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Watson, George, Holiday keep on truckin' in the '90's

By Jon Johnson, July 2000

To say that the ranks of the trucker country genre have thinned somewhat in the past 20 years would be an enormous understatement. The great names of the '60's and '70's are today either dead (Red Sovine, Dick Curless), far less active than they once were (Red Simpson, Dave Dudley) or retired altogether (C.W. McCall).

At the same time, few younger artists have emerged to replace them. The result has been that the past two decades have probably represented the nadir of the trucker country genre; partly due to a post-"Convoy" perception of the music as a fad whose time has come and gone (in spite of roots dating back to the late '20's), but also partly due to younger artists' reluctance in devoting much time to the subject.

"I think there are a couple of reasons for that," says Dave Nemo, host of the nationally syndicated Road Gang radio show; one of several all-night shows aimed at a trucker audience. "Back in the earlier days, I think there was more of a mystique about truckers than there is now. We know so much about everything that there's no more mystery about (it). You don't romanticize something that's not mysterious any more."

"If music is about anything, it's about mystique and romance and wanderlust. But there aren't many cowboy songs anymore, either, or train songs."

Country/rockabilly singer Sonny George echoes Nemo's belief. "I suppose it's not a very commercial thing to do any more. I don't know how many people are really interested in the truck driver. A lot of the romantic aspects have gone out of the whole trucking thing, and I guess they don't want to be pigeonholed."

Nemo adds that in spite of the huge impact "Convoy" and other hits had in the mid-'70's, that success wasn't universally appreciated. "Trucking also took a big hit in the '70's. WHO in Des Moines, Iowa banned 'Convoy' because it was inflammatory. Then when the C.D.L. (Commercial Driver's License, federally mandated in 1986) thing came out, trucking became newsworthy again. The media went after trucking and portrayed these guys in such a negative light that your mainstream country artists don't want to be associated with it."

In contrast, Tommy Hill, who produced numerous trucker hits for Starday Records in the '60's and '70's, including the Willis Brothers' "Give Me 40 Acres" and Red Sovine's "Giddy-Up-Go" and "Teddy Bear," feels lack of communication is to blame; not so much among musicians and record company executives, but among truck drivers themselves.

"The CB (radio) was so big at one time. They had a lot of fun with those CBs. And they really don't communicate with each other on the road like they used to," adding that once truck driving became less colorful, it became less of an interesting subject to sing about for many country artists.

That said, trucker country music has seen something of a rebirth during the past decade. If that rebirth hasn't yet translated to a renewed interest in trucker country on the part of radio programmers, it's not been due to a lack of effort.

Artists such as Dale Watson, Sonny George and Joey Holiday have devoted time and entire albums to the trucker country genre in recent years, even if their mainstream contemporaries only approach the subject on rare occasions (including Garth Brooks' number 3 hit "Papa Loved Mama" from 1992, Hal Ketchum's number 8 "Mama Knows the Highway" from 1993, and Sawyer Brown's 1997 remake of Dave Dudley's classic "Six Days On the Road").

The genesis of that rebirth can be partly traced to the emergence of the Brooklyn-based Diesel Only Records in 1990.

Diesel Only's original concept was to release 45rpm singles primarily aimed at truckers and the jukebox market. And to this day Diesel Only has concentrated on releasing 45s, with fairly recent releases from Dale Watson, Nick Lowe, and SWAG, featuring members of The Mavericks and Cheap Trick.

However, the label also released two CD compilations of their best singles in 1992 and 1993, as well as 1996's "Rig Rock Deluxe," collecting newly recorded trucker songs by Buck Owens, Son Volt, Steve Earle and others; in some cases pairing up younger acts like BR5-49 with long-inactive trucker artists like Kay Adams.

"Diesel Only was an outgrowth of a band I had in the '80's called the World Famous Blue Jays," says label head/trucker country historian Jeremy Tepper in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. "We came up with the term 'Rig Rock' to describe our sound. By 1989, I'd spent a lot of time crossing the country, visiting truck stops and absorbing trucker culture. And 'Diesel Only' is the term that appears on bumper stickers on trucks, so we named the label after the bumper sticker."

Tepper is currently working on two other projects; one a tribute to the oft-neglected trucker bluegrass tradition (featuring contributions from Marty Stuart and Steve Earle) and the other, in conjunction with the Country Music Foundation, is what Tepper hopes will be a definitive collection of trucker music covering the years 1939-1969. In 1999, Tepper also compiled a Red Simpson collection for Razor & Tie and had also provided some assistance on the label's 1998 Dick Curless collection.

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