George Strait's bus driver recalls life on the road
For more than three decades George Strait has graced the country music stage but in June the country legend is expected to retire from on the road. It marks a bittersweet end for some of Strait's crew members who have been with him since the beginning of the ride.
"You just try to soak it all in and you didn't think it would go 32 years - for me - and it has," said Lee Roy Eichler who had a front seat view of it all as the 'King of Country's' personal bus driver.
Eichler, a Central Texas native, performed at the same clubs as George Strait in the early 1980's but the two had never met until Eichler approached the country singer about a job.
"I said, 'Man, I think you're going to be big. If you ever get a bus I'd like a shot at driving it. So, as it turned out a few weeks later he called me," recalled Eichler during an interview at the Cowboy Rides Away tour stop at the Tacoma Dome on April 12th.
Eichler, who still calls Texas home, has now seen the world through a windshield. He's traveled so many miles he's lost count but knows it's more than a million.
"It's just been great," said Eichler. "Every bus we got was a little bit better, a little bit better. Every situation, every year was a little bit better and now it's just crazy amazing."
The Cowboy Rides Away tour travels with about ten buses carrying crew, equipment and instruments. Eichler is the daytime driver on the bus that Strait calls 'home' on the road. He describes the rides as quiet with all the comforts of home catering to the King of Country - a man Eichler says has a big heart and cares for his people.
"(He's) just a great guy. And I'm not just saying that," said Eichler. "He's a great man, has a great family."
Eichler has watched George Strait rise to the top of country music with more than 69 million records sold and 60 number one hits - more than any other artist in history; even Elvis.
Eichler said it's hard to narrow down any of the highlights or special memories throughout the ride.
"Every one of them has been a highlight, really, because it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and it got bigger and bigger and you just take it in slowly and now it's going to crash on me," said Eichler.
Even at 69-years-old it's still hard for Eichler to imagine retiring from the road.
"Ugh. God, I don't even want to go there. It's an emotional deal for me. Certainly is," said Eichler who is coming to reality at each tour stop that things are slowing down.
"It's tough. Like here in Tacoma - you know you'll never see Tacoma again and every venue is just like that," said Eichler. "You know you'll never walk back into this big, huge crowd again. Hear all that. It must be really crazy amazing for (George Strait) and emotional. I know it is."
Ready or not, when the 'cowboy rides away' on June 7th at AT&T Stadium it will mark the end of a run that Eichler's been on since the beginning.
"Just can't beat it. What more can you want? Working for the number one man," said Eichler who isn't sure what he's going to do when the tour ends but you might just see him out on the road with other country artists.