It was one of the biggest tragedies to ever befall a major country music star. But it’s also one that’s rarely ever talked about, and we have so little background on. To lose a son or daughter in a tragic accident is one of those life-altering events that stays with a person forever. To have it happen right as your career is beginning to reach its peak would probably knock many performers off their axis. But the way George Strait processed and approached the tragedy carried a lot of wisdom behind it, and had major implications on the performer and personality we know as “King” George today.
On October 6th, 1972, George Strait and his wife Norma welcomed their first child into the world named Jenifer, spelled with just one ‘n’. Strait was barely 20-years-old himself at the time, and had eloped with his high school sweetheart Norma Voss to Mexico in December of the previous year. He’d also enlisted in the United States Army as an infantryman, and was eventually shipped off to the Pacific to be stationed in Hawaii. This is where Jenifer was born.
Originally from the tiny town of Poteet, Texas south of San Antonio, after Strait was discharged from the Army in 1975, he moved to San Marcos where he studied at Southwest Texas State, which is now called Texas State University. This is also where he formed his Ace in the Hole Band, and started performing in nearby venues such as the Cheatham Street Warehouse, and the legendary Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.
Throughout the late 70s and into the early 80s, George Strait regularly traveled to Nashville to try and land a record deal, eventually signing to MCA Records and recording albums there. But San Marcos is where Strait continued to reside, raising his young family away from the spotlight and the bustle of the music business in Nashville.
George Strait landed his first #1 hit in 1982 with “Fool Hearted Memory,” and then a few more in 1983 and 1984 with songs like “You Look So Good in Love,” and “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together.” In 1985 he earned his first ever #1 album with Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, and was also awarded the CMAs Male Vocalist of the Year award. By 1986, George Strait had ascended from a outsider from Texas to one of the biggest artists in all of country music. Things could not be going better in his career. That is when tragedy struck.
On June 25, 1986, Jenifer Strait was riding around San Marcos with a couple of friends in a Ford Mustang. 13-years-old at the time, she was with 16-year-old William Allen McDonald, 17-year-old Joseph Wiley Robbins, and 18-year-old Gregory Wilson Allen, who was driving. At about 11:55 pm, Allen turned sharply onto a side road, causing the car to skid and flip, and eventually land on its top in a ditch.
The driver, Gregory Wilson Allen, walked away from the incident and was unhurt. William Allen McDonald and Joseph Wiley Robbins both suffered minor injuries, were treated at a local hospital, and released. Jenifer Strait though, she was partially ejected from the vehicle during the crash, and eventually died at the scene. None of the occupants had been wearing seat belts.
Gregory Wilson Allen was eventually charged with Class A vehicular homicide in connection with the death of Jenifer Strait. An investigation determined that an excessive rate of speed contributed to the accident, but that alcohol was not a factor. A funeral service was held at the First United Methodist Church in San Marcos, TX, with Jenifer Strait eventually being buried in Pearsall, TX.
The death of Jenifer Strait was an unspeakable tragedy for George Strait and his family. They set up the Jenifer Lynn Strait Foundation, which donates money to children’s charities in the San Antonio area. And due to the tragedy, George Strait made a major career decision that he’s stuck to ever since, and significantly affects how we perceive the country legend: he rarely to never gives interviews.
Strait was already a very private person. That was one of the many reasons he chose to stay in San Marcos even as his career exploded. Facing the prospect of always being bombarded with questions about the tragedy, George Strait decided to just not grant any interviews at all afterwards. At a time before the Internet when magazine interviews and radio station appearances were the primary way an artist promoted themselves, this was a risky move. In one of the few interviews George Strait did grant in 2017 with The New Yorker, he said,
“I just didn’t feel like talking about it, so I quit…I did want to keep singing, absolutely. But I was at the point where I’m [like], ‘Alright, if this is going to cost me my career, then so be it, but it’s the only way I’m going to be able to cope with it.’ It just kind of turned out the way it did. It wasn’t an intentional thing.”
George Strait let the music speak for itself, and it spoke volumes. Between 1986 and 1989, amid the tragedy and in its aftermath, Strait racked up eleven consecutive #1 singles, which at that time in country music was virtually unheard of. He also was awarded the CMA Entertainer of the Year in both 1989 and 1990. One of those #1 singles was the song “Baby Blue.” Though it has never been officially confirmed, it is believed George Strait recorded and sang the song in memory of his daughter Jenifer. The song was written by Aaron Barker, and co-produced by Strait with Jimmy Bowen.
Jenifer Strait would have turned 50-years-old today, October 6th, 2022. George Strait also has a son, George Strait Jr., who he affectionately calls “Bubba.” They commonly write songs together these days. But it’s unquestionable that the death of Jenifer Strait just as his career started to peak affected George Strait in ways that are hard to measure. When you think of George Strait, you think of that calm, steady, reserved and stoic hand on the wheel. Perhaps if it wasn’t for the death of Jenifer, he may have been a bit less inhibited and a bit more outspoken.
But to get through the tragedy of losing his daughter, George Strait had to be the rock for his family, and that’s how he became the rock for country music. As the “Class of ’89” came about with guys like Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt, George Strait remained composed, and country. And that is also how he became known as the current “King” of country music.