Hey, if he wants 40 acres to turn his rig around then do as the song says…

Winter had set in over Maine, and in late March 1983, it showed no sign of “heading out to sea” as the locals often said. Seven-foot snow drifts lined both sides of the two-lane highways. The temperature topped out at 14 degrees – downright balmy. I was a 16-year-old volunteer fire-boy (some might say “firefighter,” but I never earned such a distinction). We’d been called to a car accident south of town, one I never got close enough to see. My orders? Walk the line of vehicles rapidly stacking up and tell the drivers to find a different route. The road would be closed three or four hours. That’s all I knew, and it’s all I said.

The first half dozen cars pulled three-point turns and headed northward. Next, I approached an 18-wheeler loaded down with pulp wood. I climbed to the window of the truck like I knew what I was doing and told the driver my now well-rehearsed line, “Might as well turn around.” He looked at me like the brain lobe supplying “good sense” had liquified and poured from my left ear.

The driver wasn’t particularly fond of a half-wit kid wearing a fire helmet (and to think I thought it was a sign of authority) telling him to reverse course in the confines of a 22-foot wide two-lane highway probably narrowed to 18 feet with the snow drifts. He responded with a few choice words – “ignorant” and “stupid” made his list as did some expletives and a brief commentary on the failures of public education.

Holy–! I forgot!

I climbed down from the cab and shied away. I didn’t know squat about trucks, but I did know trucker music. But for those few moments, I failed to heed what I’d learned.

* * *   

The Willis Brothers recorded several albums of trucking-themed songs during the 1960s, three decades after getting their start on an Oklahoma farm. Two of the brothers and a friend formed a band in the early 1930s, performing as “The Oklahoma Wranglers.” One brother and the friend left before the end of the decade. By 1939, The Oklahoma Wranglers consisted of three Willises. Before the brothers caught a break in music, World War II arrived. The trio enlisted and served the duration of the war.

In 1945, The Oklahoma Wranglers returned home and picked up where they left off. Within a year, the group performed on Ryman Hall’s Grand Ole Opry stage, and in their spare time they played backup on early recordings of Hank Williams, Sr.

The road Hank Sr. followed is well-documented, and The Oklahoma Wranglers chose not to follow. Eddy Arnold came calling in 1949, and the band toured with him for 8 years. The exposure was great, but in 1957, the “Wranglers” decided to strike out on their own. To avoid confusion, they adopted a new name truly reflecting who they were – “The Willis Brothers.”

The brothers first two albums (1962 and 1963) barely registered a blip on clear-channel AM radio, and another in 1965 gave no indication stardom rest on the horizon. With the release of a second 1965 album, “Give Me 40 Acres,” The Willis Brothers fortunes changed.

The title song soared up the country charts, hitting No.9 in the U.S. and No.1 in Canada (it always seems Canadiens and Europeans appreciate the best U.S. country music has to offer faster – and longer – than Americans).

The tunes bluegrass influence and lyrics painted a picture of a rural southern truck driver overwhelmed by the congestion of New England – specifically Boston, just 90 minutes south of my adopted hometown. Taking the lyrics another step, on the other hand, “Give me 40 acres and I’ll turn this rig around; it’s the easiest way that I’ve found…” connected with not only truckers but with most anyone who didn’t like crowds.

The Willis Brothers never had a bigger hit song, and they stuck with the trucking-theme for another 1965 album and three in 1966.

***

Fortunately, no one died in the 1983 car accident I worked as a fire-boy, but I was adequately humiliated (I mean, it has been 36 years, and it’s burned in my brain so I can write about it in detail). That truck driver who so eloquently defamed me didn’t get his 40 acres, but he lucked out and didn’t need to turn his rig around anyway. After about 15 minutes, the road cleared, and The Willis Brothers lyrics no longer mattered – especially when the trucker offered me his humble grin. As he shifted into gear, I’m pretty sure I heard him sing ever so faintly, “Give us 15 seconds, and I’ll bury him in the snow…”

Dan Seals’ song teaches us to avoid regret and follow our dream

We could spend an eternity talking about the qualities of classic country music. Whether it’s momma, trucks, trains, prison, or what have you, classic country is pure American music. It tells stories of real situations and real people. What’s more, no matter the story behind the lyrics, classic country allows listeners to relate a song to their own lives, problems, situations, and dreams. 

When I was a kid growing up in Maine, we counted snowfall by the foot. After three decades in the South, I’ve found it easier to measure in millimeters. Maybe because of this shift from New England southward during my college years, I’ve held on to a dream — probably longer than I should.  

I was always fascinated with snowplows. I don’t mean a four-wheel-drive pickup with a blade attached. I’m talking about one of these big ol’ orange plows, complete with a salt spreader, two blades and enough firepower to bury a subcompact car until July. I’d been offered the chance to drive one of those for a couple of winters after high school, but I turned it down, using college as an excuse. 

I’ve regretted it ever since.  

While that dream may be about a different kind of truck than the one Dan Seals sang of in his 1988 hit “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” the point behind this late-blooming trucking song is that we all have regrets about something. You may or may not regret that you chose truck driving as a profession, but somewhere along the way, you probably dreamed of the open road. Imagine life today if you had never pursued the dream. As we get older, regrets get stronger. 

When it comes to 1980s country, few artists could better transcend all walks of life than Dan Seals. Artists like Seals remind us we aren’t alone. 

Seals were no stranger to regrets. In fact, many of his 20 charting country singles deal directly with where he came from and the direction life took him. For four decades, he was a presence on the American music scene, and not just in country-music circles. 

Dan and his brother, Jim, were born in Texas, where country music influences most future performers. But Jim turned to soft rock and made his name as the “Seals” of Seals and Crofts, a duo that recorded off and on for 35 years. 

As for Dan, he originally planned to ride his brother’s coattails. Instead, he took a risk and adopted the name “England Dan,” a nickname Jim gave him as a child. England Dan joined forces with classmate John Ford Coley, and the duo recorded during the1970s and into the 1980s with modest success. The hit song most folks remember is “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” 

But Seals became tired of the soft rock/pop scene.  

In 1983, he moved to Nashville, changed his stage name to Dan Seals and embarked on a country music career. Early songs included “God Must Be a Cowboy,” “Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond) and “My Old Yellow Car.” Still, it wasn’t until he released the album Rage On in 1988 that he became widely popular on the country scene. Seals reached No. 1 on the country charts with the trucking song “Big Wheels in the Moonlight.” 

No matter your profession or your lot in life, you can identify with “Big Wheels in the Moonlight.” It is a song about dreams we don’t follow and the regret we eventually feel. 

In “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” Seals first recalls growing up in a tiny town with few opportunities for escape. Every night he’d make his way to the intersection of the town’s only caution light and watch tractor-trailers speed through on their way to “who knows where.” When he got home, he’d lie awake and listen to the diesel engines on the distant highway, falling asleep and “dreaming of big wheels in the moonlight.” 

In the next verse, Seals is no longer a kid. He has a wife, children and a good job — but something is missing. Even after all those years, he hasn’t lost the dream. But it’s not to be. Two lines of “Big Wheels in the Moonlight” put listeners in Seals’ chair, whether they dream of trucks or Pulitzer Prizes: “I know that there’s a peace I’ll never find … ’cause those big wheels keep rolling through my mind.” 

Whatever your job or your situation, you surely have some dream you never pursued. All you have to do is slip that dream in place of Dan Seals’ description of his “wanderlust” to hear “some big old diesel whine.” Chances are, you’ll find yourself regretting some dream you left behind — one that, somewhere along the way, you’ve realized would never come true.  

Until next time, if your dream is to drive a snowplow, either migrate northward, or, if you’re already there, don’t leave. Otherwise, you’ll be like me and use a radio-controlled bulldozer to clean the three millimeters of “heavy snow” your local meteorologist offers once or twice a year. I’ve tried, but operating my little tracks in the moonlight just isn’t fulfilling, and the thrill of stranding some poor fellow and his Yugo for four or five months seems to be lost.  

Country duo rides Boy George’s stardom to hit song

I’ve never been a big fan of music videos, at least not the type that dramatizes the lyrics. And I don’t take a liking to many songs written with the sole purpose of being made into a video — to me, that’s screenwriting, not songwriting. After all, instrumentals alone can create a vision in a listener’s mind. I’ve mentioned the “clickity-clack” beat of Merle Haggard’s “Movin’ On” as an example of how the tempo gives rise to thoughts of the highway before the lyrics even begin.

But every once in a while, especially in the 1980s, when country music was trying to capitalize on the MTV craze, country musicians offered a couple of videos that were funny enough to make me laugh at least twice before I started losing interest. When it came to country comedy videos, few were as successful as those of Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley.

A lot of people remember “Moe and Joe,” as they were commonly known, for their videos. But both had successful solo careers before joining to record seven albums, and they continued with their solo efforts during and after the collaborations. As a duo, the two singers built an image based on their first single release, the No. 1 hit, “Just Good Ol’ Boys.” It seemed the image struck a chord with country music fans who have always so closely identified with the artists and songs they sing.

