George Strait is one of the highest-selling musicians in the world, but unlike many artists, he’s a very private person. For him to even grant an interview is a fairly uncommon occurrence, and his TV appearances are even rarer. Consequently, many fans of his music may be unaware of the tragic accident that marred the lives of his family.
Interestingly, Strait never really intended to be a country music star at all; instead, he just wanted to be a regular family man. Music was, however, part of his life since early childhood. He listened to The Beatles as a schoolboy before being turned on to the popular country music stars of the day. And growing up in Texas, he frequently attended live performances.
Then in the winter of 1971 he eloped to Mexico with his high school sweetheart, Norma, and married her. She gave birth to a daughter, Jenifer, in 1972. And by then, Strait had signed up with the U.S. Army and was performing in an army band called Rambling Country. Gradually, he was honing his talents.
In 1975 Strait was honourably discharged from the army. However, it would still be a while before he hit it big in the music industry. He subsequently gained a degree in agriculture from Texas State University, and while studying, he formed a music group there called the Ace in the Hole Band. But, although the band were good, Strait still had to work on his family’s ranch to make ends meet.
Strait did go in search of a record deal for the Ace in the Hole Band, but he constantly came up empty-handed. Luckily, he had his own ace in the hole – bar manager Erv Woolsey, who had once worked for MCA Records. And just as Strait was on the verge of putting his guitar away for good, MCA offered him a contract.
In 1981 – the same year in which his son Bubba was born – Strait released “Unwound,” his debut single for MCA. It was an instant success, too, making it to number six on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The singer soon followed that up with Strait Country, his debut album, and by the following year he was a rising star.
Gradually, the whole of the U.S. became aware of Strait’s considerable talents. Indeed, during 1983 and 1984 he enjoyed five consecutive Hot Country Songs number one hit singles. And come 1985, he picked up the “Male Vocalist of the Year” CMA award and released a greatest hits collection. Tragically, however, a devastating event lay just around the corner.
Just before midnight on June 25, 1986, Jenifer Strait was riding in a Ford Mustang with her friends when the 18-year-old driver – who was breaking the speed limit and trying to take a turn too quickly – flipped the car over. Jenifer, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was killed almost instantly. She was just 13 years old.
The car driver, Gregory Wilson Allen, was consequently charged with vehicular homicide. Meanwhile, Jenifer’s family were, naturally, overcome with grief. And although Strait attended the CMAs later the same year to pick up another Male Vocalist of the Year award – which he dedicated to Jenifer – he then almost entirely cut off contact with the media.
Strait did, however, channel some of his grief into something else: the Jenifer Strait Memorial Foundation. Every year the foundation donates money to children’s shelters and charities in the San Antonio, Texas, area, with the aim of helping youngsters who are homeless, parentless or abused. To this day, in fact, Strait puts proceeds towards it.
In this day and age it’s rare for celebrities not to speak out about personal tragedies. But Strait has always tried to avoid going into detail when talking to the media about his grief. “I got real private after I lost my daughter,” Strait once explained to the magazine Country Weekly. “I really shut things down.”
But he didn’t necessarily bottle his feelings up entirely. Instead, it seems that he expressed his grief through his music. In 1988 – just two years after his daughter’s death – Strait released a song called “Baby Blue.” It is about a blue-eyed girl who is gone from the narrator’s life, leaving him with only memories.
Although Strait has never confirmed that “Baby Blue” is about his daughter, fans believe it’s likely that she was the inspiration. The lyrics “Like a breath of spring, she came and left/And I still don’t know why” definitely seem to speak of a sense of grief. What’s more, the lines “When she taught me how to care, I never cared so much” imply that the narrator is talking about one of the most important people in his life.
What is certain is that as the years passed, Strait never fell from his position as the King of Country. Indeed, all through the ’90s he pulled off career success after career success. He released a movie, won three more Male Vocalist of the Year awards and achieved another 18 Hot Country Songs number one hits. But in 2005 he wrote a new song which indicated that his grief over his daughter was still present.
That song was called “You’ll Be There.” It has heavy religious overtones – Strait has always been a devoted Christian – and one clear message. The narrator believes that someone is waiting for them in heaven and is keen to one day join them there. It is a sad but hopeful song.
And though it took a couple of years, Strait eventually confirmed what people had assumed: the song is about Jenifer. In a 2007 interview with USA Weekend, he revealed his true thoughts. “I’m a religious person. I honestly believe we will see each other in heaven someday,” he said.
Strait’s grief has obviously been a long and painful process, yet it seems that, gradually, he’s come to terms with his emotions. And at no time was this better illustrated than in an interview he gave in the summer of 2013, at a time when multiple families across the U.S. were still coming to terms with a tragedy that shook the world.
In the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, 26 people, mostly children, were killed. For Strait, it brought back memories of his own loss. “After watching the tragic news coverage, I was thinking, ‘I know what these parents are going through,’” Strait said in a video posted on his YouTube channel in 2013. “It’s just the worst thing that can happen to you in your life, to lose a child. There’s nothing worse than that.”
So, after speaking with his son, Strait began working on a new song, called “I Believe.” It is in a similar vein to “You’ll Be There,” as it talks about death, heaven and reunion. And although Strait was uncertain about whether to release the song, as he didn’t know how the bereaved families would take it, in the end it was a big success.
No one should ever have to go through the pain of losing a child, yet Strait has managed to express his grief in ways that could inspire others. The manner in which he’s articulated his emotions over the years, be it in songs or interviews, will hopefully be of comfort to others who are enduring similarly difficult times.