A long, hard ride

| December 01, 2007

Gentry carries a guitar and a typewriter in his truck and writes when he’s not driving.

Gary Gentry is a flatbedder. Has been for 20 years. He’s also a country music songwriter. And he’s good enough to have written songs recorded by the likes of George Jones, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Del Reeves and John Anderson. The biggest hit he ever wrote, first recorded by country maverick David Allan Coe, was his haunting tribute to Hank Williams, called simply “The Ride.”

These days, while Gentry hauls building materials for McElroy Truck Lines of Cuba, Ala., Tim McGraw uses “The Ride” (also once recorded by Hank Jr.) in his live show. Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, most of you will recognize the song when you hear it.

“Me and a songwriter friend of mine, John Detterline, sat down one night and wrote a song about Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell,” says Gentry. “It was good but not great, and I got to thinking that it should just be about Hank.” In the song a young man hoping for country music stardom is hitchhiking from Montgomery, Ala., to Nashville, when he is given a ride in a classic old Cadillac by a hollow-eyed figure who has some advice about how tough it is to make it. Hank Williams died in the backseat of that Cadillac, one of the most tortured stars the industry ever produced. The song’s last line issues Hank’s dire warning, “If you’re big star bound, let me tell you it’s a long, hard ride.”

For a while it was quite a ride for Gentry. One of the highlights was a far cry from day-to-day trucking: sitting at an awards ceremony between Rod Stewart and the Bee Gees, at a time when they ruled the pop world.

Gentry tells of how one of the best-known lines from “The Ride” came from Hank Williams’ ex-wife, the mother of Hank Jr., known in country music circles simply as “Miss Audrey.”

“I was a teenager and I was driving past Hank’s old house in Nashville where Miss Audrey still lived. I didn’t know much, so I just stopped and went up and knocked on the door,” Gentry says. “A maid came to the door and I told her I was the biggest Hank fan there ever was, and she let me take a quick look around. Well, there I am looking and Miss Audrey walks in. I thought she’d toss me right out the door, but she didn’t – she actually showed me around a little. When I was leaving, I said to her, ‘Mrs. Williams, Thank you for showing me where Mr. Williams lived.’ She smiled at me and said, ‘You don’t have to call him mister, the whole world calls him Hank.’”

But when he wrote “The Ride,” Gentry’s years of alcohol and drug abuse were catching up with him. Writing it, finishing it and hearing it played have been lost to the fog.

“Some time after that I was writing with Hillman Hall, Tom T. Hall’s brother, and he had this clean look about him,” Gentry says. “He told me he was taking me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and I thought, ‘Well, now I really have hit the bottom.’ But I went and as soon as I got there, I got it, I understood the spiritual side of it from the first day. Since 1984 I’ve been off everything and I’ve stayed straight, sober and clean.”

On an album for truckers he recorded himself, Gentry, a native of Athens, Tenn., sings mostly his own songs, but he couldn’t resist the old Del Reeves classic “The Girl on the Billboard.”

“I loved Del. I wrote for him. He did pretty well with my ‘I got a D.U.I. over Y.O.U.’,” says Gentry. “I actually wrote ‘The Corvette Song’ for Del, and Mel McDaniels was interested in it, and, while I didn’t know it then, George Jones was looking for an up-tempo number.”

This is another song you will know the minute you hear it. Young man pulls up to a convenience store, parks his Corvette and goes inside. Old-timer looking out into the parking lot tells him, “I had one that was hotter than a $2 pistol. She was the fastest thing around. Long and lean, every young man’s dream, she turned every head in town. She was built, and fun to handle, son, so glad that you dropped in. She reminds me of the one I loved back then.” Young man offers him the keys to “take her for a spin” and is informed it’s not the car the old-timer is looking at but the brunette in the passenger seat.

“You know that line ‘hotter than a $2 pistol’?” Gentry says. “Well, I was working at the liquor store and this guy who runs a lawn service would come in and buy small bottles of liquor to take on the job. One day I told him to take some water as well because it was really hot out there, and he says, ‘Hot? Hot? Son, it’s hotter than a $2 pistol out there.’”

Gentry’s roots in trucking go way back. Back to working in a country truckstop, back to backing up Red Sovine.

“My first job I worked at Momma’s Truckstop in Riceville, Tenn., about 10 miles from my home,” Gentry says. “I was 14 and Momma would send me out in her Cadillac to pick up her moonshine. She figured the law was looking for bootleggers and wouldn’t stop me, and they didn’t.”

At 18, Gentry signed up with the U.S. Navy and was put to work driving trucks. In his spare hours he wrote songs and played in bands. Stationed at Pearl Harbor, he got to play backup to rising stars who could afford to get themselves – but not their bands – to Hawaii. “Red Sovine came over and I played in the band behind him, and that was before he had his big hits like ‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Phantom 309′.”

Gentry left the Navy and tried to make a career in music, but it didn’t work out. With the Vietnam War raging he decided to re-enlist. “Part of it was to serve my country, part was to get some good combat pay. I needed it,” he says.

