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Trucking songs: hey Mr. DJ won't you play a real country song, part four of four

By Jon Johnson, September 2000

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Nemo, Mack and Sommers all express a tremendous degree of sympathy and affection for truckers, which can occasionally lead to problems when the interests of truckers and the interests of management at truck companies diverge, for the simple reason that truckers are the target audience, but the companies are sometimes the advertisers.

Says Sommers, "Some companies don't like (me) being so pro-driver and want (me) to be more pro-company, but I can only do it the way I feel is right. We're catering to truck drivers. We're not catering to the guy that's sitting in the corporate office making the decisions. And there have been a few occasions where we've alienated some of the advertisers. We regret it, but those things do happen."

Sommers says that one major impediment in good old AM listenership these days is not so much based on how many stations are broadcasting a particular show's signal, but in the design of the actual trucks.

"Since about 1987, they've gone with more fiberglass and aluminum. And computers and emission controls are killing the signal with noise. That's why we keep adding more stations. Design engineers in the factories were raised on FM, and most of these guys think everybody listens to FM."

As a result, says Sommers, radio antennas installed on modern trucks - Freightliners in particular - aren't grounded well enough to receive AM signals properly, nor are the radios themselves sufficiently shielded from the trucks' electrical emissions.

Technical frustrations aside, Nemo says that one of the most rewarding things about doing the show for as long as he has been watching the show being "passed down" from father to son, then again to the son's son. The listeners of these shows are extraordinarily loyal.

"It's so rare to find someone (listening to the show) who doesn't have a family member in trucking," says Nemo. "It's part of family culture, especially in the south. (When interviewing a country artist) I always ask, 'Okay, who's a trucker in your family?' And it's really hard to find somebody who doesn't have a family member who wasn't in trucking."

Nemo feels that the audience has changed little over the years, an opinion with which Mack agrees. "Of course they've got all kinds of gadgets for communication now, but basically the audience has stayed the same. Unless they've got their wife or girlfriend traveling with them, all they have with them (for company) is the radio."

Indeed, the lives of an awful lot of Americans are directly affected by trucking. Data provided by the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Labor Statistics for 1997 show a total of 3.08 million people in the U.S. with a primary occupation of commercial truck driver. Of these, 24.5 percent were classified as belonging to a minority group, and 5.7 percent were women. Add to that another 9.5 million people whose jobs (in manufacturing, agriculture, mining, etc.) directly depend on the trucking industry. And don't forget people who are no longer working in the trucking industry, but who drove a rig 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

It's tempting at times to point at trucker country music and see a style of music with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Today, the hits come infrequently and unpredictably, when they come at all, with a handful of marginal artists carrying the flag at this point. And yet cowboys still exist, and people still sing about them. Trains still ride the rails, and "Wreck of the Old 97" is still commonly heard today.

If history is any judge, then, trucker songs will also survive, as will people who sing them; perhaps as anachronistic in the year 2100 as songs about cowboys and steam engines seem to most people today, but they'll survive regardless. And just as cowboy songs and train songs were scattered around the country like seedlings, the same will hold true for trucker songs, to be sung by our descendants whenever they dream of wide open highways and of coming home to a loved one they haven't seen in far too long.

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