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Give me 40 songs to turn this rig around

Truck driving music can trace its vinyl roots back to 1939. That was the year that Cliff Brunner and His Boys recorded Ted Daffan's Truck Driver's Blues. Daffan penned the tune after noticing how much...



Truck driving music can trace its vinyl roots back to 1939. That was the year that Cliff Brunner and His Boys recorded Ted Daffan’s Truck Driver’s Blues. Daffan penned the tune after noticing how much truckers liked country music.

In 1954, Terry Fell recorded Truck Drivin’ Man. It quickly became a standard, and remains one of the most frequently covered trucking tunes of all time.

But if there was a golden era, it occurred from the early ’60s through to the mid-’70s. In 1965, Del Reeves hit number 1 with Girl on the Billboard and the four horsemen of trucking music – Dave Dudley, Dick Curless, Red Simpson and Red Sovine – toured Europe and North America together.

Dudley’s Six Days on the Road became a cultural anthem of sorts (it was actually written by a pair of truck drivers).

Dick Curless came out with Tombstone Every Mile and Red Simpson had hits with Nitro Express and I’m a Truck.

In the meantime, Sovine was developing his tear-jerking body of work, including, Giddyup Go, Phantom 309 and Teddy Bear.

“It was a time when country music was country music,” laments Paul Denby in his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The truck music aficionado fingers through his record collection and shakes his head sadly. “Truckers have always aligned themselves with country music: Big Wheel Cannonball, by Wilf Carter, Freightliner Fever, by Merle Haggard. These were songs that cut to the bone and told you what it meant to be a truck driver – but it’s gone.”

American author Michael Perry thinks familiarity killed the goose that wrote the best trucking songs. “I’ll be fine if I never hear Convoy again,” he says from his farm in rural Wisconsin. He argues that the popularization of the truck driving lifestyle, after the release of C. W. McCall’s hit and the plethora of trucking movies (most of them terrible) that followed, diluted the purity of the genre. Almost overnight, faddists bought CB radios, outfitted their cars with giant whip antennas, learned the 10-4 codes, and adopted the truckers’ lingo and lifestyle as their own.

“‘Convoy’ transformed the entire nation into a ratchet-jawin’ pack of Good Buddy gear-jammers,” says Perry. “By the time the ’80s rolled around, straight-up trucking music became scarce.”

Maybe so, but country musicians still thought a lot about trucks. The good ones came to identify closely with truckers, if only because of the grueling miles they spent in their company traveling from city to city and gig to gig. Songs were no longer for or about the specialized sub-culture of truckers. Rather, musicians and truckers became interchangeable. Take Eddie Rabbit’s Driving My Life Away. The narrator takes a position behind the wheel, but is he a trucking musician, or a musical trucker?

Steve Earle’s 1988 recording of Guitar Town, from the album of the same name, is a better example. Though not a trucking tune per se, the language and landscape of the song is all trucks.

“I’m smokin’ into Texas with the hammer down, With the radio blasting and the bird dog on, No local yokel gonna shut me down.”

Earle could easily be a trucker, and in fact sees himself as such: “Hey pretty baby don’t you know it ain’t my fault, I love to hear the steel belts hummin’ on the asphalt, Wake up in the middle of the night in a truck stop, Stumble into the restaurant wonderin’ why I don’t stop.”

In another song on the same album, Little Rock N’ Roller, he’s calling his young son from a truck stop. Earle manages to combine his fascination with 18 wheelers, and his dislocation and loneliness in a few short lines (again, it’s a trucker’s voice): “They got all the big trucks here, Boy, you ought to hear the big diesels whine, No, little guy, your daddy won’t be home for a while, It’s gonna be a couple weeks, And another couple thousand miles.”

Today, a new breed of musician like Dale Watson holds down the truck-music fort. Like Earle, Watson is a bit of an outsider in the country music field. His music is heavily influenced by ’50s and ’60s honky-tonk stylings, and he doesn’t fit into a slick Nashville package.

