The members of this solid little country group admit that Southwest Texas University in San Marcos is more of a sideline than their music business. Today, as it was then, music is still first with George Strait's Ace in the Hole Band, and college is a thing of the past for all but Strait and steel guitar player Mike Daily. And graduation is almost upon these two. The popularity of Ace in the Hole was manifest last month as the band celebrated it's third anniversary of existence at the honky-tonk where the band got its start. Kent Finlay's Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. "I think Ace in the Hole is one hell of a band" Finlay said while watching a ant-like stream of students pour into Cheatham Street. "George has all the tools to become a successful recording artist, and all the members of his band are serious about their music. These are the kind of people who eventually succeed in the music business".
In offering a 50 cent admission and a free keg of beer, Finlay insured his favorite band a good anniversary crowd. But the free beer was only icing on the cake, for Ace in the Hole draws Texans with its tight, solid brand of country honky-tonk stomp. Coeds at SWTSU were carrying "Ace in the Hole Anniversary" placards on campus that day of the party and others were displaying gas-filled balloons which floated in the night sky above Cheatham Street Warehouse. Like Finlay, the students and fans of the town were showing their appreciation to a band of hard working musicians.
Strait's name fits the man, for there isn't a straighter looking and shooting young musician in the business. Nor a more dedicated one. And he was letting the hammer down at the anniversary party, playing first one country song and then another as Ace in the Hole believers filled Finlay's dusty and ill-lighted dance floor wall to wall."
That the band has stayed intact to a member is stark evidence that Ace in the Hole means business. And there is no indication that steel player Mike Daily, drummer Tommy Foote, bass player Terry Hale or lead guitarist Ron Cable will do anything other than ride the road with Pearsall native George Strait in the months and years to come. "We will go into the studio to do a album" Strait said. "We cut a single last year that got a little air play here and there and this kinda surprised me. We are inexperienced, but I believe that more work and more time in the studio will pay off for us in the long run. We are paying our dues, and we will continue paying them until something breaks. I've got some original songs that will go on the album, and we also intend to record some of Darrell Staedtler's stuff. Something might come of it. We are going to record at the Sound Masters Studio in Houston. That's where Frenchy Burke and Kenny Dale record. It's a good studio."
Although Strait and Mike Daily still have college courses to attend, Ace in the Hole is for all practical purposes a full time working band. They have regular gigs from San Marcos to Houston to Huntsville to Luckenbach and all points inbetween. And this solid country group is still searching for a solid location closer to San Antonio than their regular stop at Pat Molak's Greune Hall. "We've played San Antonio a few times" Strait said, "but not enough to establish a regular following. And I sure would like to find us a spot. I feel that San Antonio country music fans might like us." And that they would, for Ace in the Hole and George Strait are country musicians fashioned after the style of Moe Bandy. Their country is hard, tight and without frills and many rock licks. There is a marked improvement in the overall sound since last year, and Strait works with a new intensity and confidence, which was lacking when the boys got together. His demeanor is reserved and shy, but his voice is forceful and bell clear.
One of the enduring fantasies many people seem to share is the desire to be a musician of one kind or another. For example, I have always been convinced I am one of the world's greatest vocal talents waiting to be discovered by some sharpie promoter but thus far, only those four shower walls have been treated to my soulful renditions of any number of popular songs.
One thing holding me back is a steadfast refusal to learn any one complete song. As a result, I end up singing the same musical phrases over and over and I must admit (though it pains me) even I get bored with my thwarted attempts at song making. I shudder to think what would happen if I actually ever stepped up to perform for a room full of people. They provide life insurance for just such occasions.
But my own inability to remember songs has always spurred questions in my mind about real musicians, mainly how in God's name do they learn and have at their fingertips so many different numbers? There is no limit to my admiration for the musician who can ask an audience for a request, then actually perform a suggested song. In my opinion, this is the height of competence.
Recently, I realized I had a lot of questions about the life of a musician, so I decided to go Strait to the source., none other than Mr. Show Business himself. Tom Foote one of my old high school friends who plays drums for one of this areas popular bands Ace in the Hole featuring George Strait. My intent was two-fold, to learn about and give Ace in the Hole some publicity and to determine what it's like to be a musician.
For those of you may not know them, Ace in the Hole does indeed feature "George Strait", who many regard as the finest singer to come out of this area in a long long time. Joining him are Ron Cable on lead guitar and vocals, Terry Hale bass and vocals, Mike Daily on steel guitar and of course Foote on drums. I'm no music critic but people like Kent Finlay, Cheatum Street Warehouse owner and fellow songwriter-musician consider them one of the best group of musicians in central Texas.
They play country and western music with a heavy emphasis on Bob Wills type songs. Occasionally they slip into something like a Beatles song, but even these come out with a country beat. Frankly, I'm a city boy and have never taken that much interest in C/W sound. But frequently Cheatum Street the past few months has developed my taste to the point where I really enjoy listening to Ace in the Hole. Evidentially. I am not the only one-they've been drawing big crowds at the warehouse all summer long.