Moe Bandy was born in Meridian, Mississippi, but was transplanted to San Antonio at age 6. The move fueled Moe’s interest in honky-tonk music, as well as a calling to rodeo for both Moe and his brother, Mike. As teens, both competed in rodeos across Texas, but their careers eventually diverged. Mike went on to be the professional rodeo star, while Moe pursued his musical career. Contrary to popular belief inspired by Moe Bandy’s signature song, “Bandy the Rodeo Clown,” he never performed as a clown (or bullfighter, as they are now known).

After taking his first shot at a music career in 1962, it would be 12 years before Bandy’s efforts paid off. His first charting single, “I Just Started Hating Cheating Songs Today,” became the prototype for Bandy’s early career. He became the stereotypical country musician whose discography consisted almost exclusively of “cheatin’ and drinkin’” songs. He topped off the first phase of his career in 1979 when he and Janie Fricke teamed up for the No. 2 hit, “It’s a Cheatin’ Situation,” a duet that took home Song of the Year honors from the Academy of Country Music. Throughout his career, Bandy has recorded 40 solo albums and released 14 Top 10 singles.

Joe Stampley, also a native of the Deep South, was raised in Northwest Louisiana. Born just a year before his future singing partner, Stampley began his musical career much differently than Bandy. He started with a rock band, The Uniques. The band recorded just four albums and released two moderately successful singles between 1965 and 1970. When his rock career fizzled, Stampley followed the path of many other southern rock musicians: He went country.

Beginning in 1971, Stampley began a country career during which he quietly turned out 22 albums and 14 Top 10 solo hits, perhaps the most popular being the trucking song, “Roll On, Big Mama.” But when the ’80s arrived, Stampley’s solo career took a back seat to the success of the Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley duo. The “good ol’ boys’” reputation came to a head in 1984 when the duo recorded — and, more notably, made a video — of a parody song, “Where’s the Dress.”

In early 1984, the most popular song in the world was “Karma Chameleon,” performed by the British band Culture Club and its prominent leader Boy George. The song appeared, most often in the No. 1 spot, on charts worldwide. Whether it was the flamboyant Boy George, the catchy tune or the music video accompanying the song, “Karma Chameleon” appealed to music fans of all sorts.

The music video accompanying “Karma Chameleon,” ironically set in Moe Bandy’s native Mississippi, colorfully depicted everything that Moe, Joe and most “good ol’ boys” were not. So, inspired by a song written by Stampley’s son, Moe and Joe decided to parody the worldwide hit (and hoped to make a heap of money in the process). “Where’s the Dress” became Moe and Joe’s answer to Boy George.

Before examining “Where’s the Dress,” it should be noted that 1984 was much different than 2021. Frankly, it’s doubtful the song would be written today, much less released in video form. In today’s world, one of Joe Stampley’s early lines wouldn’t even pass the smell test: “It was a man dressed like a woman, and he had a boy’s name.” If one applies 2021 standards to 1984, the entire “Where’s the Dress” episode ranks high on the list of offensive moments in country music history.

In any event, before passing judgment, I suggest you first watch the “Karma Chameleon” video; then follow up with “Where’s the Dress.” This is a case where the visuals provided by the videos are needed to grasp the point Moe and Joe tried to make.

Moe and Joe pose as truck drivers in the video, roles they take in several of the duo’s songs. The two lament the fame and riches of Boy George and their belief that he’s making it big by, essentially, “cross-dressing.” But the gist of “Where’s the Dress” is likely best described by music journalist Nick Murray in the Feb. 1, 2018, issue of Rolling Stone Magazine:

“Stranger … even, was the duo’s song “Where’s the Dress,” a Boy George-inspired novelty hit in which Moe and Joe decide to dress in drag — become “country queens” — in a bid to revitalize their careers. The plan goes awry when they enjoy gender-bending so much that it instead puts their careers in jeopardy, and the music video ends with the conservative Roy Acuff using the bow of his fiddle to beat the mascara-wearing singers off the Opry stage. (In ‘Lucky Me,’ [Moe Bandy’s autobiography], Moe credits this episode mostly to Joe.)”

It’s hard to say if “Where’s the Dress” hurt Moe and Joe as a duo. They did release three more songs from the same album, but none became hits. “Where’s the Dress” would be their last hit together before the duo stopped recording, noting their solo careers suffered. But in a 1984 interview, Joe Stampley was defensive in saying, “(‘Where’s the Dress’) wasn’t done as a put-down to Boy George. It’s a novelty song that wonders whether two country bumpkins could (dress that way) in a honky-tonk.” He added that Boy George “is a talent … genius … and sharp.”

So, the entire “Where’s the Dress” episode was short-lived and didn’t cause a rift in music like it might today. At least not a major rift.

Boy George and his manager did file suit against Bandy and Stampley for copyright infringement. The suit didn’t seek damages for using the likeness of Boy George or Culture Club, but for using the same guitar rift and harmonica lick written into “Karma Chameleon.” Bandy later said, “That little mess-up cost us $50,000.”

Until next time, let me remind you: When you listen to classic country music, you need to go back in time and apply the standards of the day to your criticism, not today’s standards. After all, what could anyone expect from Moe and Joe? Neither of the two was a copyright lawyer. Moe and Joe were “just good ol’ boys.”

Driving double-nickels never meant a trucker could stop on a dime

Back in a day many of you probably don’t remember, the U.S. had a national speed limit. No vehicle of any type on any road could lawfully drive over 55 mph — or as CB lingo put it “double-nickels.” Brought on by the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the national 55 mph speed limit was designed to save fuel as much as anything, although some safety experts also claimed it saved lives. On the other hand, just as many safety officials thought that the limit — imposed on interstate highways originally designed for vehicles traveling 70 to 75 mph — took as many lives as it saved.

Fifty-five mph is a slow pace when traveling some remote stretch of interstate in Kansas or Nebraska. And when drivers headed through the urban Northeast, the 55 mph limit hardly kept up with the reality of traffic flow. As a result, tailgating, cutting off other drivers and a general disrespect for the rules of the road increased among most everyone.

As far as truck drivers were concerned, whether they were following the national speed limit or not, it made for hazardous driving conditions. As Randy Travis famously sang in “Three Wooden Crosses,” one of his later hit songs, “18-wheelers can’t stop on a dime.”

Travis was just one of many artists who recorded songs about truck drivers who couldn’t stop in time to avoid collisions.

Truck-driving music could have its own subgenre when it comes to dealing with tragedy on the highway. Some songs tell of near misses that ended in the deaths of drivers and incidents that ended in collisions. Many of these songs are haunting, but others are matter-of-fact — a simple telling of the perils of the highway.

Among the songs classified as “haunting,” it’s hard to recall one that has a greater emotional impact on listeners than Red Sovine’s “Phantom 309.” Even the title clues the listener in to the story Sovine told — in his trademarked recitation method — of “Big Joe” swerving his truck to miss a bus load of kids. “Big Joe” didn’t survive what ended as a single-vehicle accident, but he haunted the highway, handing out dimes for cups of coffee to those who needed a pick-me-up.

While “Big Joe” was a fictional character, the incident that inspired the lyrics actually happened. Several accidents are credited as the basis for Sovine’s tale, but the fatality of a truck driver in Vermont seems to be the one most associated with the song.

Coincidentally, another of trucking music’s most haunting songs also happened in the Northeast.

“Tombstone Every Mile,” sung by the Baron of Country Music, Dick Curless, tells the history of a “stretch of road, way up north in Maine,” where many truckers lost their lives. The number of drivers who died in the Haynesville Woods is certainly exaggerated for effect — the highway is not a long one, but it does become treacherous during the winter months.

However, some researchers believe the inspiration for Curless’ song was two young girls who were killed on the road by out-of-control trucks in separate incidents — on the same day. Fortunately, the stretch of road is no longer a “must-pass” route for truckers hauling potatoes to Boston.

Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” doesn’t tell of a trucking accident per se; instead, Haggard sings of an eternal life on the road. The song is about a man who wants to change his lifestyle, but trucking is such an addiction it’s become part of his soul. The lyrics tell of a driver who sees his approaching death but is incapable of taking the steps needed to protect himself.

In the category of near misses and miracles, country music’s Alabama recorded the No. 1 song “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler).” More inspirational than tragic, the lyrics tell of a driver who has prepared his family for the moment he knows will eventually arrive — a time his wife and kids are unsure of his fate. Lost in a blizzard, the driver knows his family will find courage in the words he told them to sing when that time came, and the story has a happy ending.

On the comedy side of trucking music, Red Simpson’s “I’m a Truck” offers a semi’s view of riding the highways with what the truck considers a relatively incompetent driver at the wheel. The truck recalls the many moments the driver brags of how his skillful driving techniques helped avoid accidents. All the while, the truck knows the truth: The truck, not the driver, always saved the day.

