Exit Only: Running the road
’Truck-driving king of the blues’ Bill ‘Watermelon Slim’ Homans serves up music to haul by
By Todd Dills
Born in Boston the son of an attorney and freedom rider, Bill Homans first heard blues music while spending the majority of his 1950s and ’60s childhood in North Carolina, a white kid partly raised by black women employed by the family. The women sang work blues, and Homans would later take up the genre with a harmonica and lap dobro, releasing his first record in 1973.
Merry Airbrakes was a Vietnam protest record on a small label, but as its title suggests, Homans had already shown at least some of what would be one of the biggest influences on his music some three decades later. “The blues is work music,” Homans told me in Nashville in March, on tour with his new Escape From the Chicken Coop record (in part with his excellent band, the Workers: check out watermelonslim.com for a few May listings, before the group heads overseas). “I had my first MOS in military hauling, in 1969, but I never drove commercially until about 1987.”
Coop mines the subsequent years’ experience — “I wrote many songs waiting for a load or to get unloaded,” Homans says — from the opening track, “Caterpillar Whine,” on down to a sort of paean to trucking ’round the world, “18, 18 Wheeler.” All in all, for my money it might be the best blues-inflected country-rock, you-know-what-thumping collection of trucking songs to come down the pike in a long time.
Homans worked for several companies hauling anything from logs to industrial waste locally and regionally during his 14-year trucking career, including a longish stint with a major over-the-road carrier, during which time he wrote “one of my signature songs,” he says. “Blue Freightliner,” on the Up Close & Personal record of 2004, began its life over the CB radio on I-40 in Memphis. “I was … rolling past the Pyramid and started to sing a couple verses,” Homans told the Nashville crowd. A fellow driver listening in came back with this: “‘Driver, what did you do with that money your momma gave you for singing lessons, come on.’ I didn’t think much of that.” Eleven years later, he recorded the song.
But Homans’ musical career had gotten back off the ground earlier than 2004 — in 1999, still driving truck, he released a self-titled EP with his Fried Okra Jones band and, in 2003, his first full-length record since 1973 (Big Shoes to Fill), with his stage name up top — Watermelon Slim. He picked up the moniker when he first moved to Oklahoma and began farming watermelons, and he’s resided in the state for many years until recently.
“I bought my first house this year,” the now 61-year-old says, “in Clarksdale, Miss.,” a locale of a piece with his solo blues style, with clear echoes of the Delta. “The old crossroads at U.S. 61 and 49 is 17.8 miles south of my house.”
Homans’ last trucking job was with Oklahoma-based H.E.W. Waste Recycling, hauling industrial waste in a roll-off. At age 55, in 2004, needing some time off to tour and not having accumulated enough vacation, he requested unpaid leave. Henry Wells, the company’s owner at the time, gave him the nudge that has enabled his success these past several years. “It’s time to make the choice,” he said. “You can either drive or play.”
He’s still logging an average 75,000 miles yearly over-the-road touring in the “Honey Wagon,” the Ford E350 with a chrome pig on the hood he runs to shows. And he wears his trucking past on his sleeve and in his driving attitude. He’s still got the Cobra 25 CB he started out with, and “I run the road,” he says. “Any truck driver who really cares about safety knows he’s the leader out there. We’re running the road — we have to.”
Doors opening The push for passage of Jason’s Law truck parking legislation gained a little steam when, following a March press conference in D.C., full industry backing for the bill to expand safe and secure parking along the nation’s highways (H.R. 2156 and S. 971) came in the form of messages of near unconditional support from not only the largest drivers organizations out there — the Teamsters Union and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association — but also the American Trucking Associations. The push for the law’s passage has to date been led by drivers, and one of them, Desiree Wood, profiled in this column last year, urged the bill’s supporters to keep up the work: “The door of opportunity just opened to be heard. Now it’s up to the rest of us to make calls and tell our reps, ‘We need this bill!’”