texas, of course, but upon seeing it fail in Nashville, Strait considered prematurely ending his music career.
But that didn’t happen. Erv Woolsey, who managed a club where Strait once played, had become a promotions executive at MCA Records. He managed to get Strait an audition, though the label questioned if his kind of music would work for modern mainstream country music audiences. Even after notching hits with “Unwound” and “Fool Hearted Memory,” record executives at MCA still insisted that Strait should drop his honky-tonk swing sound in favor of something more contemporary. Strait refused, so for a compromise, MCA agreed to let Strait record “Amarillo By Morning” and release it as a single if Strait agreed to cut “Marina Del Rey” first. The latter reached No. 6 on the charts; the former, which MCA fully expected to fail, reached No. 4, becoming a huge Lone Star anthem. With Strait’s “victory,” he now had the freedom to record what he wanted, which, at least for that time, was a traditional form of country music that skeptics thought had died long ago. “Bob Wills Is Still The King” may have been a hit a decade earlier for Waylon Jennings, but its message felt more timely for Strait’s era, where western-swing was cool again thanks to a couple of old rockers and a commercial for the ‘80s version of Amazon.