The “double-nickels” speed limit is a theme of the novelty trucking song “White Knight,” recorded by Cledus Maggard and the Citizen’s Band. The hero of the song has a hard time paying attention to the national speed limit. In fact, he spends more time on his CB radio than he does watching the road, always on the lookout for “Smokeys” and speed traps. Of course, his reliance on the CB turns sour when one of his informants turns out to be a “White Knight,” CB slang for a traffic cop. The driver, “The Mean Machine,” decides he can’t stop on a dime — or even decelerate in short order — while traveling 92 mph.

Aside from the aforementioned songs dealing with the national speed limit, there are songs about drivers who have no intention of slowing down. The movie “Smokey and the Bandit” provided more than one such tune on its soundtrack, most notably “East Bound and Down,” as well as the less popular “West Bound and Down.” Of course, the title track told the story of “The Bandit,” who used the heels of his boots to drag his out-of-control truck to a stop at the bottom of a steep grade in Tennessee.

Congress raised the national speed limit to 65 mph in the latter half of the 1980s. And with increasing pressure from the states, whose officials realized better than Congress that traveling a virtually untraveled interstate highway in North Dakota is a lot different than driving up the Jersey Shore, the federal government soon abandoned the national speed limit.

Speed limits are now set by each state. Some stretches of highway have no posted speed limit, while the highest enforced limit of 85 mph is on a relatively new bypass east of San Marcos, Austin and San Antonio, Texas. As far as I know, no one has recorded a song about it — at least not yet.

Modern agendas can’t sweep meaning of trucking song from the highway

Dave Dudley released seven singles for country radio between 1955 and 1962, but as he told Vic Willis of The Willis Brothers on television one night in 1963, “None of them were very good.”

Dudley made up for any early career failures that evening when he debuted his signature song “Six Days on the Road,” a cut from his first album, “Dave Dudley Sings ‘Six Days on the Road.’”

The song not only started Dudley on a career focused on the working man and truck-driving songs, but it also landed him the No. 2 position on the Billboard Country Charts and No. 32 on the Billboard US Chart.

Likewise, Dudley offered inspiration to performers like Merle Haggard, who later made a career of singing tales of the all-American, masculine, working man — a man proud of his country and not fearful of expressing his love for America, family and God.

David Darwin Pedruska, alias “Dave Dudley,” was born in Spencer, Washington, in 1928. His grandparents, immigrants from Germany, gave him a guitar when he was 11, and Dudley taught himself to play.

After an unsuccessful career as a baseball player, Dudley chose his second favorite subject — country music — as a profession.

He released several singles during the first seven years of his career, two of which charted. “Under the Cover of the Night” was his biggest early hit, rising to No. 18 on the charts. The song also showed enough promise to land Dudley a recording contract with Golden Vee Records.

Variant

Dudley’s new label wasted little time producing “Six Days on the Road” as a single. That No. 2 hit gave way to a slew of remakes over the next six decades; in fact, covers of “Six Days” continue to be made today.

But Dudley wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Over the course of his career, he had 33 Top 40 Country hits, including trucker anthems like “Trucker’s Prayer,” “Truck Drivin’ Son of a Gun” and “There Ain’t No Easy Run.”

Among the most popular and well-known trucking songs in history (in fact, several online ratings sites list it as the best-ever trucking song), “Six Days on the Road” uses Dudley’s barreled vocals to make listeners feel like they’re riding shotgun to Dudley himself.

It wasn’t that the song had any unique quality; it just helps set another two decades of trucking songs that have accompanied drivers along the road. Still, “Six Days” does its best to summarize a truck driver’s life, if only during the era it debuted.

Dudley uses the lyrics of “Six Days” to immediately set the stage for the remainder of the song. When he sings, “I pulled out of Pittsburgh rollin’ down that Eastern Seaboard,” the listener knows the driver is headed south, and he’s doing so with a vengeance. His diesel is “wound up” and is running “like never before,” and the driver isn’t going to let any speed traps stop him on his way home.

Adding realism to the song and showing that he knew about the topic he was describing, Dudley throws in words about his “10 forward gears,” “a Georgia overdrive” and the names of other trucks — “Jimmy” (GMC) and White. And he again reminds everyone that he not slowing down as he passes “everything in sight.”

The driver notes that there’s only one woman in is life, and he’s planning to see her by nightfall:

          Well it seems like a month since I kissed my baby goodbye

          I could have a lot of women but I’m not alike some other guys

          I could find one to hold me tight

          But I could never make believe it’s all right

          Six days on the road and I’m gonna make it home tonight.

Reality comes back into the picture when Dudley lets the listener know that the Interstate Commerce Commission (“ICC”) is conducting inspections down the road.

Despite his load being over the weight limit and his log book overdue for an entry — issues that have been automated today — Dudley avoids the problem by dodging the weigh stations that once dotted the interstate landscape.

Of course, modern automation wouldn’t allow him to “dodge” much of anything in the 21st century. But “Six Days” is a song of the 1960s, and it addresses issues of the era.

Once Dudley establishes that he’s rolling home with no plans to get delayed, he lets the listener know that his truck may not be all he claimed when he left Pittsburgh.

It’s “a little old but that don’t mean she’s slow,” he informs listeners, adding “there’s a flame from her stack and that smokes been a blowing black as coal” (remember, the environmental movement was still nearly a decade away).

Regardless, the truck has served the driver well, and by song’s end, he is heading into his hometown, one happy driver — and ready to see his “baby.”

In general, “Six Days” is an upbeat and positive tune, but if one reads between the lyrics, the problems that plague truck drivers and the profession ring true.

The driver is a lonely man far from home and for too long. He gets his share of ladies making passes at him at truck stops along his route, and he consistently gives them the cold shoulder because the person he loves is at the end of the rainbow — his latest week-long route.

Keeping to a schedule and staying legal would be concerns if he weren’t so obsessed with getting home. And to throw in another statement of the era, the song addresses one issue of the truck driving profession that resonates today.

In just the second verse of the song, the driver admits to taking “little white pills” that keep him awake. (Of course, we are all well aware some 60 years later that “awake,” “attentive” and “safe” are not necessarily comparable terms.) Those “uppers” aren’t the norm among drivers today — after all, random drug screening makes those white pills more difficult to get away with.

In later years, Dudley’s reference came under the scrutiny of people with agendas other than making music. Perhaps the combination of caffeine and energy supplements could serve as a substitute and make the lyrics more accurately apply to the industry today.

Actually, in recent covers of “Six Days on the Road,” the little white pills are gone.

Instead, the driver sings of passing “little white lines.” To the discerning listener, the change in lyrics to fit the times should not go unnoticed.

Johnny Cash’s famous refusal to change one word in Kris Kristofferson’s line, “Lord, I wish I was stoned” in his live national television performance of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in the late ’60s set a high bar against bending to executives’ opinions of society’s wants.

In the case of “Six Days,” the change in lyrics reflects a loss of continuity and meaning in Dave Dudley’s wildly popular song. It’s unlikely he would approve of the change in his signature song today.

Former mortician scores big hit with ‘old school’ song that transcends genres

Years ago, I recall a local country radio poll asking listeners to pick from one of two newly released songs. Which would be the bigger hit?

I don’t recall either of the songs (something that probably tells you about the fate of both), but I do remember listening to one and thinking, “Just because the lyrics include ‘NASCAR,’ it doesn’t mean you have a country song.”

The same can be said of trucking songs.

Just because a song mentions a truck, it’s not necessarily a trucking song. And by no means does that mention make it a good trucking song — or a good song at all. It’s a rare feat for an artist to take a songwriter’s lyrics that allude to trucking and turn them into a good hit song.

But in 1985, John Conlee pulled off the feat with his single, “Old School.”

Born in Kentucky to tobacco farmers in 1946, Conlee is an unlikely performer. He did take up the guitar early in life, but following high school, he worked as a mortician. Now, a lot of country songs talk about death and dying, and no doubt somewhere there’s a lyric or two about “preparing the dead.” But Conlee didn’t try to parlay his experiences into a singing career.

After landing a job as a disc jockey, on the other hand, his aspirations changed. Conlee became one of many disc jockeys who attempted to parlay their contacts in the music world into successful singing careers.

In 1971, the music bug bit John Conlee enough to send him on a one-way trip to Nashville. He hoped to land something — anything — that he could make into a career of in the music business. It took time, but in 1976, he signed a contract with ABC Records.

Two years later, he charted his first single, “Rose Colored Glasses.”

Although the song fell short of No. 1, topping out at No. 5 on the Billboard Country Charts, the notoriety it brought Conlee turned it into his signature song and provided a gimmick for his act that he continues today — he always wears a pair of rose-colored sunglasses when on stage.

While those rose-colored glasses may have become a stage gimmick, the same cannot be said of Conlee’s voice.

Few have ever sung with a voice as unique as Conlee’s baritone, one that could just as easily be featured in a bluegrass tune as it could the “Nashville Sound” of the early 1980s.

