While a student at Southwest Texas University (now Texas State University), Tom Foote put a notice on a bulletin board looking for a singer to fill out the country band he played drums in.
The favored respondent was a young Texan, fresh from service in the Army, with a devout love of traditional country music. His name was George Strait. Thus began Foote's 35-year alliance — initially as a drummer in what became Strait's Ace in the Hole Band, and then, for more than a quarter-century, as road manager — with one of the most enduring country artists of his generation.
"We were a bunch of kids back then," Foote said. "I was 23 and I think George was 24, maybe. We were playing local beer joints and dance halls and really did that for the better part of six years until he got his record deal with MCA. In fact, until George had his record deal, we had never played outside of Texas. It was a really great time. Some of my favorite memories were when we first started."
The picture, needless to say, became a bit larger for Strait and Foote over the years. The singer has scored more than 50 No. 1 country music hits, issued more than 25 albums (excluding anthologies and concert recordings) and retained a position as one of country's most bankable touring artists. And he has done it all by holding fast to a sense of tradition born out of inspiration absorbed in the music of Merle Haggard and fellow Texan Bob Wills.
"Our band started at the tail end of the first big wave of Texas music," Foote said. "It was when Jerry Jeff Walker was big and when Willie (Nelson) moved back to Texas. But the interesting thing was that George kind of missed a lot of that because he was in the Army and away from Texas. So when we met George, he was very traditional. We played a lot of Merle songs, a lot of Bob Wills and some of the older Ronnie Milsap shuffles.
"That was really George's background. In fact, there were a lot of places that wouldn't hire us back then because we insisted on being so traditional. We were really a dance band. We didn't measure crowd reaction by how much they applauded. You were hired by a lot of these dance halls and clubs to fill the dance floors. If you get a crowd dancing, you get them drinking beer. There was always a direct correlation."
Of course, Strait makes up only half of the star power that will be packed into Rupp Arena on Friday night. He will share the bill with another long-standing country music celebrity, Reba McEntire — who, professionally, is billed as simply "Reba" these days. Foote has many fond memories of tours Strait and McEntire have shared over the years, even though they haven't been co-billed for a full tour in some time.
"I had to remind Reba that it had been almost 15 years since we toured with her. I like to say that we sort of grew up in the business together. Her first (record) deal was in '79 and ours was in '81. And she came over to MCA (Strait's record label for his entire career) in '82 or '83. So she and George were label mates for the better part of 25 years.
"She is one of the few contemporaries that have managed to maintain a major career for as long as George has. I mean, you're talking, between the two of them, about artists responsible for between 85 and 90 No. 1 records.
"But from a personal standpoint, we knew Reba way back when. One of my favorite tours was when Reba was opening and we were the middle act with Conway Twitty headlining. We toured like that for a year and a half."
Foote's extensive tenure with Strait — he switched roles from drummer to road manager about 1983 ("to be honest, I wasn't that great of a drummer") — has allowed him to watch the rise of another favored female singer, fellow Texan Lee Ann Womack. She will open Friday night's show at Rupp Arena.
"Lee Ann and Patty Loveless (a native of Eastern Kentucky) are two of my favorite female country singers of all time," Foote said. "They're kind of No. 1 and No. 1a — among the people I've been exposed to. We've known Lee Ann since she started. She has the same manager as George, and we share some of the same technical people.
"We've had everybody and their brother tour with us over the years. We always prided ourselves on making sure that they were treated right and that they had a good experience touring with us. Early on, that wasn't always the case when we were opening for people.
"With Reba, it's just a whole different deal. Just the fact that she has one name kind of says it all. But I enjoy all our tours because I just truly enjoy touring."