BY ROBERT PHILPOT
The instructions Rex McGee received when he was hired to write a screenplay for what became “Pure Country,” the 1992 George Strait movie, were simple but vague: Make sure it has 10 songs and a scene where Strait ropes something.
“I went, holy mackerel, what am I going to write about?” McGee says during a recent phone interview. “I went to cowboy poetry readings, I went to rodeos, and I was just stumped for a while.”
But McGee, who had only 12 weeks to write the screenplay, eventually would have an epiphany that allowed him to break that creative block. And for several weeks in 1992, “Pure Country” filmed in Fort Worth, Cresson, Midlothian and other North Texas locations.
Concert scenes were shot at the Will Rogers Auditorium, Cowtown Coliseum, Billy Bob’s Texas and the Tarrant County Convention Center. Strait was spotted eating enchiladas at the then relatively new Dos Gringos Mexican restaurant and chowing down at Michael’s Cuisine on West Seventh Street in Fort Worth, and hundreds of locals appeared in the movie as extras or in bit parts.
One of the locations was Western Kountry Klub, a 50-year-old dance hall that was used in honky-tonk scenes in the movie. It’s there that the 25th anniversary celebration of the movie will take place, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday (it’s an early celebration; the film premiered in October 1992). Jim Lauderdale and Steve Dorff, who wrote songs for the movie, will appear, as will McGee, who will tell stories about the movie’s cast and production.
The event, which will benefit the nonprofit Downtown Mansfield Inc., is also being filmed for a May special on Haltom City-based cable/satellite channel The Country Network (which does not currently have a DFW affiliate but streams live on its website). The event will include a silent auction, featuring autographed guitars, posters, a movie script and paraphernalia.
A musical version
But as much as Friday’s celebration is about looking back, it’s also about looking forward: McGee, Dorff and Lauderdale, as well as John Bettis, who wrote lyrics for a couple of the movie’s songs, are getting ready for the premiere of “Pure Country: The Musical,” presented by Lyric Stage on June 9 at the Irving Arts Center. Julie Johnson, who appeared in the movie, will perform songs from the musical at the Midlothian event.
But in a way, that will be looking back, too, because “Pure Country: The Musical” has been in the works for some time.
“It’s been 10 years, really,” McGee says. “We had a big workshop in New York in ’08, and New York — they don’t like country shows at all. Anything to do with country music at all. The Broadway people just don’t care for that.”
The musical’s original producer died — in a sad coincidence, on George Strait’s birthday — and that sent the show adrift for five years. But McGee reconnected with Michael Skipper, a veteran Broadway producer (his credits include “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough show) who happens to be from Fort Worth.
“The guy Mike went to that usually finances his shows [had] never heard of George Strait, had never heard of the movie, the title itself seemed to be a downer,” McGee says. “So we figured we’d start in George Strait country and then work our way to Broadway, if ever. Our goal is to take it on tour. To take it on a Texas tour first, then a national tour, because George’s fans are everywhere, and they know this movie.”
The musical will use two songs from the movie, “Heartland” and “I Cross My Heart,” but don’t expect the musical to just be a stage re-creation of the movie.
“When I saw the movie, I was sort of stunned, because there were scenes that I know I saw shot that never made the movie,” McGee says. “I guess the scenes just weren’t working. But I think the idea of the musical was born the minute I saw the movie: ‘Where’s this scene? Where’s that scene? That doesn’t make sense.’ It was shocking for me to see it the first time.”
The musical, which McGee is co-producing, is a way of getting back some creative control. But he had to learn how to write for the stage, in a production that now has 18 songs.
“The story’s the same, but details have been changed,” McGee says, adding with a laugh: “We can’t have a barrel racer on stage.”
Based on a true story
The movie’s roots are both simple and convoluted. Movie producer Jerry Weintraub, acting on a suggestion from his mentor, Colonel Tom Parker, was looking for a vehicle to turn music superstar Strait into a movie star as well, the way Parker had, for better or worse, done with Elvis Presley. It was Weintraub who told McGee that the movie needed to have 10 songs and a roping scene in it.
In the movie, Strait plays Dusty Chandler, a country megastar who walks away from his concert world (which is more Garth Brooks than George Strait) to get back to his country roots, and finds love along the way. McGee, after struggling with Weintraub’s mandate, loosely based the movie on his own story.
“I had been in L.A. for many years, making a great living as a scriptwriter, rewriting other scripts,” says McGee, who was born in Cleburne and raised in Fort Worth and Burleson. “But nothing was getting made. About that time, the last member of my family died and left me this old house in Texas where I’d spent much time as a child. I just packed everything up and moved back to Texas so I could figure out what I wanted to write about.”
McGee had been in Hollywood for 20 years — he had even befriended and worked for legendary director Billy Wilder after Wilder unexpectedly responded to one of McGee’s fan letters — but felt like he’d hit a dead end. He came up with a script about a singer who had gone about as far as he could with his career and decided to walk away from it.
McGee was only at some of the North Texas locations, but he recalls Strait being reluctant to be an actor. “If you’ve seen him onstage, you know he really doesn’t move that much,” McGee says. “He just stands there and sings 27 songs and that’s it. I don’t think he’s done any [acting] since then. He wasn’t going to be an Elvis-like movie star.” (Internet Movie Database lists one other acting credit for Strait: a 2003 episode of the animated series “King of the Hill” for which he voiced a character named Cornell.)
The musical, McGee believes, is better than the movie, although he has yet to see a full production: He’s seen a lot of staged readings, including one at Casa Manaña in 2013. But then he and the songwriters have been at this for a while.
“We’ve hung in there, I tell ya,” McGee says. “I don’t know if we’re hardheaded or persistent.’
‘PURE COUNTRY’ 25TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
- 6 p.m. Friday
- Western Kountry Klub
- 5728 Lake View Road, Midlothian
- $50 (BYOB)
- http://www.downtownmansfield.org or http://historicmansfield.tix.com