In fact, Conlee recently performed a bluegrass version of “Common Man” with Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. While the lyrics to “Common Man” are a bit more modern than those typically associated with bluegrass music, it easily blends with the instrumentation.

Throughout his career, Conlee, like Merle Haggard before him, focused on songs about the working man.

Conlee’s “Back Side of Thirty,” “Friday Night Blues,” “I Don’t Remember Loving You” and “Domestic Life” all reached Top 5 status on the charts, while 1983’s “Common Man” became the first in a string of four consecutive chart toppers.

Like “Rose-Colored Glasses,” “Old School” didn’t reach No. 1, but it was a solid Top 5 single for Conlee. “Old School” followed Conlee’s pure trucking song, “Blue Highway.”

But “Blue Highway” only managed to reach No. 15 on the charts — one of Conlee’s lowest-charting records while at the height of his career.

Still, the theme of “Blue Highway” — a hard-working truck driver who yearns for the wife he left behind for another cross-country trip — serves as an excellent segue into the “Old School.”

In fact, “Old School” could easily be considered a continuation of “Blue Highway,” telling the story of what happened when that lonely driver came home.

As its name suggests, “Old School” is the story of a man with deep family values. He works hard for his family “driving 18 wheels,” and the choice of career became one that cost him his high school love.

The love remains in his memory while he is on the road over the years, but he realizes he and his former girlfriend “came from different sides of the track.”

Regardless the two swore that they’d be together forever; after all, that’s the way it worked for couples from (or who were) “old school.”

Later in the song, Conlee recalls the day he read about his former love getting married to a guy who “was a big deal.” And despite the very public wedding that was flaunted in the singer’s face, he took it all in stride and simply “went for a ride down by the old school.”

While the newlyweds lived the high life and his ex-girlfriend’s husband made it big (interpreted to mean in the business world) Conlee married a “sweet young girl and kept driving for the line.”

And while he lived the domestic life, he watched from afar as his old girlfriend’s husband left her with the kids. But seemingly she had all she ever wanted in a “big house with a swimming pool.”

In the closing stanzas of “Old School,” Conlee takes his wife to his high school reunion where he is reunited with his love long past.

He agrees to a dance, and while on the old gym floor, she makes a pass at him. The singer is taken aback. After being told that “everyone” has affairs, Conlee responds with a bit of a surprise ending, yet one that any John Conlee fan knew was coming:

I don’t care if they do.
I’m from the old school,
Where hearts stay true.
I’m from the old school,
I thought you were too.

With “Old School,” Conlee didn’t take the path of a stereotypical truck driver, landing in a different place with a different fling every night. Instead, he took the route that’s true to most people in the truck driving profession — the route of the old school, where truckers miss those they leave behind on their long runs and can’t wait to reunite with them.

Songs that would be Gold

January 2017

Before you begin reading, I recommend you visit my website, http://www.krisrutherford.com, and click “About Me.” You’ll come away with a much better understanding of how I think and, hence, write. Basically, don’t take anything I write too seriously. I’ll give my opinions, but I have a tendency to exaggerate for dramatic effect on occasion (maybe every other sentence to two). After checking out the page (feel free to buy some books while you are there), return to the homepage and click the  “Me & Jerome” link to return here.
Welcome back.

As my family drove the 250-mile trek from Central Arkansas to our weekend home in Texas the other day, a shuffle of Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys playing on my IPhone, I caught myself wondering about all the undiscovered classic country songs. I mean, have you ever wondered where the unseen jewels of classic country music are actually stored? No, I don’t mean those hidden in the crown George Strait wears under his black Resistol. Nor am I referring to those that echo in some long-shuttered West Texas dance hall or rest in a yellowing sludge pile in a corner office on Music Row. The real gems of country music are readily open for public viewing (or listening) every day. Today’s generation of country (I use the term loosely) fans just don’t have a clue where to find them and wouldn’t recognize them if they did. As an Oak Ridge Boys fan of the late 70’s and 80’s (which I assume you are since you are reading this), I assure you, the hidden gems are right under your nose.

You can find classic country’s jewels right between the wide lines on your old ORB vinyl LPs—the tracks you never ran your needle through like you did with “Elvira,” “I’ll Be True to You,” or “You’re the One.” On the other hand, if you’re a collector of old 45 RPMs, take a look at the flip side you’ve ignored for the past thirty-plus years. There they are—the precious stones of classic country music. Most never made it to radio and haven’t been played in a live ORB concert in years, but give them a listen. You’ll find some of the ORB’s finest work. As a fan since the tender age of ten when the Y’all Come Back Saloon album first charted, I’ve carefully selected my favorite ten ORB songs that would, or should, be gold. So, in no particular order:

1. “Easy”— As far as I’m concerned, the body of work of Y’all Come Back Saloon remains the ORB masterpiece to this day. Other albums offered bigger hits, but as a collection, it’s hard to top the ten tracks on this record. Give me one album to listen to on a cross-country bike ride, and it’s no contest. Y’all Come Back Saloon put country music on notice that gospel didn’t have the ORB under lock and key. No song better exemplifies the transformation than “Easy.” Keep in mind, this was back in the days when Dallas’ WBAP still used that annoying “BLEEEEP” to censor Faron Young’s “Here I am in Dallas, Where the Hell are You?” The uproar from country’s conservative audience hearing “Easy” over the public airwaves would have deafened any outcry from Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore being shown sleeping in the same bed. Nearly four decades later, the risqué lyrics of promiscuity and teen pregnancy featured in “Easy” are mild at best, but I’m not even sure Outlaw Country Artists would have been so bold in 1977.

Duane Allen’s vocals on “Easy” are, to at least my two ears, the best piece of work he ever recorded. Changing his voice inflection from a “matter-of-fact” mood to one of sympathy with a touch of anger to understanding and tenderness in the span of three minutes must have been a hard chore.
Now, at the age of ten, a few years before cable TV and a long time before the internet, I had nary a clue what “Easy” really meant. When I reached high school and beyond, though, the raw honesty, emotion, and depth of the lyrics became clear. Never released as a U.S. single, “Easy” became an overseas hit and the subject of a very early music video. Had conservative country radio been ready to openly discuss the topic matter at hand, “Easy” would have surely been a chart-topper. Thinking back on it, I may remember “Easy” so well from the infamous episode when my mother heard me singing along and asked me if I even knew what the words meant. Without thinking, I responded with a short, “No, but it’s a hell of a tune, ain’t it?” She bleeped me all the way to my bedroom.

2. “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them (Back in 1924):” Shockingly, I have read reviews naming “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” as the weakest link on the ORB debut country album. I beg to differ. Even though I was wet behind the ears, I connected with the song immediately. I may have been a legal resident of Maine, moving there at just three months of age, but Mainers only accept someone as native if they are born inside the state’s boundaries. As far as they were concerned, I was a “From Away,” and the summers I spent in Texas did little to hide the Scarlet “FA” showing brightly in my sleeve. I may have been ostracized as a foreigner in New England and considered a Yankee in Texas, but those summers in the South allowed me to experience rural life. Northeast Texas’ Lamar County, my summer home and the roots of the modern Rutherford family, is an area still 99.7% rural as it approaches the age of 175. For a kid, that statistic translated to 99.7% old people. After all, how many kids do you remember from “The Beverly Hillbillies?” Jethro doesn’t count.

The lyrics of “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” still ring my senses today, the story of an old maid and a schoolgirl taking me back to the many hours I spent around country ladies who, at the time, seemed ancient. Duane Allen’s trademark smooth delivery raises memories of sipping iced tea from one of those ribbed yellow and red striped “hoop” glasses made back in the 50s. Those glasses must have been molded from lexan, because every old lady I knew still had a complete set they’d used every day since the Korean War. I can picture myself in the shoes of the schoolgirl (well, you get my point) who made daily visits to the old maid’s house. Rather than trying on dresses and looking at old dance cards, I could be found sucking on three or four lemon drops melted together in a cut-glass bowl because old people hadn’t yet discovered the convenience of air conditioning. Or, how about those candy gel-like orange slices covered with sugar? I never had the heart to tell an old lady even solid sugar comes with an expiration date and turns to concrete after about six years.

In the end, “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” isn’t really a song about an old maid and a teenage girl. It’s about choices—making choices that may be unpopular with some but living with the choices that can’t be undone. ORB lawyers should have sued George Jones’ songwriter for stealing their idea twenty years later.

3. “An Old Time Family Bluegrass Band”—I told you, it’s hard to get away from the ORB first country album when looking for their hidden gems. Dad was a bluegrass fan when I was a kid, but I didn’t get it. Sure I loved “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, but bluegrass was way too primitive for me. How about using some electricity when you cut an album? “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” changed my attitude. I became downright addicted to the sweet cocktail of fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos the song featured. Despite his Philadelphia upbringing, Joe Bonsall puts on a pretty good impersonation of having been reared in the deep woods of Eastern Kentucky. The song is the story of bluegrass itself and depicts the genre in no uncertain terms. No one can walk away from “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” without understanding bluegrass music is all about preserving the rural lifestyle, simpler times, and the sense of family among those who may have been separated by miles of wooded hills.