But he didn’t go to Southeast Asia; he went to Europe, driving trucks again at a NATO base in Naples, Italy. It was there, toward the end of his hitch, that he won second place in the American Song Festival for one of his compositions.

“The competition was run by a magazine, and I clipped out the entry form and sent it in,” he says. “When I won second, I told myself this was it, I’m going to Nashville, I’ve made it! I was discharged in Philadelphia, bought a Cadillac and started driving south. I wanted to look right when I got to Nashville because I figured they’d be at the edge of town waiting for me to roll up. They weren’t. And when my mustering-out pay from the Navy ran out, I took a job as a clerk in a liquor store.”

While Gentry worked the liquor store and sold real estate, his music came to the attention of one of Nashville’s legendary executives, Billy Sherrill. “Billy called one day while I was making a real estate sale, and the person who answered the phone interrupted me and said it was important,” Gentry says. “I told her to tell him to go away because I was about to lose the sale if I took the call. She tried again, but I sent her away with the same message again. Finally I had to take the call. Before I can yell at him, Billy says, ‘Listen to this,’ and he plays George Jones singing ‘The Corvette Song.’ I just stood there with my mouth open.”

Sherrill was the man behind another couple of Gentry songs recorded by the biggest names in the business at the time. “Ray Charles was coming to town to record an album of duets, and Billy called me to see if I had anything. I’d just seen Ronnie Milsap somewhere and he always made light of his disability, made jokes about being able to ‘see’ things even though, like Ray, he was blind, and that was impressive. So I wrote ‘We Didn’t See a Thing’ about two cheaters meeting in a bar and pretending not to notice each other, and Ray and George Jones recorded it. I found out afterwards that Chet Atkins had come into the studio and asked to be in on it, so he’s playing guitar on that track. I wrote another song with Billy for that album, and Ray and Janie Fricke did that one, called ‘Who Cares’.”

His first big success came from “Lady in the Blue Mercedes” in 1979. “I wrote something with a sort of coconut and beachy islands feel, a sort of Jimmy Buffett style,” he says. “Billy Sherrill gave it to Johnny Duncan but wasn’t sure he’d do it, so he sent me to the studio to do it myself. I was all set to record it and be famous when Johnny comes wandering in. That song went to No. l in California.”

After that Gentry hit the charts with “1959″ for John Anderson. “A friend of mine and I were looking at this antique ’59 Cadillac, pink, just like Elvis’s old one,” Gentry says, “perfectly restored. It just took us back to 1959. And I said ‘Boy, if that backseat could talk,’ and that’s where the song comes from.”

Johnny Paycheck, one of country’s earliest modern outlaws, was one of the first country stars to record a Gentry tune. “Johnny and I got along really well, we liked each other,” Gentry says. One of those songs, a big seller, written before Gentry’s 1984 resurrection, was called “Drinking and Driving.”

When his first royalty check arrived, Gentry bought a Cadillac limousine, partly justified by a desire to ride in style, but also because, as he says, “with a driver I wouldn’t be drinking and driving.”

During these years Gentry met the legendary Johnny Cash on a country road outside Nashville. “I was driving and there he was in front of me,” Gentry says. “He stopped at a crossroads, and I jumped out and tapped on his window. He was real nice. I told him I’d written a song for him and did he have a chance to look at it. He said he didn’t recall, but he’d check when he got home.

“I called him the next day and his sister, who sort of managed his affairs then, said, ‘Oh, you must be the young man who stopped John on his way home last night. He spent all night looking through songs, but he never did find yours.’ I thought, What a guy, to keep his word and go out of his way for me like that.” Eventually Cash would record Gentry’s “Chicken in Black.”

These days Gentry still writes songs in his tractor, but he also writes stories and books. In the past he’s used books to inspire songs – he has a letter from novelist Stephen King in response to a song he wrote after reading a King book.

Gentry says when the “new wave” of modern country arrived, led by the unstoppable sales machine that was Garth Brooks, traditional country began to lose ground fast. “The royalty checks kept coming, but they weren’t predictable or enough to live like I want to. I like nice suits and new cars, and I wanted to remodel my house. Stuff like that. Real estate wasn’t doing much, so I had to find something else. I knew how to drive, and I liked being out on the road, so I went to big rig school for six weeks and signed on with Builders Transport out of Smyrna, Tenn., in 1987. After three years I went to Maverick, and now I’m with McElroy.”

Gentry, who lives with his family in Madison, Tenn., mostly hauls drywall and lumber these days, most of it drop-and-hook loads, after years of steel hauling at Maverick. Together with longtime buddy, steel guitarist and fellow songwriter Tommy Minniear, he’s working on trucking and biking songs. Check out their work at www.garygentrysongwriter.com.

“I love driving. I’m proud of what I do. When I was a kid working at the truckstop, drivers would come in with a certain swagger, sure they were doing a tough, valuable job. I don’t see as much of that in drivers today. But it’s a good life for me,” Gentry says. “I’ve got privacy, freedom, a good income, I wear jeans, there are no phones, no television, and that means I can write songs. I park it Friday night and don’t even think about it until Sunday night.

“I have a guitar and an old typewriter, and when I’m not rolling, I’m writing.”

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