Profile: R.C. Barnes
Turn in the Road
Owner-operator R.C. Barnes parlays six decades of industry experience into new musical forays
RC. Barnes might have more experience behind the wheel of a trucking business than any other hauler on the highway today. “I’ve heard there’s two guys out here who are as old as I am,” says the 77-year-old Youngstown, Ohio, resident, “but nobody who’s been out here as long as I have.”
Having begun a putative trucking driving career at the tender age of 14, when he hitchhiked his way from custodial great-grandparents in Waynesboro, Penn., to find his mother in Holt, Ala., Barnes ultimately has more than six decades of driving under his belt.
Yet he’s no stranger to big life changes. And for the past three years, he’s been taking his lifelong love of music — he’s played bass in bands and has been writing songs since the 1960s — to Nashville, recording an album and, most recently, producing a five-song demo in preparation for a new album in 2011. If all goes well, he’ll put a driver in his Class 8 conventional and hop in his Silver Eagle coach (Garth Brooks’ first tour bus, he says) this year.
When Truckers News sister magazine Overdrive profiled small fleet Circle B Transport in April 1989, then-owner/part-operator Barnes was at the zenith of his trucking career in many respects. In less than a decade, he’d taken the $4,000 he had after selling most everything he had and moving to Oregon from Idaho in 1980 and turned it into more than million in yearly revenue. Barnes even had his own private Piper Arrow single-engine plane at one point, which he flew memorably to a stop on the Legends tour of Conway Twitty and George Jones to meet Barnes’ own musical hero, Merle Haggard, also on the tour. “I used to do Merle’s music all over the country,” Barnes says. “When he wrote a song it felt like it came right out of my head.”
Life at the top was good, but it wasn’t meant to last. One of his sons and his wife, half-owner of the Circle B business, had become involved in the drug trade. Ultimately, responsible for the books, she left him deep in debt to the feds for back taxes and landed herself in jail. (The son was killed in 1992.) Barnes was forced to declare bankruptcy, then regrouping with an old business associate in Cleveland with G&W Hauling & Rigging, to whom he’s leased today with a 1998 Kenworth T2000 pulling flat and step deck freight.
Stability has yielded other benefits — chiefly the chance to pursue music with his own spin on things. Years ago a friend told him, “‘R.C., you sound just like Merle Haggard.’ I said thanks,” as he tells it.
“And he said, ‘No, I’m not complimenting you. We already have a Merle Haggard — we need an R.C. Barnes.’”
He has focused on honing his own sound since then, and about three years ago, his boss and longtime friend at G&W, company owner G.W. Starkey, who knew of Barnes’ songwriting and playing abilities, invited Barnes to his home to help teach Starkey’s teenage son a few tricks on the guitar. It turned out “he was only 16 and he knew a whole lot more than me,” Barnes says, but on the strength of several of Barnes’ original songs, Starkey urged him on to Nashville. “We got on the computer and found people (in Nashville) to contact” about the potential of recording, Barnes says.