4. “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well”—As hard as it is, I’m breaking away from 1977 and skipping ahead two years to the ORB’s third album, The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived. For those who inexplicably missed out on the debut album, the hit songs “Sail Away” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” and the Richard Sterban masterpiece “Dream On” caught undoubtedly caught their attention. For my money, though, there isn’t a better song in the bunch than “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well.” The upbeat tune features each vocalist’s distinct tone in its three stanzas, the perfect harmonies pulling the listener into the recording studio. The song is even better live and has been a favorite at every ORB concert I’ve attended, playing second fiddle only to “Elvira.” “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well” is classic country at its finest, its lyrical euphemisms and energy carrying through until the band hits the tune’s last abrupt note.

5. “Dancing the Night Away”—Country radio didn’t seem to care for five-minute recordings in the 70s. A few novelty songs like “Convoy” managed to top the charts, but songwriters seemed hooked on what I call the “Rhinestone Cowboy Formula”—Verse 1- Chorus-Verse 2-Chorus-Repeat Chorus-Fade. “Dancing the Night Away, featuring Joe Bonsall’s elevated tenor offered a whole new ORB sound. Maybe an intentional throwback to Bonsall’s American Bandstand days, the song abandoned pure country for a bit of rock-pop and should have exposed the ORB to fans from other walks of life. Anyone who knows me knows I am no fan of crossover country, but this tune showcased the ORB’s diversity and ability to perform gospel, classic country, and pop. Little did we know the song was a precursor of things to come just a couple of years later.

6. “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River”—1981 brought ORB fans Fancy Free, the multi-platinum album remaining the group’s top-seller to this day. Fancy Free, of course, is known for the ORB’s signature song and megahit “Elvira.” In fact, “Elvira” alone likely carried the album to its success and entrenched the ORB as a major player across musical genres. The tune drove the Boys into the crossover ranks, but without the “in your face” plunge a few unnamed country artists took. Yes, at least one of those gamblers won big-time, but was it really good for country music? Yet, I digress.

While Fancy Free took the ORB to an entirely new level in the national spotlight, the album also returned them to their gospel roots. The only thing I knew about gospel music at the time came from mouthing my “ABCs” silently as a congregation belted out seemingly unending verses from dusty church hymnals. In short, my gospel exposure was bo-ring. No offense to a gospel aficionado who may be reading, and I am certainly not demeaning religious songs, but any kid exposed to off-key singing accompanied by an out-of-tune piano would have had the same reaction. I had heard the ORB had been founded as a gospel group and remained so until I picked up their first country album, but I couldn’t name a single gospel song they’d recorded. The lively hidden gem from this album, “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” caused me to seek out some of those early tunes that earned the group multiple Dove Awards. Gospel, I realized, wasn’t necessarily painfully-slow, poorly-sung songs from the pews of a church with bad acoustics and an outdoor toilet. Thanks to this song, the last on side two of the album, I discovered earlier ORB recordings like “Heaven Bound” and “The Baptism of Jessie Taylor.” Both have become favorites.

7. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport”—1982’s “Bobby Sue” album introduced ORB fans to who I guess must be the third lady in a string of their hearts’ desires after “Emmylou” and “Elvira.” For the second straight album, the ORBs included a gospel tune to offset the title cut, a song may be the most energetic they ever recorded. This time the gospel selection couldn’t have been more opposite from the album’s hit. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” also recorded by George Jones in 1990 (do I sense a pattern here?), didn’t offer the up-tempo energy of “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” but I was actually beginning to pay real attention to lyrics and they grew on me quickly. I’ve always been a bit of a geography nerd, so the featured cities of Nashville, New York City (Wall Street), Wichita, Salt Lake City, Boston, and Shreveport naturally piqued my curiosity. The words, though wrapped around a religious theme, stretch far beyond gospel and hold deep meaning in secular life as well. While several cities are called out by name, any American town could be inserted in place of any on the list. The lyrics offer no condemnation of those who live in these places, but they highlight stereotypes and prejudices that are simply a fact of life in all areas of the country. Featuring all four vocalists in separate verses, “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport” forces the listener to look inward. Duane Allen seemingly directs the song’s final word to the individual, as “Would you laugh and call him crazy and send him on his way?” forces each to face his or her own pitfalls and accept their own prejudices. Gospel or not, the theme cannot help but resonate with anyone who pays attention.

8. “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me”—Any list of ORB favorites would be incomplete without including a song featuring contra-bass Richard Sterban. Long before he “Oom-pop-a-mow-mowed” his way into country music history, you could find Richard “On the radi-i-o-i-o-o.” Oddly enough, “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” isn’t country, and it isn’t pop. Technically, it’s a pure 1970’s Funk tune (I admit I found that on Wikipedia, so it must be true). I’d forgotten all about Funk. From what I can tell, some Funk group named Graham Central Station actually recorded the song a year before the ORBs. So, here we have a group of four guys who can sing gospel, country, crossover-country, and pop, and I can now add Funk to the mix! Allow me to pause while I take some deep breaths as this sinks in. Well, at least they haven’t released any heavy metal…..yet.

I guess a little Funk makes sense. As I recall from my vague memory of the genre, it was all about fun, and “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” is nothing if not a fun tune. Don’t try to find any depth in the lyrics, because they are pretty shallow. As a matter of fact, is it even possible to put the lyrics of this song in writing? Every once in a while it’s nice to read a piece corny poetry from Robert Frost or find some William Faulkner short story he enjoyed writing but would probably rather forget. Such is the case with “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me.”

“On the radi-i-o-i-oi-o…..” You gotta love it. Incidentally, are you aware that “Funk” is derived from an African word meaning “bad body odor?” Amazing what you can learn on Wikipedia.

9. “Old Time Lovin’”—Say I lack creativity all you want, but when I’m looking for ORB hidden gems, I just can’t get away from 1977. Once again a few years ahead of my time in subject matter, “Old Time Lovin’” is another slice of undeniably classic country music. This cut, like so many others in the ORB discography, features a solo of all for members and teases the ear with a bluegrass-country blend. The arrangement of harmonies versus the lead, tenor, baritone, and bass solos on this recording keep every vocalist fully engaged. Richard Sterban’s bass sets a perfect lead-in to the harmonic, “How I want that old time love again with you” on two occasions, and the change of key in the oft-repeated ending chorus puts the icing on the cake. Plus, the ORB performed the song on an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Can it get any more country?

10. Well, I’m down to the last of my top ten ORB songs that be gold. It’s a tough, tough choice, and frankly, one I’m not going to make (because it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want). Instead, I’d rather get on my soap box for a minute and address what I believe is not just a hidden gem, but a lost gem of the entire essence of the Oak Ridge Boys. I warn you, this will probably enrage a few of you, so before you read further, go back and re-read my opening paragraph. Now, if you will indulge me, the following is an open letter to Richard Sterban:

Dear Richard… Rich… Rick… Ricky,

I don’t know what happened about a decade ago. Perhaps it was a late-blooming mid-life crisis. If so, I feel your pain. I had my first at 16 and have continued to have one about twice a year ever since. But, Richard, I don’t know you anymore. The distinctive personality and persona of Duane, Joe, William Lee, and yourself offered the ORB’s greatest appeal at a time when so many followed the crowd. While some other country groups of the 70s featured four guys dressed identically in suits pulled out of the Brady Bunch dressing room, y’all have always kept to your roots. We still admire Joe’s hip urban appearance, Duane’s contemporary casual look, and William Lee’s….errrr….rural attire. But, what happened to the Richard who stood heir apparent to Ray Price as the best dressed man in country music? The voice I hear belongs to a clean-cut, buttoned-down, dapper looking fellow tapping a tambourine against his finely-tailored, creased dress pants on the left side of the stage.

Now, we both know there’s some gray in your hair. I’m a quarter-century younger, and I even have a touch of it. But, your voice hasn’t aged a minute in the 37 years I’ve been listening. There’s no need to maintain a “more youthful than you are” appearance,” because you don’t look old just yet. Think about it. Would George Strait wear anything other than Wranglers and a Resistol? Would John Conlee ever be the same if he took off those dated rose-colored glasses? And, how about Willie? Imagine Willie without the bandana and ponytail, braids, or whatever he calls those things hanging off the side of his head (hint: you can find an early sixties version of a clean-cut Willie Nelson on YouTube. It kind of destroys the image he’s worked so hard to convey). So, go ahead and cover up the gray if you want to, but can I please have the old look back.

All my best,

Kris Rutherford

P.S. You might remember me. I was the kid you inspired to switch from the standard B-flat clarinet to bass clarinet back in 1979.

