Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits, and this feature in particular was written with my good friend, Nathan Kanuch, of Shore2Shore Country.
The past several features of this series have focused heavily on the everlasting debate of what is and isn’t country, and, if anything, it’s provided an interesting framework with which to discuss country music’s relationship with mainstream music culture.
But let’s turn back to the larger picture, a picture we somewhat sketched when discussing Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” earlier in this series. As mentioned in that piece, country music’s political stance during the late ’60s was all over the place, at least when digging beneath the surface. While that conversation focused on politics in relation to the Vietnam War, country music had looked to move past that. Beneath the surface, for example, the outlaw movement, famously popularized by artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, had multiple valences in the context of ‘70s politics. On one hand, it seemed to be of a piece with the counterculture’s refusal of Puritan moralism and suspicion of concentrated authority. On the other hand, the decade’s embrace of the outlaw antihero fed a larger disdain for the perceived Great Society overreach of activist energy.
In other words, outlaw wasn’t “political” in an explicit sense, but it did question authority of all sorts, with a deep suspicion once aimed directly at corporations now aimed at the Great Society’s statism and its perceived beneficiaries. A venom pointed toward welfare was also recast in a laborist defense against capital, like in Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job And Shove It” or today’s hit in question, C.W. McCall’s “Convoy.”
Again, though, that’s a discussion of country music beneath the surface. To the general public, country music had looked to move away from the endorsement of establishment values to a more comfortable absorption with the working class. Basically, by looking beyond left or right values, country music remained richest when it spoke to a sense of populism. Country songwriters, however, were aware that these messages, while designed for plain, everyday people, could also resonate with suburban commuters and “hippies.” Ironically, while country music was trying to be all things to all people, it became more self-consciously working class in image. Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall, for example, were “poets of the working man,” yet Haggard’s songs were more aggressively aimed at the constituency.
This era also gave rise to truck-driving songs, or rather helped them regain popularity. The genre seems to have begun in 1939 when Ted Daffan wrote “Truck Driver’s Blues,” evolving further in 1963 when Dave Dudley recorded “Six Days On The Road,” capturing the boredom and excitement of long-distance trucking with an undeniable sense of swagger and rollicking energy. Despite the seemingly limited confines of the topic, however, the songs touched upon just about everything from truck stops, waitresses met, billboards, citizen band radios (CBs), highway patrolmen, mountain roads, pills, logbooks, overloads and folklore (and, of course, convoys). The aforementioned Haggard even dove into the topic with “White Line Fever.”
Now, before digging into the biggest truck-driving song of them all, we need to establish more background context. In 1976 the United States was suffering from an ongoing gas crisis. Motorists had to wait in line for hours to get fuel, prices skyrocketed and the federal government imposed a nationwide 55 mph speed limit. While the economy was bad, the trucking industry was hit hardest.
Enter CB radio. Truckers used it to communicate, help each other on the job, forge camaraderie and even keep one another awake on long hauls. But when the FCC eliminated the need for an operator’s license to use a CB radio, suddenly anyone could listen in and join the conversation. Like social media today, people were excited to have a platform that could connect them to strangers all over the nation for practical and personal uses. Songwriter Bill Fries did just that, learning the code words truckers used and weaving them into the nutty lyrics of “Convoy,” and crediting it to a character he invented, C.W. McCall. An undeniable ingredient of trucking culture was the late-night country music radio shows aimed at truckers and conducted by personalities such as Charlie Douglas on WWL in New Orleans and Bill Mack on WBAP in Fort Worth. Their voices echoed to thousands of truckers in pretty much every state in the continental United States, and they played songs requested by their trucker buddies, advertised truck stops and trucking equipment, and gave valuable weather information.
As far as analyzing the lyrical content of “Convoy” goes, the fun comes in trying to understand how normal words translate to trucker lingo: “Swindle sheets” are logbooks, “chicken coops” are weigh stations, and “bears” are police. The narrator of “Convoy,” who goes by the codename The Rubber Duck, uses the CB to lead a group of truckers in protest of government regulations. As they move across the country, the tension (or excitement) builds. Law enforcement tries to intervene, but in a grand act of unity and resistance, more truckers and other motorists join the convoy, making them unmatched. Sure, the story itself is improbable, but with its defiant attitude, it’s hard to call “Convoy” a mere novelty hit. Although seemingly light and fun, the song has a captivating story about serious political issues and how technology can unite people all over the country.
After “Convoy” was released, people became obsessed with CB radio and trucker culture. Millions of people in the United States began buying CB radios to join in on the fun and even created their own handles and slang words. A movie, simply titled Convoy, was even made based off the song. The movie featured none other than Kris Kristofferson as the lead trucker, Rubber Duck.
As for McCall himself, he would never again write or record a hit as successful as “Convoy.” Yet his material remained strong and at times quite poignant. McCall wrote memorable and catchy trucker songs like “”Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café,” “Black Bear Road,” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” But two songs stick out – 1975’s “Long Lonesome Road” and 1976’s “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t Be No Rock ‘n’ Roll).” “Long Lonesome Road” is a tender, nostalgic ballad about the trucker life and almost the antithesis of “Convoy” in terms of the mood of the song. “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t be No Rock ‘n’ Roll),” on the other hand, is a complete departure from his truck driving anthems. It bemoaned and criticized the increasing destruction of the American wilderness during the commercial ’70s and promised that humanity stands to lose it all (even music) if we don’t clean up our world.
“Convoy,” as well as the rise of truck-driving songs in general, was also a sign of country music’s renewed strength and vitality. Commercially, the music had reached its highest peak in history yet, a tribute to a multitude of events: the “Chet Atkins compromise,” the songwriting talents of Hall and Haggard, and the singing talents of hard country performers like Haggard and Loretta Lynn. Musically, however, the music had reached a crossroads, with some routes leaning toward pop music and others beckoning musicians who could combine tradition and innovation with a commercial appeal. We’ll talk about the former attribute (naturally) next time when we discuss Glen Campbell for the final time in this feature with “Southern Nights.” Lastly, thanks once again to Nathan Kanuch for contributing his knowledge to this edition of ‘Pop Goes The Country.’