It was one of the greatest tragedies ever for a major country music star. But it’s also a topic that is rarely talked about, and we have so little information about it. Losing a son or daughter in a tragic accident is one of those life-changing events that sticks in a person’s memory forever. To have this happen as your career begins to hit its peak would likely derail many performers. But the way George Strait handled and approached the tragedy held great wisdom and had major implications for the performer and personality we know today as “King” George.
On October 6, 1972, George Strait and his wife Norma welcomed their first child into the world named Jenifer, spelled with a single ‘n’. Strait himself was barely 20 at the time and had eloped with his high school girlfriend Norma Voss to Mexico in December of the previous year. He had also enlisted in the US Army as an infantryman and was eventually sent to the Pacific to be stationed in Hawaii. This is where Jenifer was born.
Originally from the small town of Poteet, Texas, south of San Antonio, after Strait was discharged from the military in 1975, he moved to San Marcos where he studied at Southwest Texas State, now called Texas State University. It was also where he formed his Ace in the Hole Band and began performing at nearby venues such as the Cheatham Street Warehouse and the legendary Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, George Strait traveled regularly to Nashville in an attempt to land a recording contract, 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 bustle of the Nashville music industry.
George Strait landed his first No. 1 hit in 1982 with “Fool Hearted Memory,” followed by 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 won his very first No. 1 album with Does Fort Worth cross your mind, and also received the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year award. By 1986, George Strait had gone from a Texas underdog to one of the greatest artists in all of country music. Things couldn’t have gone better in his career. That’s when tragedy struck.
On June 25, 1986, Jenifer Strait was driving around San Marcos with a couple of friends in a Ford Mustang. Aged 13 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 approximately 11:55 p.m., Allen turned sharply onto a side road, causing the car to skid and flip, and eventually land on its roof in a ditch.
The driver, Gregory Wilson Allen, drove away from the incident and was uninjured. William Allen McDonald and Joseph Wiley Robbins both suffered minor injuries, were treated at a local hospital and released. However, Jenifer Strait was partially ejected from the vehicle during the accident and ultimately died at the scene. None of the occupants were wearing seat belts.
Gregory Wilson Allen was ultimately charged with homicide while driving a Class A vehicle in connection with the death of Jenifer Strait. An investigation determined that excessive speed contributed to the crash, but alcohol was not a factor. A funeral service was held at First United Methodist Church in San Marcos, TX, and Jenifer Strait was finally buried in Pearsall, TX.
Jenifer Strait’s death was an indescribable tragedy for George Strait and his family. They started the Jenifer Lynn Strait Foundation, which donates money to children’s charities in the San Antonio area. And because of the tragedy, George Strait made a major career decision that he’s been attached to ever since, and drastically affects how we view the country legend: He rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
Strait was already a very private person. It was one of the many reasons he chose to stay at San Marcos even as his career skyrocketed. Faced with the prospect of still being bombarded with questions about the tragedy, George Strait decided not to give any more interviews at all afterwards. In a time before the Internet, when magazine interviews and radio appearances were the primary means of promoting an artist, this was a risky move. In one of the few interviews George Strait gave in 2017 with the new yorkerhe said,
“I just didn’t want to talk about it, so I stopped… I absolutely wanted to continue singing. But I was at the point where I am [like], ‘Okay, if it’s going to cost me my career, so be it, but it’s the only way I can deal with it.’ It kind of happened that way. It wasn’t an intentional thing.”
George Strait let the music speak for itself, and it spoke volumes. Between 1986 and 1989, amid tragedy and its aftermath, Strait racked up eleven consecutive No. 1 singles, which at the time in country music was virtually unheard of. He also received the CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1989 and 1990. One of those No. 1 singles was the song “Baby Blue”. Although it has never been officially confirmed, it is believed that 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 today, October 6, 2022. George Strait also has a son, George Strait Jr., whom he affectionately calls “Bubba.” They often write songs together these days. But there’s no denying that the death of Jenifer Strait just as her career was beginning 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, stoic hand on the steering wheel. Maybe if it hadn’t been for Jenifer’s death, he might have been a little less inhibited and a little more outspoken.
But to get through the tragedy of losing his daughter, George Strait had to be the rock of his family, and that’s how he became the rock of country music. While the “class of 89” was born with guys like Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt, George Strait remained calm and country. And that’s also how he became known as the current “King” of country music.