So, there you have it—my top ten ORB songs that would be gold. With or without “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport?” as inspiration, I fully admit my list shows a great deal of prejudice. I’m a conservative fellow, I don’t like change, and I am no fan of what today’s radio promotes as country music. Obviously, I have a bias toward the ORB’s earliest albums when they were still establishing themselves as a country act. But, 1977-1982 represent what I consider my formative years in developing a musical taste. The body of work the ORB put out during those years made me the only young lad in New England who claimed a country group as his favorite. While the rest of my running crowd scrambled their brains with the likes of KISS, Queen, and Iron Maiden (I wouldn’t even remember those names if their “music” wasn’t so painfully neurotic), by 1985 I hummed “Ozark Mountain Jubilee” and my all-time favorite “Heart of Mine”—in public. Country music had firmly entrenched itself as my genre, and I never planned to listen to anything else. Somewhere, though, the country music I loved lost its bearings.

The phenomenal success of George Strait in the mid-80s gave rise to a jumbled group of solo “hat acts.” Though I can find an occasional keeper among their collective body of work, in general I remember hat act vocalists as punctuating the end of stylists in country music. No doubt Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt, and Rick Trevino all had decent voices, but they couldn’t be distinguished without music videos. Thanks to MTV and CMT, appearance became more important than musical ability (do you really think Little Jimmy Dickens would have a chance today?). By the mid-90s, the ORB had largely fallen from the charts and a new breed of country fans decided they preferred light shows, fireworks, and theatrics to music, and I pretty much disowned modern country. Music is meant to be heard, not watched. I yearn for the days of a stool, a spotlight, and a guy (or four) with a guitar. Today’s, young crowd screams wildly at the likes of Billy Currington, Luke Bryan, and the Zach Brown Band. Personally, I can’t name a single song they’ve recorded. Maybe the ORBs fall from the charts was simply a sign of the times. Unlike Garth Brooks (a soapbox I could write 5,000 words about in a single sitting), the ORBs kept their feet planted firmly on the stage instead of flying across it on a tethered wire. Kids developing their musical tastes today find two hours of pure country music dulling to the senses.

Though we seemed to have lost our place on the dial, a few years ago the media giants controlling country radio realized they had lost a huge market. Hence, they came up with the novel idea rock/pop radio executives had about forty years before—oldies, or “classic country.” Be still my heart, I had been saved! Unfortunately, I probably won’t find any of the songs on my list played on even the classic country stations, but you will find the Oak Ridge Boys and a satchel full of ’70s and ’80s recordings firmly established them as one of music’s most successful groups. And, you can rest assured whether they are playing one of country music’s all-time greatest hits or a filler song on the flip side of a 45 single, one thing will not change. The Oak Ridge Boys will remain true to their roots, and as a fan, they’ll be true to you.

Now, Richard, let’s talk some more about that hair thing…..

Chisled in Oak

January, 2017

On April 15, on the outskirts of Taylortown, Lamar County Commissioners unveiled a plaque dedicating the CR 16590 bridge over Big Sandy Creek as the Duane Allen Memorial Bridge in honor of Lamar County’s favorite son and lead singer of the phenomenally-successful musical group, The Oak Ridge Boys. A crowd far outnumbering the total population of Taylortown and its suburbs combined crowded around as Duane offered an emotional speech that could only be given by a man who, despite worldwide fame, remained firmly -grounded on the blackland farm where he was born. Nearly 35 years ago, Iwell-recall my pilgrimage to the nearby town of Cunningham in search of a boyhood hero.You might say I was musically-misplaced. Unlike the typical late 70’s teenager, I didn’t suffer permanent hearing loss to the likes of Queen, Aerosmith, or AC/DC, bands performing what I still refer to as “snake dancin’ music.” I held far more refined musical tastes. Aside from a very brief and ill-advised KISS phase in the early summer of 1978, I was pure country-country gold, in fact. Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Merle (no last name needed) filled my record cabinet. Heck, I’ll admit it. I even had a “Whispering” Bill Anderson album, and my friends snickered heartily. No, my problem with music certainly wasn’t a matter of taste; rather, I suffered from time and location. I was not just country when country wasn’t cool. I was country where country wasn’t cool. In fact, the entire population of Maine found country gold so “uncool,” I had to search late night AM radio for some static-laced clear channel country show from the Midwest.

The programming gods of Maine radio relegated mid-70s country to the occasional crossover hit on WJBQ, better known locally as the home of the Bay City Rollers, Captain and Tennille, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Any other teenager would’ve buckled under the harassment dished my way when I set the old phonograph ablaze with the likes of Charley Pride and Larry Gatlin, but I had knees as solid as Barbara Mandrell’s steel guitar. Plain and simple, if it wasn’t country, it was the Devil’s music. While horrific sounds relentlessly blared from my brother’s bedroom across the hall, I found inner peace as Johnny Horton flew me “North to Alaska” under the protection of stereo headphones. Dad, a fan of what he called “Hillbilly Music,” had given up on traditional country a year or so earlier. When classical strings replaced the twin fiddles backing up Eddie Arnold, he realized the music he grew up with in Roxton listening to WBAP had moved on. Today, he’d be a sure candidate for cognitive therapy as he became musically-bipolar, turning to the outlaw country of Willie and Waylon for kicks and classical composers like Bach and Mozart for sophistication. I was an outsider even in my own house.

The backbone of most 70s music was the band, be it rock, pop, or (forgive my words) heavy metal. Still, soloists ruled the country scene. Stylists like George Jones led the country charge into the 70s before Chet Atkins’ “Nashville Sound” evolved into crossover and country pop. Olivia Newton-John showed up in Kitty Wells’ honky tonk, and John Denver caused Charlie Rich to put on country music’s first pyrotechnic display when the Country Music Association named him the 1976 Entertainer of the Year. Producers, seemingly embarrassed to associate with classic country music, forced Kenny Rogers on the masses, and he soon became the most recognizable voice on both country and pop radio. Group performers in country music remained few and far between, as most potential acts stayed in the shadows and gripped to their gospel roots. In fact, it took two gospel groups to blaze their own crossover trail before Nashville fully-embraced the group performers who came to dominate the genre a decade later.

The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys both migrated from the gospel ranks, the former stepping gingerly onto the country scene after a stint as background vocalists for Johnny Cash. The latter, on the other hand, arrived with the splash of a cannonball off a railroad trestle into a Sulphur River swimming hole. Virginia’s Statler Brothers entered the country waters with a boatload of patriotic songs country fans couldn’t help but love. As 1977 approached, the Statlers rested as the most popular group in Nashville as executives fought to keep rebellious group performers like The Charlie Daniels Band out of the mainstream. The Statler Brothers stuck to risk-free songs and nostalgic memories. Blue-haired ladies swooned and hijacked The Music City News awards voting, honoring them as Group of the Year well past their prime until the magazine folded in the mid-90s.

While The Statler Brothers tread lightly in their move to country music, The Oak Ridge Boys transformed overnight, completely abandoning their gospel roots with the unquestionably country single, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Featuring Philadelphia-born tenor Joe Bonsall and Camden, New Jersey, native contra-bass Richard Sterban, the only glaringly country member of The Oak Ridge Boys was Brewton, Alabama’s baritone William Lee Golden, an individual who gained fame a few years later by turning so country he might have even alienated the Outlaw crowd. Less conspicuous, but just as country, was lead singer Duane Allen, a native of Lamar County’s Taylortown, a side trip along the route between Deport and Cunningham. Allen, an East Texas State University graduate trained in the classics, aspired to sing in a quartet and brought the smoothest voice in gospel to the country charts. With the members’ diverse backgrounds, The Oak Ridge Boys offered the closest thing mainstream country music had to a hip band; in fact, they almost made country cool.

Now, I have to admit, although a lyric of Chicago or Journey never crossed my lips, peer pressure did play a role in my life. While some early Oak Ridge Boys tunes like the risqué teen pregnancy-focused ballad “Easy” were a bit beyond my eleven year-old comprehension, it took about twenty seconds of “You’re the One” before I realized The Oak Ridge Boys would soon be the face of country group acts. The Statler Brothers would find themselves relegated to “dorky” status, I surmised, and I planned to be on the cutting edge. Santa Claus left two albums under the tree at the Rutherford house in 1978, the Statler Brothers’ “The Originals,” a browning package of 73% torpedoed ground beef, and “The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived,” a seasoned filet mignon marinated in fine spices and grilled to perfection. With “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” the Oak Ridge Boys had indeed arrived and pulled me in a trailer right behind them. Unfortunately, a storm brewed on the horizon.

Well, by 1980, you were either The Oak Ridge Boys or you were not. how original is that?) released its debut album and raced up the charts, country music transformed from entertainment into a contact sport. I may roll wannabes supplant my Oak Ridge Boys as the premier country group. ”s successes as I cheered each gold record. If The Statler Brothers had been ground beef, Alabama was rotting road kill. Yet, as the Alabama hits kept coming, I watched wearily as their albums began to fill the small country section of MusicLand in the Maine Mall. But, country was my brand of music, and The Oak Ridge Boys were my group. I adopted the fight for supremacy as nothing less than a spiritual experience.

