When enumerating the greatest country songs of all time, it’s without a doubt that “Amarillo By Morning” must be near the top. And like all of the greatest country songs and performances, the song hasn’t become exposed or dated as time has gone on. “Amarillo By Morning” has only grown better and more important over time.
On January 14th, 1983, George Strait released the song as the third single from his second album Strait from the Heart. The album had already birth’s Strait’s first ever #1 song in “Fool Hearted Memory,” and he would score another #1 with the fourth single from the album “A Fire I Can’t Put Out.” “Amarillo By Morning” was a hit as well, but surprisingly, it wasn’t one of Strait’s record number of #1s. It stalled at #4.
Though “Amarillo By Morning” is synonymous with George Strait, he wasn’t the first to record it. And like many of his biggest hits, Strait didn’t write it either. Terry Stafford was a singer and songwriter who grew up and lived in Amarillo, and had the huge hit in 1964 with the Elvis-inspired “Suspicion.” He got the idea for the song after performing at a rodeo in San Antonio with his band, and then driving back to his home in Amarillo afterwards.
“Amarillo By Morning” drew further inspiration from another and more unlikely place: a FedEx commercial. At the time, the parcel carrier was bragging how it could “get your package to places like Amarillo by the next morning.” At the time, the Texas panhandle town was synonymous with the middle of nowhere for many people in America (and it still is for many). Being from Amarillo, it piqued Terry Stafford’s ear.
Simultaneously, Terry Stafford also happened to be writing a movie score with fellow songwriter Paul Fraser. When Stafford got the idea for “Amarillo By Morning,” he called Fraser up, and the two agreed they’d try to write the song together the next morning. But feeling inspired by the idea, Paul Fraser sat down at his kitchen table that night, and basically wrote out “Amarillo By Morning” in about an hour. The two songwriters met the next morning, and the song was finalized.
Recording the song in 1973 at Jack Clement’s Recording Spa in Nashville, Terry Stafford’s version took on a decidedly pop version of country, with a lush arrangement complete with xylophone and chorus singers—far from the rugged and Western version George Strait would record nearly a decade later. Terry Stafford’s version didn’t do terrible. It peaked at #31 on the Billboard country chart, which showed the song’s promise, but didn’t spoil it as something someone else could record later.
Before George Strait went into the studio with the song, Chris LeDoux also covered “Amarillo By Morning” in 1975 as he was making big strides on the rodeo circuit as an independent artist. But it’s was George Strait’s decidedly neotraditional version that became the definitive one, with the fiddle start off and the mournful fiddle ending, and George Strait communicating the lonesomeness and despondency the song looks to capture perfectly.
“They took my saddle in Houston, broke my leg in Santa Fe. Lost my wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way. Well, I’ll be looking for eight when they pull that gate. And I hope that judge ain’t blind. Amarillo by morning, Amarillo’s on my mind…”
Like many of the greatest songs in country music, it’s not just what George Strait sings. It’s the emotion that the song evokes—how it inspires a mood unlike anything else where you can almost feel exactly what that lonesome cowboy must have felt as he was driving through the night. The inspiration for “Amarillo By Morning” may have been a bit matter-of-fact, but that’s not how the song comes across.
Many love to chide George Strait for not writing many of his signature songs, but “Amarillo By Morning” in many ways proves Strait’s worth. Even if he didn’t write ’em, he sure could pick ’em, and as he was just starting his career as an artist who wanted to re-instill the roots back into country music, “Amarillo By Morning” was the perfect composition for him to hit out of the park.
Even though “Amarillo By Morning” never hit #1, the momentum of the song only grew over time. It’s Strait’s only single from the 80s to be certified Double Platinum. On streaming services, it’s either Strait’s 1st or 2nd most streamed song. And 40 years after it was released, “Amarillo By Morning” is as relevant and resonant as it ever was. That’s how you know you’ve got a great song—when it withstands the test of time.