- Derek Spense channels icon Sept. 11 at The Bender -
Imagine performing on stage in Kansas City in front of 25,000 screaming, adoring high school kids. And you are only 18 years old.
“We rocked the house that night,” recalled Derek Spense, “and that was a change maker for me. Up to that point, I hadn’t really taken my music seriously, but think of it, 25,000 kids screaming at you. You are 18. You are the center of attention. You want to do this forever.”
The 356 seats in the Bender Performing Arts Center can’t compare in size to a 25,000 Future Farmers of America gig, but The Bender can certainly match the fervor for George Strait’s premier tribute artist, Derek Spense.
“I’d been working in bands since high school but didn’t seem to be going anywhere and I was ready to get out of the music business in 2014 when George Strait announced his retirement,” Spense said.
Friends told Spense he looked and sounded like George. He already had a band. Just put on a hat and start singing, they told him.
It clicked. And a George Strait tribute artist was born.
Spense was driving back recently from a working vacation in Lake Tahoe when The Tribune caught up with him to ask what The Bender audience can expect when Spense recreates George Strait on Sept. 11.
“What you will see, really, is a one-act play,” Spense told The Tribune. “We recreate a George Strait concert from 1994 with a set list of music, all of George’s mannerisms, all the sounds you would hear on a 1994 George Strait album.”
He is acting and singing George Strait or, as Spense said, “ … I become George for an hour and a half.”
Spense was born in Nacogdoches to nonmusical parents. Dad was a dentist. Mom was a homemaker who played the piano.
“I really don’t know where I got that musical gene,” he said. “My parents bought me a guitar when I was 11 and I picked around a little. I broke two fingers when I played high school football and decided to quit because I had more of a future in music. It helped, too, that girls were impressed with my guitar playing.”
Getting involved in FFA, the Future Farmers of America, was a major turning point for Spense. Chapters had bands that competed across Texas. Spense’s band made it to the national FFA conference in Kansas City where those 25,000 FFA-ers gave him a taste of life on the road.
“I attended South Plains, a community college near Lubbock in West Texas,” said Spense. “They have a great country music school. It was never my intention to become a tribute artist. George Strait had an enormous influence on me musically, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would perform as him.”
South Plains is where Spense met and married Heidi, a gifted singer in her own right.
“It probably takes an entertainer to marry an entertainer and understand what it takes to have a career and a successful marriage,” said Spense. “We’ve been married 28 years. That is a lifetime for a musician.”
In addition to Heidi’s encouragement, Spense credits his management team, Jerry Creed and Joe Ladd, for seeing his potential and guiding him through the process that transforms Spense into a George Strait tribute artist.
“George Strait devotees who have been to a hundred concerts come up to me afterward and tell me it was just like real thing. That has happened countless times and the credit really goes to Southern County Line. They don’t just back me up. They recreate the George Strait concert experience,” said Spense.
With a son who just graduated high school, a 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twins, Derek and Heidi keep their home base in Fredericksburg where he pursues his other passion, a chain saw artist.
“I took the family out to Lake Tahoe for a working vacation. The family vacationed. I did a couple of shows and carved a couple of bears, an eagle and started on a little white tail fawn out of redwood,” Spense said.
Those carvings end up for sale on Spense’s Facebook page.
Spense also owns a couple of ghost tour companies in Fredericksburg and in Truckee, California.
“I am a big historical buff and storyteller, so I do the research, write the events and train the tour guides. People love to hear a happy story,” he said.
Spense promises that The Bender audience will be transported back to 1994 to a George Strait concert.
“Frankly, I enjoy the music as much as anyone,” he said. “I am George Strait for 90 minutes. When I get off that stage, I am just Derek Spense, chain saw artist.”
Welcome Derek Spense to The Bender stage for the first time as George Strait on Saturday, Sept. 11, 7 p.m. Tickets are $20, humblepac.com or 281-446-4140.