The Trucker Song in Country Music
The 1960s were the golden years of trucker music, identified by artists such as Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Red Simpson and Dick Curless, who glorified the life of these knights of the open road. But the genre was born in the 1930s.
Trucker songs returned for a time in the 1970s, thanks to the CB craze, augmented by a spate of mostly forgotten trucker films. You can find contemporary trucker music if you know where to look.
The first trucker song, “Truck Driver's Blues”, was written by Houston steel guitarist and radio repairman Ted Daffan and recorded in 1939 by Cliff Bruner & His Boys.
Decca sold over 100,000 copies of the 10-inch, 78-rpm disc. “Truck Driver's Blues” was recorded later by Webb Pierce and Red Simpson.
Trucker songs continued to pop up over the years, including “Truck Drivers' Coffee Stop” by Dick Reinhart (OKeh, 1941), “Truck Driver's Sweetheart” by Karl & Harty (OKeh, 1942), “I'm a Truck Driving Man” by Art Gibson (Mercury, 1947) and three different songs called “Truck Driver's Boogie” that were released between 1948 and 1951.
“Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” (Cal Martin) was first recorded by Doye O'Dell (Intro, 1952). Five California country artists covered it, including cowboy singer Gene Autry, and Burl Ives even recorded the song. Try to imagine Burl Ives driving a big rig and dealing with those treacherous female curves.
Red Simpson hit the charts with a cover version in December 1966. Dave Dudley also recorded the song.
Terry Fell wrote and recorded “Truck Driving Man” (X) in 1954. It's been covered by innumerable artists, including Dave Dudley, Charley Pride, Ricky Nelson and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
(The Byrds recorded a song called “Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man” as a swipe at Nashville DJ Ralph Emery, who insulted leader Roger McGuinn on the air after the Byrds appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in conjunction with their “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” LP in 1968.)
Johnny Horton popularized the twang in trucker songs with “I'm Coming Home” (Columbia, 1956), a song he wrote with Tillman Franks.
Horton was a solid honky-tonker who had scored crossover hits with tunes such as “The Battle of New Orleans” and “North to Alaska”. He died in a traffic accident at the age of 35.
Dave Dudley had a hit in 1963 with “Six Days on the Road”, a song written by Earl Green and Carl Montgomery, based on their experience driving loads of floor tiles from Alabama to Pittsburgh. The recording was on Dudley's own Golden Wing label. The song hit #2 on the country charts and landed Dudley a contract with Mercury Records.
After a few albums devoted to other topics, Dudley returned to trucker songs, which came to dominate his career.
Red Sovine was a regular on the Louisiana Hayride in 1949, having taken the departing Hank Williams' spot. He put five Decca discs on the charts in the 1950s, including a duet with Webb Pierce on a 1956 cover of the George Jones tune, “Why, Baby, Why”, and moved from the Hayride to the Grand Ole Opry. Sovine signed with Starday Records in 1959. He covered “Six Days on the Road” in 1964, and in 1965 he cut “Giddy-Up-Go”, which set the tone for future hits with its tearjerker story and spoken lyrics. “Giddy-Up-Go” tells the story of a trucker who has an unlikely reunion with a son he hasn't seen since he was a child.
Sovine had several spoken-word trucker hits, including the ghost story “Phantom 309” and “Teddy Bear”, the tale of a disabled child who converses with truckers by CB radio. “Little Joe” relates the story of a trucker who is blinded in an accident and learns that his devoted dog has become his eyes.
In Bangor, Maine, Dan Fulkerson wrote “A Tombstone Every Mile”, an ode to Route 2A, a dangerous stretch of road frequented by trucks hauling potatoes. Fulkerson and singer Dick Curless released the song on their own Allagash Records. The song did so well that Capitol signed Curless to its Tower subsidiary, taking the tune to #5 on the country charts in 1965. He steered clear of trucking material for a time, before running off a string of trucker songs for Capitol in the 1970s.
Del Reeves scored the first #1 hit on the country charts with “Girl on the Billboard” (United Artists, 1965), written by Walter Haynes and Hank Mills. The song is about a trucker who is smitten with a scantily clad woman on a billboard. Reeves ran off a string of chart-toppers, was asked to join the Grand Old Opry in 1966 and had another trucking hit in 1967 with “Lookin' at the World Through Windshield” (United Artists, 1968), written by Jerry Chesnut and Mike Hoyer.
