A rockin’ 1980s trucking record gets second life
It’s not often you hear a rock ‘n’ roll record rooted in the trucking life, in my experience — most of the driver-crooners out there are solidly country, Hank Williams a more likely point of influence than, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
And it might be even more unlikely to find a trucking rocker still pursuing his musical craft whose crowning achievement — an album that bears the title Smokin’ Joe in Overdrive — was making the rounds of the truckstop cassette racks 20 years ago.
But that’s all just what owner-operator Joe Lee Smith, leased to 101 Transportation out of Minnesota, is living today. Smith cut both his trucking and musical teeth in a small North Texas town, where he drove grain trucks from the age of 14 and played guitar in a variety of country bands, then driving a fuel truck in the Air Force right of high school. When he got out of the service in the mid-1970s he made his way to the Sacramento, Calif., area, and “played guitar in bands and such,” he says, learning the ways of the thriving rock scene.
There he met Ken Nicholson and Joe Hugnon, the former a budding music-business man-on-the-scene, the latter “the most talented” guitar player Smith says he knew at the time. “We were just all inseparable,” he says, “the three musketeers, in Sacramento before I got divorced and came back to Texas.”
He did oil-field work into the late 1970s before it dried out and he moved back west and worked on road and production crews for Ronnie Montrose and his opening band for a time, blues-metal pioneers Tesla before settling into trucking for the long haul.
Then, driving for a produce hauler out of McAllen, Texas, he conceived what would become a boundary-breaking effort, an album of music rooted in the long-haul life but musically centered in the rock ‘n’ roll of the day.
“I always carried an acoustic guitar with me” on the road, Smith says, and it was there he wrote the first songs — “Still-Ridin’ Cowboy” and “Tommy,” about the man who taught him to drive truck — that would appear on Smokin’ Joe in Overdrive, cut with his old friend Hugnon as producer and lead guitarist in the late 1980s and pushed by Nicholson onto the racks of TA locations. Nicholson describes the music using Smith’s own words, spoken during the conception of the record: “I want to make music that sounds like my truck sounds.”
Smith well remembers the conversation, likewise the rhythmic sense he was attempting to describe: “There’s a rhythm driving your truck, there’s a rhythm of the highway,” he says. “There were several tapes I had back then — ‘Super Slab,’ ‘Road Trucker Hits,’ ‘Six Days on the Road.’”
At the time of the record release, with no radio airplay to speak of, Smith says, “we sold several thousand” on the racks before the distribution deal fell through and they shelved the project. Today, though, says Smith, “Country music has caught and passed me. It’s gotten to where it’s really rock ’n’ rollers in boots and hats anymore.” At Nicholson’s insistence, Smith decided to give the project a go again, but don’t necessarily look for it on the CD racks at the truckstop (though Smith is, he says, “approaching the chrome shops” about selling it).
“I’ll tell you what else,” he adds, “we didn’t have computers and the Internet in 1990.” You can hear song samples and purchase a copy on http://www.smokinjoeleesmith.com.
Still ‘dressed for success’ Overdrive 2007 Trucker of the Year Henry Albert delivered an opening salvo at Truckers News’ sister magazine Overdrive’s Partners in Business workshop Friday, Aug. 27, at the Great American Trucking Show, an address that elucidated the effects of a very-small adjustment in his independent owner-operator business that, Albert said, led to “increased business, new customers” and big revenue. That adjustment? “The simple addition of a tie to my uniform,” Albert said, “has had the highest return on investment of anything that I’ve done in my business to date.” It was, well, captivating.