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George Strait is standing in one of his favorite arenas, the San Antonio Rose Palace on the outskirts of Texas' fabled Alamo City. It's where every year this singing cowboy showcases his passion for riding and roping by hosting -- and competing in -- his own George Strait Team Roping Classic, which has evolved into a marquee rodeo event. George and his 21-year-old son, George "Bubba" Jr., did well in this year's team roping, which wrapped up just minutes ago.
At the moment, however, standing in the Rose's hoof-pummeled red dirt, George is talking about another arena that played a pivotal role in his life -- the world-famous Astrodome in Houston.
It's where a twist of fate two decades ago helped jump-start the handsome Texan's fledgling country music career into the Big Time.
"I was just getting started with a few records out and things were starting to happen a little bit," recalls George. "But nothing like you'd think would have to happen before they call you to play the Houston Rodeo. I was fortunate."
The Houston Rodeo is today a top-notch performance event for country stars. And in 1983, with an audience already at 35,000, it was attracting the top stars. The headliner that year, Eddie Rabbitt, had made it to Houston, but had laryngitis and couldn't go onstage. Rosanne Cash, Eddie's opening act, covered the matinee performance solo. But the rodeo's management wanted two performers for the evening show, a scant eight hours away.
E.C. "Dick" Weekley, then the rodeo's general manager, was speaking at a seminar that day and mentioned Eddie's cancellation. A booking agent at the seminar, Tony Conway, hurried to a phone and called George's ranch in San Marcos, north of San Antonio.
George's wife, Norma, answered the phone. George, who'd just gotten home from three weeks of road gigs, was out somewhere on the ranch, looking for a lost dog. Conway then called Dan Gattis, the rodeo's assistant manager.
"I remember saying, 'Who in the world is George Strait?' " explains Gattis. But his secretary knew who the singer was and said, 'Get him!' " She then told the rodeo exec about George's hits, such as "Fool Hearted Memory" and "Marina Del Rey."
Meanwhile, George had been found. And now he was discussing with his manager, Erv Woolsey, this chance of a lifetime, one that had seemingly appeared out of the clear blue sky.
"I started calling the band members," notes George, "and I was lucky enough to get hold of everybody. They sent an airplane for us. We jumped on and flew to Houston."
A police escort got them to the Astrodome in time for the concert, but there was no time to rehearse.
"About 30 minutes later we were onstage," declares George. "I didn't know what to expect. The crowd was unbelievable. And I was really, really nervous. I'd played the bars and honky-tonks, but I never saw a crowd that large."
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