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.’”

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