Joseph “Red” Simpson came out of Bakersfield, Cal., headquarters of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. First signed as a writer with Capitol's Central Songs, Simpson got a chance to make a trucker album after Haggard declined the offer. “Roll, Truck, Roll” (Capitol, 1966) featured a Tommy Collins title tune along with covers of “Truck Driver's Blues” and “Give Me 40 Acres (To Turn This Rig Around)”, a song written by Earl Green and John William Greene and first recorded by the Willis Brothers in 1964. Simpson released “The Man Behind the Badge”, an LP dedicated to law officers, followed by “Truck Drivin' Fool”.
While doing well as a writer, his career as an artist stalled and Capitol dropped him. Simpson fell into good fortune when he hit #5 with the 1971 novelty song, “Hello, I'm a Truck”, released by the independent Portland Limited label and picked up by Capitol. The “I'm a Truck” LP included the following song, as well as the similarly named “Highway Patrol”, which was covered by Junior Brown in 1993.
Merle Haggard finally entered the field 1969 with the self-penned “White Line Fever” (Capitol) on his “Okie from Muskogee” LP. The song is written from the perspective of a trucker who sees his life slipping away with the miles he drives.
The late 1960s saw the development of country-rock. An early exemplar, the Flying Burrito Brothers featured Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, both ex-Byrds. Their first album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin” (A&M, 1969), focused on what Parsons called “Cosmic American Music”, which infused country with elements of rock and soul. The album featured remarkable remakes of Aretha Franklin's “Do Right Woman” and James Carr's “The Dark End of the Street”, both written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn, along with a cover of “Six Days on the Road”.
The 1970s saw a resurgence of trucker music due to the popularity of CB radio. This spawned a nunber of trucker movies as well.
C.W. McCall was born Bill Fries in 1928 in Audubon, Iowa. Fries invented his alter ego while working in the advertising business. In 1975, at the height of the CB radio craze, he recorded “Convoy”, a humorous song about a convoy of trucks that give smokeys a run for his money. It was a monster hit, and Fries made six albums before retiring from music when his MGM contract ran out.
(Fries' backup band continued working without him, eventually taking the name Mannheim Steamroller and recording several highly successful Christmas albums in a decidedly different genre.)
Jerry Reed was an accomplished guitar player and writer who was first noticed when Gene Vincent covered his song “Crazy Legs” in 1958. Elvis Presley covered Reed's hit, “Guitar Man”, in 1967. Reed appeared in several films with his friend Burt Reynolds in the 1970s, scoring a hit with “Eastbound and Down” (RCA, 1977) from the soundtrack of “Smokey and the Bandit”.
Trucker Music Lives On
You don't hear it on the radio these days, but trucker music is still being made.
A Michigan native, guitarist Bill Kirchen joined Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen while attending the University of Michigan in the 1960s. The Airmen disbanded in 1976. Kirchen has played his Telecaster with the likes of Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Doug Sahm and Emmylou Harris. Kirchen plays a brand of music called “Dieselbilly”, which includes a healthy dose of trucker music. He's still going strong.
Born in southern Indiana in 1952, Junior Brown is an accomplished player who commissioned a “guit-steel” so he could play both traditional and steel guitar on one instrument. Now based in Austin, Tex., Brown plays a dizzying blend of country, blues and surf-rock. Brown cut “Broke Down South of Dallas” for his 1993 CD, “12 Shades of Brown” (Curb).
Dale Watson was born in Alabama in 1962. He grew up near Houston, Tex. Watson kicked around the country-music establishment for a time, and did a stretch as a Nashville songwriter before relocating to more progressive-minded Austin, Tex. He recorded three albums in the mid-1990s, followed by "The Truckin' Sessions" (Koch, 1998), which consisted entirely of trucker tunes. Watson endured some hard times after the death of his fiancée in a traffic accident in 2000. He bounced back from rock bottom with several albums, starting in 2001. "The Truckin' Sessions, Vol. 2" (Hyena) appeared in 2009.
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