ransportation has always fascinated Americans - a nation of people constantly on the move - who've sung instinctively about the links that bind the country together, be they ships, riverboats, railroads, airplanes, or autos.
Under the circumstances, it's not particularly surprising that there are songs about trucks, or singers who have made their careers by singing about them.
Country songs about trucks date back to the earliest days of the modern country music era, commonly regarded as Ralph Peer's 1927 Bristol session that resulted in the discovery of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Though the earliest song about trucks has long been thought to be Cliff Bruner's "Truck Driver's Blues" (1939), Brooklyn-based trucker country expert Jeremy Tepper says that research has led him to an earlier number, "Wreck On the Mountain Road," released in 1928 by Guy Brooks and the Red Fox Chasers. Says Tepper, "That track is more of a 'Wreck of the Old 97' kind of thing."
Bruner's "Truck Driver's Blues" was the first trucker song to enter the public consciousness, however. Written by Ted Daffan (also remembered today for 1943's "Born to Lose"), the song sold more than 100,000 copies and solidified the romantic image of the lonely, harried and weary truck driver in the public's mind.
In 1940, Raoul Walsh directed "They Drive By Night," starring famed Hollywood tough guys Humphrey Bogart and George Raft as the Fabrini brothers, a pair of wildcat truckers dodging creditors and a murder rap. The movie also featured an excellent supporting cast including Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and Alan Hale.
Though the movie didn't include any music, it was an intriguing look at the trucking industry of the period; the first glimpse that most people of the time had ever had of the business.
After the twin successes of "Trucker Driver's Blues" and "They Drive By Night," though, things seemed quieter than one would have expected.
Chalk part of that up to the nation's preoccupation with World War II, but the fact is that long-haul trucking runs were comparatively rare in the days before the national highway system. Regional trucking runs were far more common during that period, with cross-country shipments more typically handled by train.
"I think you've got to look at the evolution of the interstate system during the Eisenhower administration," says Tepper. "That really opened the roads up and facilitated cross-country trucking. (Before then) they weren't singing about it as much."
Tepper adds that some songs from the pre-interstate period do exist, though, including "Truck Driver's Coffee Stop" by Dick Reinhart and His Lone Star Boys (1941), Art Gibson's "I'm a Truck Driving Man" (1947), Bob Newman's "Lonesome Truck Driver's Blues" (1950; also recorded by Bill Monroe), Eddie Hazelwood's "Truck Drivin' Woman" (1951), Doye O'Dell's "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves" (1952; later covered by Gene Autry, Red Simpson and others), Terry Fell's classic "Truck Driving Man" (1954) and Johnny Horton's "I'm Coming Home" (1957).
If one song can be pegged as the instigator of the modern trucker country era, however, it'd be Dave Dudley's 1963 hit (Number 2 country/Number 32 pop) "Six Days on the Road," a song that Tepper refers to as "the Big Bang of trucker country."
Though far from being Dudley's only country hit (Dudley's chart run continued until the comparatively late date of 1980), the song was a defining moment; both for Dudley as an artist and for trucker country as a genre, touching on aspects of the industry that hadn't been addressed previously in song, such as amphetamine use and dodging weigh stations.
Dudley, who could not be reached for comment, followed his trucker anthem with a number of other songs in the genre, including "Truck Drivin' Son-of-a-Gun" (1965), "Trucker's Prayer" (1967), "There Ain't No Easy Run" (1968) and others.
Why did trucker country finally gain a following in the '60s?
Though it's hard to say for sure, it was likely because the national highway system had largely been completed by the early '60s, and trucking was a growth industry.
After the success of "Six Days on the Road," the floodgates were open for a trucker country boom that ran until 1968. Dudley was without question the most successful of "the Four Horsemen of Trucker Country," but the others - Dick Curless, Red Simpson and Red Sovine - enjoyed long careers as well.
Maine-based Dick Curless was probably best known for his 1965 Number 5 hit "Tombstone Every Mile" and charted regularly until 1972, continuing to record sporadically until the '80s and remaining active with commercial voiceover work after that.
Though Curless had not recorded for a number of years, he was drawn out of semi-retirement by Jake Guralnick, who produced Curless' final album, "Traveling Through," released shortly after his death from cancer in 1995.
Guralnick was working for Rounder Records in 1994 when Curless called the company to order a Merle Travis video.