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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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The entertainment industry's interest in cashing in on a trend can never be overestimated, and the sudden high profile of truckers in the '70's was no exception. On the television side, NBC's adventure series "Movin' On" (1974-76) starred Claude Akins and Frank Converse as truckers Sonny Pruit and Will Chandler. Akins also co-starred in another NBC trucker series between 1979 and '81, "B.J. and the Bear," as Sheriff Elroy Lobo. Lighter in tone than "Movin' On," the series also starred Greg Evigan as B.J. McCay ("The Bear" was his pet chimp, who traveled with him), as well as the then-ubiquitous Judy Landers as the appropriately named "Stacks."

The big screen saw even more trucker action during the Me Decade, with "Duel" (1971; starring Dennis Weaver and directed by a young Steven Spielberg), "White Line Fever" (1975; starring Jan Michael Vincent), "Breaker Breaker" (1977; starring Chuck Norris), "Convoy" (1978; starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw), and the 1973 cult favorite "Truck Stop Women," which featured a frequently unclad - and frequently gun-toting - Claudia Jennings (1970 Playboy Playmate of the Year). The movie became a footnote to at least one political career when it was discovered during his 1996 presidential run that Republican Texas Sen. Phil Gramm had lined up the movie's financial backing in his younger (and apparently less conservative) days.

The real hits, however, belonged to Hollywood's bigger stars. Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, and Sally Fields starred in 1977's "Smokey and the Bandit," as well as a 1980 sequel (only Gleason returned for 1983's "Smokey and the Bandit III"). Though lacking fewer big names, Clint Eastwood's "Every Which Way But Loose" (1978; with a number 1 theme song by Eddie Rabbitt) and "Any Which Way You Can" (1980) also both did well at the box office, with Eastwood starring in a rare comedic role as Philo Beddoe, a two-fisted trucker who travels with a pet orangutan named Clyde.

The '80's were leaner times for trucker country music, however. The public's interest had, for whatever reason, moved on, and Red Sovine's death in 1980 left the genre without one of its most beloved figures.

Though trucker songs hit the charts from time to time during the '80's (including number 1 hits by Razzy Bailey with "Midnight Hauler" in 1981, Alabama's "Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)" in 1984, and Kathy Mattea's "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" in 1988), the remaining great names of the genre - Dudley, Curless, Simpson, the Willis Brothers, and others - had fallen from favor, more or less retiring from recording by the early '80's.

In addition, Johnny Dollar - who had some success in the late '60's with "Big Rig Rollin' Man," "Big Wheels Roll for Me," and "Truck Driver's Lament" - committed suicide in 1986.

During the '80's, younger artists were more reticent about being so closely associated with singing songs about trucks. Indeed, none of the artists who charted with trucker songs during the '80's and '90's did so twice; a far cry from the '60's and '70's when artists commonly revisited the subject.

Why did the genre fall so far so fast?

A large part of it was simply overexposure. Remember that though the '60's trucker country boom was much bigger than what followed 10 years later in terms of the number of songs on the charts and the duration of the trend, it had almost no impact on society outside of country music circles. There were no trucker TV shows or movies in the '60's, only "Six Days on the Road" crossed over into the pop charts, and C.B. radios were used by a much smaller group of people.

The situation was reversed a decade later when there were fewer hits over a much shorter period of time, but an explosion of trucker-related movies and TV shows drove the trend into the national consciousness like a jackhammer.

By the early '80's, when the TV shows and movies finally ground to a halt, the media and entertainment industry had thoroughly burned out the public on the subject of trucks and C.B. radios. The lesson: If one can count on the media to expose a trend, one can also count on them to overexpose it.

In spite of it all, though, the genre still had its fans, who would make their presence known during the '90's.

Next month: Diesel Only, Coast to Coast with the Road Gang, and Dale and Sonny keep on movin' on: The modern era of trucker country music.

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