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Dudley, McCall lead the convoy of trucking songs of the '70's

By Jon Johnson, June 2000

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To be sure, before the release of "Convoy" in late 1975 (and Dave Dudley's "Me and Ole C.B.," released at almost exactly the same time), C.B. radios were rarely if ever mentioned in song, in spite of the fact that they had been used in the trucking industry since their introduction in 1958.

In the two years following "Convoy," songs featuring C.B. radios dominated the genre, including Cledus Maggard's 1976 number one hit "The White Knight," Red Sovine's "Teddy Bear" (also number one in 1976), and Rod Hart's "C.B. Savage" from late '76.

Fries recorded a total of six C.W. McCall albums by the time his contract ran out in 1979, as well as a 1990 collection of re-recordings of the most popular McCall tracks using the original musicians and arrangements.

Today, Fries is retired from both music and the advertising profession, living with his wife in Ouray, Col. (where he was mayor for six years in the '80's); happy with his life, comfortable thanks to continuing royalties from "Convoy" and his other records, and clearly proud of his career and the continuing success of his musicians.

Not widely known is the fact that the musicians who backed Fries on the C.W. McCall records and tours still perform and record together. Following Fries' retirement from the music industry in 1979, his partner, drummer/songwriter Chip Davis, continued recording with the other McCall band members (including keyboardist Jackson Berkey, bassist Greg Hanson, and guitarist Ron Cooley); recording under a variety of names, including Fresh Aire and, most notably, Mannheim Steamroller, whose Christmas albums have been staples of the holiday season since 1984. Fries sounds like nothing so much as a proud father when discussing the accomplishments of his former band.

"In 1979, my contract ended, and I was 50 years old. I said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' But Chip continued with Fresh Aire, which became kind of a cult-like thing until the mid-'80's when he discovered that his Christmas music was a big seller. He subsequently went on to make a huge fortune with the three Christmas albums that he did. And Jackson is very big in choral music now, and he has a lot of albums out of his own."

This year marks the 25th anniversary of "Convoy," and Fries has been busy with interviews with reporters eager to mark the occasion. There are websites devoted to the McCall records (for the record, hardcore McCall fans refer to themselves as "Crispy Critters"), and in early June, a group of motorists are recreating "Convoy" for themselves; having started out on "the sixth of June," as mentioned in the song, traveling from Los Angeles to New Jersey along the route laid out by Fries a quarter-century ago.

"One guy said, 'We're going to have to recreate this convoy,' only they're doing it with cars, not trucks. As we speak, they're in Gallup, N.M. Fans all along the way are going to join this thing, I guess. I was supposed to be down there in Gallup to meet them tonight, but it's too far away, and I'm getting too tired," laughs Fries. "I did a little video thing for them to play for the people on the way, though."

Asked if he'd seen the recent commercial featuring William Shatner "singing" "Convoy," Fries laughs again and says, "I thought it was great because it cost them $70,000 for the rights to perform it. I get royalties everytime that thing is done!"

Fries is thankful for the support he still enjoys from truckers.

"To this day, I appreciate the job that the people who drive these big rigs on the road do. I have a lot of respect for them. Today, kids think everything comes out of a television tube or out of a computer. But you've got to realize that there are people out there working to make this happen. People are out there doing hard work."

To be sure, trucker country was a major trend in the '70's.

Even Merle Haggard - who had passed on Ken Nelson's idea of a country singer aimed at a trucker audience in the mid-'60's - got into the act a decade later, with 1975's number 1 hit "Movin' On" (the theme song for the NBC series) and 1978's "The Bull and the Beaver," a number 8 duet with then-wife Leona Williams.

Oddly enough, although the hits were fewer in number and tended to have shorter lives on the charts during the mid-'70's than in the previous decade, it's the '70's image of the truck driver that still tends to predominate today. It's difficult to pin this on any one reason, though by the mid- and late-'70's, Hollywood was certainly ready to cash in on a musical and cultural trend that it hadn't pursued 10 years earlier.

When asked what the differences were between the trucker boom in the '60's and the smaller one that followed in the '70's, Dudley is uncertain.

"As far as working, I don't know the difference. I always did traditional, and I stayed doing traditional all the while; even when I went to Europe. I know we went into kind of a loop there (in the late '60's), but we came back and started getting a few things, and it just seemed to perk up."

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