A year removed from the hottest summer I can recall during my annual trips to Roxton, in 1981 Dad made the fateful decision the family could survive without air conditioning in the new Chevy station wagon. After all, it was only for three months, and AC wasn’t even standard equipment on New England car lots. Plus, with gas prices topping ninety cents, he figured squeezing a couple more miles out of a tank would save him a nickel or two every three or four months. As we arrived in Texas in mid-June, a blow torch chafed us through the Chevy’s open windows, and Mom repeatedly cussed his thriftiness while nursing a cup of ice. The asphalt bled through the chip seal along Highway 82, and as the summer went on lane markings twisted and slid off the shoulders as the road took on a molasses-like consistency. Not yet a legal driver, the law nonetheless had little impact on my mobility that summer. My grandparents purchased my first car, a ‘73 Impala equipped with the finest air conditioner Detroit ever produced. The Impala and I cruised the back roads all summer, as I avoided the main highways on the oft chance a wayward highway patrolman might spy a hundred-pound adolescent’s eyes just above the steering wheel. But, the world grew a lot smaller behind the wheel of the Impala, and so did Lamar County. 

On a roadmap Taylortown looked to be a hundred miles from Roxton. Duane Allen’s hometown might as well have been Lubbock a year earlier, but it now sat just a few gallons of Dad’s ninety-cent gasoline away in the green Impala. I plotted my trek to the holiest of lands, where a young Duane Allen nurtured what had become the finest voice in all of music. 

My parents had little problem with me driving the back roads without a license; after all, they did the same thing a quarter-century before, and I certainly ranked as the most responsible of the two Rutherford siblings. The farm-to-markets weren’t a problem either, and I challenged them daily without incident. Highway 24 between Commerce and Paris sat as the only barrier between me and what I knew would be a spiritual country music experience. Any trip from Roxton to Taylortown required crossing what amounted to a major highway in Lamar County. Parental approval was far from guaranteed. I needed a gimmick. My parents’ desperate urge to see the Texas-roots sprout through my Yankee shell seemed just the ticket.

I didn’t exactly consider myself a social outcast. Admittedly, being known as the kid from Texas nine months a year and that “damned Yankee” the other three months played a bit with my sanity, and I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about great Roxton past-times like fishing with crawdads when normal Americans slept or swimming in snake-infested muddy creeks. I guess if I have to own up to it, my disposition probably did impact on my summer social life. But, I always had my cousin, Brock (known affectionately as “Cousin Brock”), as a companion. A Paris native transplanted to Colorado, like me, Cousin Brock spent the summer months in Roxton with his grandmother. A horror movie aficionado and obsessed with obscure monster magazines, Cousin Brock was every bit as weird as me, and we had a mutual respect for each other’s idiosyncrasies. Regardless, the key to getting permission for such a distant drive was an excuse to socialize with some fine Texas youngsters my own age, and what better social activity could be had than a spirited game of baseball. Baseball….that was the answer. Cousin Brock and I would drive to Taylortown to play baseball with some kids he knew from when he lived in Paris. 

The first hurdle behind me, I set my sights on the next goal. Taylortown wasn’t exactly a metropolis, but exactly what, or who, would we find when we arrived? Grandmothers are good at this sort of thing, and most are quite trustworthy. I immediately put mine to work calling every “Allen” in the phone book to locate my hero’s boyhood house. A drive-by photo would be the ultimate prize. To say Granny succeeded is to say Merle Haggard had a hit with “Okie From Muskogee.” Not only did Granny find his house, she found his parents, Loretta and Fred, alive and well in Cunningham. Jackpot! Reportedly, they had a fine conversation, and Mrs. Allen said she’d be thrilled to meet her son’s biggest fan. The stage was set as Cousin Brock and I prepared for the trek across the southern end of the county, armed with a couple of RC Cola’s and the sack of pimento and cheese sandwiches Granny made everyone she knew would be travelling more than 20 miles.

The drive to Cunningham was uneventful, and the crossing of Highway 24 anti-climactic at best. I did make a slight error in judgment waiting far too-long for an old Farmall tractor to clear the intersection, but we arrived mid-afternoon. Sure enough, the first house on the right heading into town sported a mailbox with the name “Allen” in block letters. I pulled the Impala into the driveway and scratched to a stop behind a late model Cadillac parked in the carport. I must admit I found the scene underwhelming. I had imagined a country music superstar’s parents lounging by the pool of a mansion. Instead, the Allen’s lived in a small, mid-century, white-washed bungalow like just about every other older couple in the small towns dotting Lamar County. If it wasn’t for the Cadillac, I’d have been sure we’d picked the wrong house.

Cousin Brock and I sat in the Impala a few seconds alternating between awe and fear as we debated who would take the brave step of knocking on the door. A short, lost argument later, Cousin Brock cowered behind me as I lightly rapped my knuckles on the aluminum screen door. In a matter of seconds a lady looking absolutely nothing like Duane Allen greeted us warmly and invited us inside. Politely turning down the obligatory offer of lemonade and taking a seat on the couch with Cousin Brock, I took in the scene, or at least what there was of it. Family photos covered the walls where I expected to find flashing Oak Ridge Boys signs and concert memorabilia. We patiently sat through a tour of the photo collection, as Mrs. Allen pointed out each daughter and son and praised their successes as a missionary, a doctor, and a few other professions I can’t remember. Finally, she pointed out the man of the hour, though no one would have known it if they hadn’t seen an Oak Ridge Boys album cover. Awkwardly pictured in a family photo like those I used to be coerced into posing for at K-Mart, there was Duane Allen himself, along with the wife and kids. Mrs. Allen said she was kind of embarrassed by his beard, apparently taboo in the Allen household. She’d told him the beard made him look like Jesus in hopes the idea of blasphemy would convince him to shave. But, she claimed his response of “Oh, Mama, I don’t think I’m that good,” pacified her, at least for the time being. The longer we talked, the more amazed I became at the normalcy of it all. I found the furnishings typical, the walls covered in inexpensive paneling, and the house filled with the same aroma of every other old person’s house. If it hadn’t been for the blue water I noticed in the toilet when I politely asked to use the restroom, I would have thought the Allen’s to be everyday people.

After visiting a while, Mrs. Allen retreated to a back room, eventually returning with some souvenirs–an autographed concert program and a couple of tour T-shirts, far too large for either of us but no matter. I was in the midst of the most indirectly famous person I’d ever met. If that shirt had pink lace sleeves, I would have worn it with pride. We soon made our way outside where Mrs. Allen introduced us to Fred, sprawled in a reclining lawn chair. “Sure been a hot summer, ain’t it?” he grumbled from under the brim of his ball cap. A very short conversation made it clear Fred wasn’t at all impressed at his son’s fame. Fred Allen was a farmer, and Duane was a farm boy. No doubt, Fred would have preferred if Duane had put his hands to use hauling hay instead of strumming a guitar. When Fred asked his wife to fry him up a mess of okra, Cousin Brock and I knew it was time to take leave. A few hours later, back in Roxton, I wrote the Allen’s a thank-you note with a Maine return address, just in case they got the urge to have Duane send me some concert tickets or something.

The hot Texas summer soon came to an end, and a month later I was back in Maine and Cousin Brock in Colorado. Soon, I received a letter, not from Duane Allen, but from his mother. Much like she had that day in Cunningham, she filled me in on what each of her children was up to and tossed in a few tidbits about the grandchildren and Fred’s thoughts on the autumn weather. She also pointed out she had to get the letter to the post office. After all, the Boys’ tour bus would be coming by in a while and she’d be heading on the road with them for two weeks. She just loved hearing them perform “Sail Away” in person, she wrote

A second later Dad walked in and took a quick glance at the cameo photo Mrs. Allen had included of her and her son.

“Who’s that with Duane Allen?” Dad asked. “You know, we used to be fraternity brothers.”

What in the name of Elvira?

“He wouldn’t remember me. He’s a singer or something, isn’t he?” Dad added. “Seems like he joined some country group… Alabama, maybe?”

It was at that moment I discovered a boy could indeed choke to death on his own tongue.

Country road song covers a lot of territory. How do y’all stack up?

The line separating “trucker” and “road” songs is thin. Roger Miller’s signature song, “King of the Road,” makes no mention of trucks but it’s still about life on the road. Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” is written from a truck driver’s perspective. Although both songs include “road” in their titles, Miller’s is about the “hobo” lifestyle while Dudley’s is about a hard-working truck driver excited to get home. One interesting aspect of country music is its ability to connect people from seemingly different worlds. In the instance of Miller and Dudley, when they do connect, the difference between trucker and road songs blurs. So does the difference between country and city folk.

Hank Snow was born in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia in 1914. Separated from his father, authorities deemed his mother unfit to care for him. Instead, he lived with his paternal grandmother, reportedly a despicable human being who made sure Hank grew up in a household filled not with love but physical and verbal abuse. Eventually, Hank reunited with his mother. And when she purchased a guitar and allowed him to play, word spread of his talents.

