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Clay Blaker: Country musician on the Strait and narrow

By BOB LOWRY

AUSTIN, Texas -- George Strait and Clay Blaker have more in common than their white straw cowboy hats, sharply creased blue jeans and boots.

For starters, the two Texans launched their careers in the unlikely place of Hawaii, they're about the same age and they played their western swing music at many of the same Texas honky tonks and dance halls.

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But the comparsions end there.

Strait is a major country music star, while Blaker and his Texas Honky Tonk Band are still waiting for the big break.

'There are a lot of parallels in our careers -- up until the point where he got a big record contract,' quipped Blaker. 'We use to joke about it back in the old days, who was going to make it first and help the other one get a contract.'

Strait has helped Blaker and his band by using them as the opening act on tours and by recording songs written by Blaker and members of the Texas Honky Tonk Band.

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But Blaker, 37, wonders whether the similarities between himself and Strait have kept him from cracking the big time.

'It's been a big boost for our career being associated with George, but I don't know, maybe as far as getting a major (record) label deal, it could hurt us, being similar,' he said.

Asked why Strait has made it and he hasn't, Blaker said, 'Shoot, that's anybody's guess. I know that George has got an incredible voice. He has a great, great singing voice and he's a good-looking guy, and he was in the right place at the right time.'

But Blaker believes hard work is the key.

'Even for George Strait, as big as he is, I've seen that guy bust his head in the clubs for so many years before he ever had the opportunity,' he said. 'Randy Travis was rejected by every label in Nashville four or five times before he ever got a chance. You just gotta hang in there.'

Blaker said his band needs 'just someone in a major record company that likes us enough to want to sign us,' and he is counting on hard work and the revival of traditional country music to vault him to the top.

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'About every 10 years, country music is real hot,' he said. 'I think it's getting ready to come back now with Randy (Travis), Dwight (Yoakum) and people like that.'

And Blaker says he's been true to his musical roots, despite a changing country music scene.

'We've been through all the stages -- the progressive country, the Urban Cowboy,' he said. 'Then it was contemporary country or pop country when Alabama came in and all the Alabama imitators came behind them. Now it's come back around.

'We pretty much stuck to our guns as far as the type of music we play. That's one way we differ from George (Strait) in that we write a lot of our own material.'

Blaker wrote 'I'm Never Gonna Let You Go,' which was recorded by Strait on his 'No. 7' album. His lead guitar player, Dan McCoy, wrote 'You Still Get to Me' and 'Rythmn of the Road' for the same album, and his steel guitar player, Bob Kelly, wrote the title cut to Strait's Christmas album, 'Merry Christmas Strait To You.'

Blaker is hopeful his current album, 'Sooner or Later,' and a newly released single, 'South of the Border,' will garner some attention.

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'Any time we record something new, we take it up to Nashville and make the rounds and try to get somebody interested,' he said. 'If we can ever get one of those big executives interested -- that's all it takes.'

Blaker's interest in music began at age 4 when his mother gave him a guitar and he began taking lessons. His early influence came from Bob Wills, Jimmy Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams.

'That's the first music I remember listening to growing up,' he said. 'I started out singing Hank Williams' songs when I was about 5 years old.'

His family moved to Hawaii in the 1970s, where he pursued a professional music career.

'That's where I first tried to play professionally, over there, but there's just no way to make a living playing country music in Maui,' he said.

He spent some time in Southern California and went to Houston in 1976.

'Things were really starting to happen in Texas,' he said. 'That was when outlaw and progressive country was really taking off big, and Willie and Waylon and Asleep at the Wheel and everybody was doing their thing back here.'

Since then, Blaker has been playing the dance hall circuit in the Southwest.

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'All I wanted to do was play good music,' he said. 'That's what I like -- writing songs and playing for people who like it.'

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