Black Music Matters Festival

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

By Jon Johnson, July 2000

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"I think it's stereotyped," says Holiday from a cell phone while riding through Wisconsin, referring to the public's perception of the industry. "They're thinking it's still the 'let-them-truckers-roll'-type stuff. And my music is nothing like that. I talk about truckers wanting to get home and be with their families. I just wanted to do something different. I wanted to play rock 'n' roll, country, comedy and gospel because truckers like all kinds of music. They're not just a country music audience any more. The media doesn't realize that trucking is into a different vein now."

In 1994, Holiday was performing primarily in honky-tonks and casinos - and looking for a way out. "I had a very vivid dream to go and check out the trucker music scene. As I was traveling to casinos, I was stopping at truck stops, checking out the music, and I saw that there was a large void from the '70's to the '90's for trucker music."

Through a fortuitous series of events, a tape of Holiday's independently- produced first album came to the attention of the Chicago-based Interstate Radio Network, one of several nationally syndicated nightly radio programs aimed at a trucker audience. I.R.N. general manager John Schaller, was impressed and invited Holiday to join I.R.N. on a tour of American truck stops.

"They were giving away a Freightliner as a (prize), and they couldn't get any truckers to come up into the trailer they had to promote different products. So my job was to go out there and entertain the drivers and get them to fill out the registration form to win the truck."

"We started out with 20 dollars, a thousand tapes and a rental car. Now we have six albums out on the market, we're on the road from March through November, and Dave Nemo has been the number one person promoting my music."

"I just want the general public to realize that trucking is different (now). You can make a lot of money out here, have a good time, and see the world. There are 300,000 lady truckers now. There are husband-and-wife teams who drive and get to spend time with each other."

"Trucking has totally changed."

And Holiday has a point: Trucking has not only changed. It's changed radically in the past 15 or 20 years. The industry today is heavily computerized, tremendously safety conscious and is a big business in the same sense as the auto industry and the software industry, with professional managers and executives, and fewer small operators than one saw in the '70's.

But what of truckers themselves? When asked about how the audience has changed since the "Convoy" days, a time when truckers were uniformly perceived by the public at large as country music-loving white men in their 30's and 40's, Tepper says, "I don't know if it was all that uniform then. It's certainly not uniform now. If you look at the overall truck driver community as a work force, I'm sure that country music is just a small sample of (what that group listens to)."

"On the other hand, there are still some vestiges, such as the all-night radio shows, like Bill Mack's and Dave Nemo's, that cater to the truck drivers. They've remained true to those country roots, and I think they have very large listenerships," adding that the trucking industry itself has become far more consolidated, particularly in the truck stop field.

Watson concurs: "It's a lot different now. There's a lot of women drivers. And I'd say that country music is one of the least listened to things with truckers today."

Nemo's opinion differs somewhat from that of Tepper and Watson, however. Addressing the public's longtime perception of truckers, Nemo says, "I think that a lot of the long haul drivers came from the south. When you get up into the northeast, you have a lot of Teamster drivers. And there's so much commerce up there that you don't really need to go back and forth across the country when you live in that area. So what happened is that the southern, country music-loving trucker spread all over the place. But when you go up into New England, most of those guys are going to be from that general area."

"But it was a stereotype," adds Nemo. "For instance, Carl Haas did a classical music program called 'Adventures in Good Music' on N.P.R. Every once in a while he would do a trucker's request show. And these truckers would want to hear Tchaikovsky, Bizet or Stravinsky, and he would read their letters. And I thought, 'Wow! Truck drivers are listening to classical music too!'"

"But when you have only one radio program (aimed at truckers, as was the case when the Road Gang started in 1971), you have to go with what the majority is. And we did surveys continually through the years. Yeah, you do have a lot of diverse musical tastes out there, but if you have to go with one, you're going to have to go with country. And if you're going to go with country, your best bet is to go with traditional."

Next issue: Trucker country radio: Mr. D.J., won't you please play a real country song?

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