Ace in the Hole formed in October 1975. Ron, Terry, Mike and Tom had been in a group previously but it split up and Tom move to Houston to make his fortune selling radiators. The other three remained in San Marcos, going to SWT and searching around for other musicians interested in getting something started.
George in the meantime was making his way to San Marcos via Hawaii where he was singing in a Army country-western band. After completion of his tour in the military, he hauled his wife and kid here to enroll in school. With music still on his mind, he tacked up a card at the student union building asking anyone interested in forming a group to contact him. Before long Ron, Mike and Terry spotted the notice, arranged a meeting and Ace in the Hole developed from there. On October 13th 1975 they played their first public performance. A few months later in January, Tom dropped everything in Houston an signed on for the duration. I will resist the impulse here to say "The rest is history" and merely point out that they have been playing together ever since and are apparently stronger musically and as an organization today than at any time in the past. This is what we call progress.
According to Foote, in many of the clubs they play, dancing rather than applause is how the audience expresses it's appreciation for the quality of the performance. The key to the bands success in getting people on the dance floor is a combination of the music selected and the energy with which it is played. It also helps "that we truly enjoy what we are doing". Foote said. This feeling radiates from the band to the audience and tends to enhance the enjoyment of both.
Ace in the Hole's repertoire of songs is a vast one. Foote said they no longer keep a song list, but attempt to learn several new ones every two weeks or so. Do they forget songs over a period of time? Yep, Foote, said it happens.
New songs are usually suggested by George or Ron, bases more or less on their own personal taste and what they feel will fit the bands style. The typical progression is this: Say George recommends a song. He in turn will know the words and the chord progression and will pass that on to the band. They get that down, put in whatever flourishes they feel are needed and after a few rehearsals, presto a new song. Sometimes this is done with amazing speed. Recently, Foote said the band learned three new instrumentals in one day. Once in a great while they will try a song for the first time on stage, no practice or rehearsal preceding it. "Redneck Mother" for instance was learned in this manner. it helps that everyone in the band is pretty quick about picking up new songs. Foote said, adding "I am probably the slowest of all". Even Mr. Show Business has his flaws.
Songs that are forgotten are ones that are seldom played. Conversely, there are songs that are played so often that band members will humming them in their graves, ones such as "Night Life" and "Pop a Top". While one does get sick of playing some of the same songs over and over again, each one presents a challenge of trying to play it as well as possible each time, Foote said.
Though Tom said he never gets bored with being a musician, there are moments when things are not all what they are cracked up to be. Traveling and setting up equipment, for instance, gets rather old. Some nights (and this does not happen much anymore) few people show up and at those times when that mutual exchange of energy between audience and musicians is lacking, "You just have to tough it out and play" Tom said.
Constantly dealing with people gets tiresome, too. Musicians are in a precarious position. They seek out and must have the attention of people, otherwise their lives as performers are pretty well over. Nonetheless they are human themselves, so there are times they just don't care to converse with the adoring public. It is at such times that a career of a musician closely parallels that of a politician, complete with handshakes, forced smiles and stilted conversation. Clubs with private rooms where band members may retreat during breaks are highly prized.
Part of the problem in dealing with people is that there are large numbers of people out there that want to be musicians. They do not always keep this fact to themselves, preferring instead to confide in the nearest band member in hopes of gaining his attention. Often, they will ask for auditions, other times advice. After the hundredth time this little scenario is played out, musicians begin to observe it all with jaundice eye. They become adept at inoffensive evasive answers. This is probably one of the hardest parts of being a musician.
Why does one become a musician? For the glory, for the girls, for the hell of it, I guess. The money is ok but only gets real good if you become a big star. One thing that constantly Surprised me during my conversations is the attitude of some women toward musicians. They adore them. They make exotic propositions to them. They long to be in their company. For a married man like George, it creates interesting problems. Lets just say his wife is not very appreciative of all the attention some women pay to her husband. If the situation were reversed and his wife were the musician, "I don't think I could put up with that" George admitted.
The fascination of women for male musicians is intriguing though somewhat baffling. Perhaps there is an emotional aspect of singing songs and playing music with feeling that attracts them. Or maybe it is the Hollywoodish promise of an exciting life amid big stars awaiting a lucky woman who hooks up with a musician. Or maybe it's just the beer and booze. I have always suspected that there is a aspect of power involved somewhere, but who knows.
Anyway, Ace in the Hole has no plans to break up at this point, primarily because they sense growing momentum in their music. Finlay believes they will go on to do much bigger success and definitely predicts George will be a star on the national horizon. "He's the finest singer I have ever seen" Finlay said in a matter of fact voice. In the future, the band intends to start playing more original music written primarily by George and Ron. A recording contract, the goal of any serious group, may fall their way one of these days and they have already released a single record.
The path of any musical group is a hazardous one, filled with politics and pitfalls. The music business today is a cut-throat one simply because there are so many people that want to get into it and so much is at stake. Its accessibility has been raised to mythical status by movies and Tv intent on making common folks into national heroes. Anyone connected to it, though, will tell you how much it takes to become a star. Most people tell about it from point of failure. If Ace in the Hole plays its cards right, maybe they can give us the other side.