George Strait Camp Loses Two Beloved Members in the Same Day

The community of players, managers, and personnel around George Strait is a small, close-knit family. It’s been the loyalty and continuity of the George Strait camp for going on 45+ years has placed “King” George at the very pinnacle of the country genre for the lion’s share of that period.

That is why earlier this week, the loss of not just one, but two of Strait’s most loyal and long-serving compadres on the same day created a double dose of tragedy no music community should ever have to endure.

If you want to go back in time and point to one man who was primarily responsible for putting George Strait on the path to country music stardom as a staunch traditionalist from Texas, it would be his manager Erv Woolsey. It all started in 1975 at a bar and dance hall in San Marcos, Texas called The Prairie Rose that Woolsey owned at the time. Immediately impressed by Strait’s voice and his laid-back disposition, he saw a star in the making, and set off to make that happen.

It wasn’t easy though. It would take years for Woolsey to convince MCA of the star power of George Strait. Along with owning clubs, Erv was a promotions man, with deep connections throughout the industry. Before bringing Strait to stardom, Woolsey worked for Decca Records, and later ABC Records, helping to develop the careers of Johnny Rodriguez, Jimmy Buffett, Freddy Fender, and others.

Woolsey was originally from Houston where he was born on February 15th, 1944 and went to college at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University), which happens to be George Strait’s alma mater as well. While in Nashville, Woolsey kept on advocating for Strait. But as the Outlaw era in country dissipated and a new pop era was emerging, Straight was too straight-laced for the Nashville crowd.

It wasn’t until 1981 when Erv Woolsey was an executive at MCA that he had enough muscle to convince the label to take a chance on Strait. At first, they were only allowed to record one single, “Unwound.” After the song was released, Woolsey hand delivered it to a San Antonio radio station, and while sitting outside in a truck, Erv and George waited to hear it be played over the airwaves. “I mean, hearing your first record on the radio, after trying for so long. I couldn’t believe it. It was emotional for me,” Strait recalls.

By 1984, George Strait’s career was taking off so well, Erv Woolsey left MCA to become Strait’s full-time manager. And that’s where he would remain for the rest of his life. He also managed other artists off and on, including Lee Ann Womack, Dierks Bentley, Clay Walker, and Ronnie Milsap. Later Woolsey would manage more traditional-sounding contemporary artists, including Kylie Frey, Triston Marez, and Ian Munsick. He also owned numerous bars, including Losers, Winners, and the Dawghouse on Music Row in Nashville.

The same year that Woolsey started working for George Strait full-time, fiddle player Gene Elders officially joined George Strait’s legendary Ace in the Hole band. He would quickly become a mainstay on stage with Strait, along with playing in the extended lineup of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band for 11 years. While not on the road, Elders worked as a studio musician, appearing on the albums of Townes Van Zandt, Dale Watson, Lucinda Williams, Kevin Fowler, Joan Baez, and Silverada just to name a few, as well as on studio albums from Lovett and Strait.

Gene Elders also worked in the film industry as a composer. His wife Betty wrote songs for Joan Baez, and the three toured the United States and Europe together. Elders was originally from Chicago, and grew up in a household that emphasized being cultured. So he picked up the violin at a young age, before transitioning to percussion at 18. He attended Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music as a percussionist, but hungering for melody and tired of carrying so much gear around, he transitioned back to the violin.

It was meeting bluegrass fiddler Jimmy Crawford that inspired Gene Elders to pursue a decidedly more rootsy discipline, officially transitioning from a “violin” player to a “fiddle” player. He lived in Crawford’s hometown of Roanoke, Virginia for about 10 years, studying and perfecting the craft, using the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken album and the work of Vassar Clements as his musical Bible.

In 1984, Elders moved to Austin. He got a job paining houses, but that wouldn’t last long. Shortly thereafter, he got a call from George Strait’s camp looking for a fiddle player. He immediately started to learn all the songs. Strait’s bus took a detour from Houston to a gig in Dallas, swinging through Austin to pick Elders up. His audition happened on the bus, and on the stage later that night. He won the job.

After 21 years playing fiddle for Strait, Elders also won the job as the band’s mandolin player in 2005.

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After 45 years in service of George Strait, Erv Woolsey passed away in Clearwater, Florida on Wednesday, March 20th. He was 80 years old. Woolsey initially had surgery in December and suffered complications afterwards. “He was a very tough man, and fought hard, but sadly it was just too much. We will miss him so very much and will never forget all the time we had together. Won’t ever be the same without him,” Strait said.

Then mere hours later, Gene Elders passed away due to undisclosed reasons. “Hard to believe we lost two of our music family members on the same day,” Strait said. “Our Ace In the Hole treasured band member Gene Elders passed away yesterday afternoon shortly after we lost Erv. All of our prayers go out to both families. Me and the band won’t ever be the same without our brother Gene. We loved him so much. Go play with Mike again Geno. We’ll come join you guys later.”

The “Mike” that George Strait refers to is drummer Mike Kennedy, who died in a car accident in 2018. Incidentally, another Mike—Mike Harmeier of the Austin-based band Silverada—once penned a signature song called “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose,” which has the same name as the bar Erv Woolsey discovered George Strait in. Fiddle player Gene Elders plays on Silverada’s new self-titled album coming out in June.

It’s a small world, and a small community in music from Central Texas. To lose two members of that community in one day is an unthinkable tragedy for Central Texas, and the George Strait camp. But the efforts of the two men linger on in the music of George Strait, and many others.

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