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All you big and burly men who roll the trucks along...trucking songs through the decades

By Jon Johnson, May 2000

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"I ended up getting on the phone and talking to him," says Guralnick. "I sent him some stuff I'd (produced) and a letter suggesting that we do a record. We exchanged letters and tapes for a few months. The material came from some stuff that he wanted to do and some suggestions of mine. We came to a consensus (of doing) ballads and folk; a record that reflected the roots of where he came from more than commercial country music."

Unknown to those involved, Curless was very ill at the time.

"He was very sick. I think he had a sense that something was really wrong, though he didn't share that with us. He was having these stomach problems. He'd had ulcers because he'd been a heavy drinker."

Guralnick's enthusiasm for the experience is obvious, even five years after Curless' death.

"It was the greatest experience of my life. He was an amazing guy and a bridge to a whole other world. He came up in a completely different time when music was made as a community activity. The best part of it was sitting around at dinnertime, and he'd tell his stories of being on the road with Buck Owens and all these other great stories that he had."

When asked if Curless felt trapped by the trucker image, Guralnick answers, "I don't think he felt trapped, but because 'Tombstone Every Mile' was a hit, it meant that he had to follow up with a lot of that stuff, too. I think he felt trapped by making records and trying to have hits, not so much by doing the truck driving stuff."

In contrast to Curless was Joseph "Red" Simpson, a Bakersfield-based songwriter who responded favorably to Capitol producer Ken Nelson's idea to develop a country singer aimed at the trucker market.

Simpson was already familiar to audiences as a successful songwriter who had written hits and album tracks for Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and others when Capitol released "Roll, Truck, Roll" in 1966.

Although it and its followup, "The Highway Patrol," were both comparatively minor hits, Simpson's trucker records are fondly regarded today, both among trucker fans and among aficionados of the Bakersfield Sound. Simpson's Capitol recordings were compiled on a 1999 Razor & Tie collection.

Said Simpson in a 1999 interview from his home in Bakersfield, "I was working (as a musician) around here in town. I was a piano player and a guitar player. I had several songs owned by (Capitol session bassist/producer) Cliffie Stone, and Cliffie and Ken Nelson were pretty good friends. Ken had an idea to do a truck drivin' album and wanted Merle (Haggard) to do it, and Merle didn't want to do it. Cliffie suggested me, so they called me and asked if I'd be interested and I said, 'Sure, why not?'"

Woodrow Wilson "Red" Sovine (1918-1980) enjoyed a remarkably long career on the charts, with his hits running between 1954 and 1976. As with his contemporaries, trucker songs were just a small part of his musical vocabulary, though he's best remembered today for his distinctive story-based recitations such as "Giddyup Go" (1965), "Phantom 309" (1967) and "Teddy Bear" (1976).

Sovine is also remembered today for discovering Charley Pride in 1963 and encouraging him to move to Nashville.

Although never quite as commercially successful as the likes of Dudley, Curless, Sovine, and Simpson, the Willis Brothers also deserve mention. Enjoying a career of phenomenal length that lasted from 1932 until 1981, the three brothers recorded for a variety of labels over their long career, including stints with Mercury, RCA and Starday.

As the Oklahoma Wranglers, the Willises backed Hank Williams on his earliest recordings for the Sterling label in 1946 and were touring members of Eddy Arnold's road show through most of the '50's. Their best-remembered records, however, date from their association with the Beaumont, Texas-based Starday label during the mid-'60's, including their 1964 signature hit, "Give Me 40 Acres," the story of a trucker looking for room to turn around his rig in Boston.

Theirs was a distinctive brand of bluegrass-influenced trucker country, featuring harmony vocals, propulsive banjo and Vic Willis' accordion. After the deaths of Skeeter (in 1976) and Guy (in 1981), Vic Willis continued performing and was a respected businessman and representative of Nashville's musical community until his death in a 1995 auto wreck.

Today, the Willises' Starday albums are highly prized among collectors of trucker country, fetching top dollar when found in good condition. Unfortunately, their Starday recordings have not been widely reissued, except for a few tracks heard on compilations, a situation that Tepper says that he hopes to correct in the future.

Finally, any rundown of the trucker country boom of the '60s would be incomplete without some mention of three other acts that enjoyed a measure of chart success during this period: Kay Adams ("Little Pink Mack" from 1966) and Del Reeves ("Girl on the Billboard" in 1966 and "Looking at the World Through a Windshield" in 1968).

In addition, dozens of other artists, such as Johnny Dollar and Jim Nesbitt, recorded trucker songs for independent labels such as Starday and Chart. Though these songs rarely showed up on the top 40, many of them were popular on jukeboxes at truckstops around the country, and the records today are highly collectible.

Why did the string of charting trucker songs end in 1968 or thereabouts? It was probably time for a breather.

Trucker songs had been charting regularly for about five years by that time - a long stretch for any musical trend, particularly in country music - and a conservative count of charting trucker numbers during the '63-'68 period would be about 25 songs.

It was a remarkable run. And though the slowdown was definable - a two-year gap in chart action for trucking songs between 1968 and 1970 - it was also brief.

Dick Curless charted with two trucker songs in 1970, and Red Simpson's biggest hit, "I'm a Truck," reached number four in late 1971. It was just a sample of what was coming.

Trucker country music would be back in a big way in the '70s.

NEXT MONTH: Trucker country in the '70s: CBs, Smokey and C.W. McCall

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