As part of his credentials, Watson has a map of Texas tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. He also listens to old Haggard, Cash and Dudley on an ancient 8 track player in his car. According to his bio, he moved to L.A. to be closer to the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (it’s a small coincidence that Bakersfield is also the home of Red Simpson – if there is a capitol for truck music, perhaps this is it).

Perry ran into Watson at a roadhouse in Minnesota where he was unloading equipment for another show in an endless series of one-night performances. Perry calls him “the most un-ironic guy around in trucking music these days.”

Watson’s connection to trucking is direct. In 1998 he brought his Bakersfield sensibilities to The Truckin’ Sessions – 14 original tunes valorizing American trucking music. In conversation with Perry he underscored the affinity between truckers and musicians. “We have so much common ground. We travel the same road, do the same hours, eat the same foods, and have the same emotional dilemmas as far as missing family and holidays.”

Watson has been described as a “New Traditionalist,” and he eschews New Country. “Country music today reminds me of a fancy restaurant where they give you all these bitty portions. All this salad and stuff” says Watson. “I don’t care how much they pretty it up. I ain’t gonna swallow it.”

Brian Stein comes to trucking music by a different path. The Edmonton man remembers getting rides in his father’s 1960 Diamond T. The two would drive along listening to trucking music. Later, the Diamond T was replaced with a GMC, a Hayes, and then a Mack. “The times on the road with dad were the best. My dad’s favorite truck song was Giddy-up Go,” he confides by email.

Although his father, Art, is still active in trucking management, Brian’s life took a much different turn. After seeing Red Simpson in Bakersfield in 1998 (“his voice is as distinctive and smooth as it was on vinyl in the 60s,” Stein writes), the former DJ decided to devote himself entirely to truck music.

One year later, Virtual Truck Route was born (virtualtruckroute.com). The site offers an Internet store where rare truck recordings can be purchased, and Gear-Jammin’ Gold, a 24 hour virtual radio station that plays nothing but truck music (212 songs in a 9 hour rotation).

Stein thinks the truck music genre is far from dead. He points to a new Chalee Tennison song, Go Back, that is getting lots of airplay south of the border. The story concerns a truck driver and waitress who marry – a recurring theme in truck music. This tune is not that dissimilar from Red Simpson’s song of 1966, Big Mack, where the driver takes an immediate shine to his server. “Make my eggs medium rare, over easy with my steak, I’m gonna buy you a farm in Texas gal, if it takes every cent I make.”

But trucking music casts a pretty large net.

So while Brian Stein is piloting his computer in Edmonton, and Paul Denby is playing old records in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Jeremy Tepper is answering the phone in the warehouse district of Brooklyn, NY. From Tepper’s office he looks out on the East River, Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan’s FDR Boulevard. You can hear the trucks rattling by his office.

Tepper is the founder and president of Diesel Only records, a label that is almost exclusively concerned with trucks.

The company still presses records into vinyl for jukeboxes that are still abundant in the north-east part of the state. But trucking songs form the core of his compilation series Rig Rock Deluxe, Rig Rock Truck Stop, and Rig Rock Juke Box. A smart series of collections, the discs offer straight-up country numbers mixed with some rockier variants.

And what truck music label would be complete without a Red Simpson’s retrospective? In 1999, Diesel Only released Western Truck Drivin’ Singer, The Best of Red Simpson.

Tepper sees a resurgence in truckin
g music. “A lot of musicians are playing it now. We’re kind of a link in the chain.” Not only is his record label obsessed with this culture, Tepper also plays in a trucking band and Deejays, at a bar under the Brooklyn-Queen’s Expressway, to a trendy crowd that hankers for his trucking-oriented playlist.

“A lot of people can relate to the trucking experience,” he says. “It’s an extension of the cowboy song, the wide-open road, and all that. But a lot of drivers grew up with the music of the ’70s and the Rolling Stones. They like a little rock with their coffee, too.” n


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