At just 12 years old, Hank Snow set to sea, not uncommon among youth growing up in Canada’s maritime provinces. A cabin boy on a fishing schooner, the job paid nothing except experience. Four years later, after his schooner barely survived a storm, Hank decided he had all the experience he needed.

In the meantime, Snow’s musical talents developed, and he eventually found his way to Nashville. By chance, he got his shot to play the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s most coveted welcome gift. His second single, “I’m Movin’ On,” placed him on the road to stardom as it hit the No. 1 slot on country charts and remained there for 21 weeks. In 1962, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” became another of his Snow’s signature songs, version of Australia songwriter Geoff Mack’s tour of his home country rewritten by Lucky Starr. Hank Snow’s version, with apologies to Johnny Cash’s outstanding cover, is arguably the most recognized among fans of classic country music, with bonus points added to the original singer.

“I’ve Been Everywhere” begins with Snow (singing as a hitchhiker) along “the dusty Winnemucca road,” a reference to U.S. Route 50, a cross-country highway passing through north-central Nevada. The chosen road, known as “The Loneliest Road in America,” tells listeners a lot about the hitchhiker and his secluded life, slow-paced life. When “a semi with a high and canvas covered load” stops and the driver asks if the hitchhiker needs a lift to Winnemucca, the passenger climbs aboard.

The conversation in the cab turns to U.S. 50 when the driver asks if his passenger has “seen a road with so much dust and sand.” The response reminds one of the pause in Beethoven’s “Surprise Symphony,” a halting answer showing little appreciation for the ride the trucker is providing – “Listen, Bud. I’ve traveled every road in this here land.” And with that, “I’ve Been Everywhere” abruptly shifts from a trucker song to a tune about the road.  

The remainder of “I’ve Been Everywhere” begins with a chorus that will be repeated five times and four stanzas of lyrics listing what Snow means by “everywhere.” But the song is far more than an impressive memorization of many obscure locations in the western hemisphere. The style Snow employs is indicative of the “road” experience and how it can change depending on perspective.

Snow sings the remaining lyrics at a fast pace, so fast that the names of cities, towns, states, and areas of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and South America almost blend into a very long multi-syllable-to-the-extreme word. In fact, the slow, lonely introduction having passed, the change in tempo is likely intentional, as Snow’s contrasts of a life walking the roads with the trucker’s high-speed, deadline driven lifestyle.

Snow references 91 locations he has visited. He could easily list 500 more, and the song would never get old.

If we mapped the 91 locations Hank Snow mentions, we’d realize that he has “been everywhere.” The various locations are spread across the country and a few outside the U.S. Snow tells us he has visited eight countries in North America, Central America, and South America. In the U.S., he rattles of 64 cities loosely broken down as: Southwest, 10; Northwest, 10; Midwest, 15; Southeast, 17; and Northeast, 12. He mentions nine states by name, four locations in in Canada, and eight south of the U.S.-Mexico border. By the time the song wraps up with a fading chorus, listeners can imagine the truck driver’s exhaustion; in fact, they are exhausted as well, proof that the song filled its intended purpose. Still, firing the tune up is almost an addiction, if only to see how much of the song listeners can memorize.

Somewhere out there in the sea of Americans, at least one has visited every location Hank Snow rambles through in “I’ve Been Everywhere.” But what about country folk like the readers of this blog?

Your Challenge A list of all the locations Hank Snow mentions is below. Circle those you’ve been to, passed by, or maybe even flew over. My count is 32, or 35%, not bad for someone who hasn’t visited the Northwest or South America. Take a few minutes to count how well you’ve followed Snow’s trail and make a note in the comments section!

Sorry… got to run. I just remembered I have an appointment in Ombabika.

First verse

Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma, Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo, Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla.

Second verse

Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana, Monterey, Ferriday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa, Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa, Tennessee, Hennessey, Chicopee, Spirit Lake, Grand Lake, Devils Lake, and Crater Lake.

Third verse

Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika, Schefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica, Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport, Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac, Davenport, Idaho, Jellico, Argentina, Diamantina, Pasadena, and Catalina.

Fourth verse

Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado, Larimore, Atmore, Haverstraw, Chatanika, Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika, Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City, Sioux City, Cedar City, and Dodge City.

When the rubber meets the road, do you do anything but “drive, drive, drive”?

Few people question Johnny Cash’s love of America. It’s something that comes through in countless of the performer’s recordings ranging from his 1972 double-disc vinyl album “America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song” to his 1974 hit “Ragged Old Flag.” But if you listen to his repertoire of songs, you’ll no doubt realize that while Cash was a patriot, he didn’t march blindly to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

Johnny Cash didn’t skirt from calling out the sins of the U.S. in songs like “Ira Hayes,” a story of oppression and patriotism following World War II. And he virtually made a career with his countless songs about those confined to prisons or committed to death. “San Quentin,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Greystone Chapel,” and “25 Minutes to Go” are but a few examples

Of “Folsom Prison Blues,” his most recognized prison song, Cash famously said, “the culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside, behind you, immediately becomes unreal. You begin to not care that it exists. All you have within the cell is your bare animal instincts.”

Comments like these led to the myth that Johnny Cash had spent hard time in prison. In fact, his incarceration consisted of a handful of overnight stays in county jails from misdemeanor offenses. But Cash had empathy — and a way with words that could convince a listener he had walked in the shoes of many men.

Along with Merle Haggard (who did spend his share of time in prison), Johnny Cash’s recordings became symbols of the working man, often playing the role of a downtrodden, underappreciated, and abused member of America’s socio-economic system. Then again, seemingly on cue, Cash could turn to songs making political statements like “Don’t Go Near the Water,” a song blaming industrial America for pollution of what were freshwater streams until they reached the cities below the hills from where they began. When Johnny Cash stepped off the line he walked, public opinion showed in the Billboard charts. Many of his anti-establishment opinions landed in lyrics that never reached the airwaves or Cash’s standard high-water mark, a gold record.

Johnny Cash sang several songs about truck drivers, but as is often the case with performers recording hundreds of unknown songs that find a home on the B-side of hit records, most have been ignored by mainstream country music fans. During his career, Cash turned out 91 albums and nearly 200 singles, so he had his share of songs that might have been hits if they had made it onto radio playlists. When it comes to trucking songs, “All I Do is Drive” is a story that didn’t fit with America’s rapidly increasing view of truck drivers as virtual super-heroes of the highways. As such, it never escaped the confines of his “Ragged Old Flag” album.

Whether or not “All I Do is Drive” is based on a true story of Cash’s conversation with a truck driver is largely immaterial. Once again, it’s an example of how Johnny Cash could put another man’s thoughts into words and music — on this occasion, perhaps, by making inaccurate assumptions.

Johnny Cash meets a truck driver and as asks if the driver does a lot of singing when he’s on the road, either to pass the time or to make his solitary job a little less lonesome. He asks if the driver has a pretty waitress who knows him at every truck stop café and if he gets a lot of smiles from the people traveling along the highways with him. Cash asks him about trucking songs — do they capture the story of his life? Between the lines, a listener can tell the driver’s answer isn’t the one Cash expected.

            “All I do is drive, drive, drive,

              Try to stay alive,

              And keep my mind on my load,

              Keep my eye upon the road.”

The driver goes on to explain no man who goes home at five o’clock every day can relate to his job. All he does is “drive drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive.”

Cash seems to believe he’s reached an understanding of the truck driver’s state of mind as they shared a cup of coffee, one that had to be warmed up for the slow talking driver trying to delay his walk back to his rig. Then Johnny Cash implies he has made a major mistake.

            “And I said, don’t you hear a lot of music,

              See a lot of sights?”

Before the driver can respond, Cash promises,

              “But if you’ll tune into the Grand Old Opry Saturday night,

                I’ll dedicate you a trucking song to which you can relate.”

Cash is stopped short when the driver offers the most telling lyric of the song when he answers,

            “You just do the singing,

              And I’ll do the driving mate.”

With that line, Johnny Cash confesses that maybe he can’t always walk in every man’s shoes; perhaps he can’t understand every soul he meets to empathize with every situation. Despite the legends and lore of truck drivers, how it is depicted on screen and in song, the trucker’s life is a lonely one, and excitement isn’t something expected or particularly wanted. All the trucker wants to do is “drive, drive drive,” stay safe, and reach his destination by keeping an eye on his load and both eyes on the road. For Johnny Cash, every man’s working man, “All I Do is Drive” is a stunning admission that sitting in his position with a career in the spotlight has isolated him from the men who he sings about on stage every night. As the song closes, the listener can feel Cash sinking in his truck stope café chair — and wondering why he has the luxury of fame and fortune while the truck driver simply wants to make it from one point to another alive.

Until next time, while you’re on a stretch of open road, cue up “All I Do is Drive” and find out where you fall. Does your life mirror that of Johnny Cash the storyteller or the subject of one of his “also-ran” songs from the early mid-1970s. I’m guessing you’ll come to the conclusion that not much has changed in 50 years.

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