Ace in the Hole made a few records for D, an independent Dallas-based record label, in the late ’70s, but they never went anywhere. Toward the end of the decade, Strait attempted to carve out a niche in Nashville but failed because he lacked any strong business connections. In 1979, he became friends with Erv Woolsey, a Texas club owner who once worked for MCA Records. Woolsey invited several MCA executives to Texas to hear Strait. His performance convinced the company to sign him in 1980.
‘Unwound,’ Strait’s first single, was released in the spring of 1981 and climbed into the Top 10. The follow-up, ‘Down and Out,’ stalled at No. 16, but ‘If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger (There’s One Coming Home)’ reached No. 3 in early 1982. The song sparked a remarkable string of Top 10 hits that ran well into the 2000s. His astonishing stretch of No. 1 hits began with 1982’s ‘Fool Hearted Memory.’ In the 1980s alone, he reached the top of the chart 18 times with songs such as ‘The Chair,’ ‘All My Exes Live in Texas,’ ‘Famous Last Words of a Fool’ and ‘Baby Blue.’ In 1985, he won CMA awards for album of the year (Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind) and male vocalist. In 1986, he repeated his win as male vocalist.Strait capped the decade by winning the CMA entertainer of the year award in 1989. A year later, he won the award again.
Strait was also one of the few ’80s superstars to survive the generational shift of the early ’90s that began with the phenomenal success of Garth Brooks. This can be partly credited to ‘Love Without End, Amen,’ ‘I’ve Come to Expect It From You,’ ‘If I Know Me’ and ‘You Know Me Better Than That,’ which all remained at No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart for multiple weeks. In 1992, Strait released the movie, Pure Country, which featured him in the lead role. A love song from the soundtrack, ‘I Cross My Heart,’ ultimately reached No. 1 and became one of his biggest hits to date. He released a four-CD boxed set, Strait Out of the Box, in 1995. By the spring of 1996, it had become one of the five biggest-selling boxed sets in popular music history.
Blue Clear Sky, his 1996 album, debuted on the country charts at No. 1 and won a CMA award. Strait also won male vocalist in 1996, the same year ‘Check Yes or No’ won the CMA award for single of the year. In 1997, he released Carrying Your Love With Me, which also won a CMA award. Strait repeated as male vocalist in 1997 and 1998. All in all, Strait scored 17 No. 1 hits on the Billboard country airplay charts in the 1990s, including ‘One Night at a Time,’ ‘I Just Want to Dance With You’ and ‘Write This Down.’
In 2000, he scored another No. 1 hit, ‘The Best Day,’ and won a CMA award for vocal event for ‘Murder on Music Row,’ his duet with Alan Jackson. More hits came his way: ‘Go On,’ ‘Run,’ ‘Living and Living Well,’ ‘She’ll Leave You With a Smile’ and ‘Cowboys Like Us.’ In 2004, a new song, ‘I Hate Everything’ was included on the two-disc compilation 50 Number Ones — and ultimately reached No. 1, rendering the album title obsolete. Somewhere Down in Texas arrived in 2005, and his duet with Lee Ann Womack, ‘Good News, Bad News,’ won a CMA award for vocal event of the year. It Just Comes Natural was released in 2006 and offered the No. 1 hit, ‘Give It Away.’ However, the year’s highlight was his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.