You’ll have to forgive Bill Fries for that smile on his face. He knows something that you don’t: He’s never been a trucker, and he doesn’t even like country music.
For millions of country music fans and truckers alike, that may come as a surprise, because Bill Fries, a.k.a. C.W. McCall, held the top spot on the country music charts 25 years ago, and he did it with trucking’s most famous song, “Convoy.”
That was 1976, and Fries [pronounced: Freeze], a former advertising man and jingle writer, was at the height of an unusual career divergence. “Convoy,” the first song on the B side of his second album, was sitting atop the charts and C.W. McCall, a storytellin’ and truckstop-waitress-chasin’ trucker, was a household name.
The fictional character Fries and musician/producer Chip Davis created at an Omaha, Neb., ad agency was the hit of the year and prompted MGM, the record label for McCall’s plainspoken songs, to ponder a movie based on the song.
A quarter-century after “Convoy” hit No. 1, Fries is perched atop a Colorado mountain. His simple, A-frame log cabin is anchored into stone overlooking Ouray, an old silver-mining town that has turned into a stop for tourists.
“I was never a truck driver, even though people think I must have been,” Fries says. “I wanted to sound authentic. I wanted to talk like people talk. If you want to talk to truckers, you have to sound like a trucker.”
In that search for authenticity, Fries began a story that is now legend. Fries and Davis, the braintrust behind the American Gramaphone record label and leader of new-age band Mannheim Steamroller, created C.W. McCall in 1972 to help market the Old Home Bread brand of the Metz Baking Company. While Davis worked on the music, Fries turned on the CB to learn the sounds and language of the trucking industry.
Pretty soon, words like “tranny” and phrases like “quart of hot C” peppered the airwaves beyond Channel 19. Fries and Davis turned out a jingle based on McCall, a truckstop waitress named Mavis (“built like a burlap bag full of bobcats”) and the Old Home Filler-Up An’ Keep On A-Truckin’ Café, and the jingle started drawing attention. Radio and television stations across the Midwest were deluged with calls requesting the commercial. A major newspaper even began listing when the commercials would air.
“It caught on,” Fries says. “MGM Records called and said, ‘You’ve got to do an album. We want more of the same stuff.’ So I had to conjure up some more trucking songs.”
Fries went back to the CB, and then he and Davis went into a local studio. They created Wolf Creek Pass, an eclectic collection of trucking, Jeep and Rocky Mountain songs. The album, released in 1975, featured plainspoken lyrics, banjos and a pack of female chorus singers that sounded mysteriously like voices from some of Fries’ commercials.
That was no surprise, Fries says. “The girls were doing nothing but jingles,” he says. “We called them the Puffies, because we had to put these big foam covers over the microphones. There was only two but we doubled them to make the chorus.”
The signature tune, “Wolf Creek Pass,” was the true story of two truckers who lost their brakes going downhill on Wolf Creek Pass (“which is up on the Great Divide”) and crashed into a feed store in Pagosa Springs, Colo. Fries heard the story from the truckers on a trip to the Colorado Rockies, where he and his wife Rena often vacationed. It began a tradition of songwriting about genuine events, even if the characters were occasionally fictional.
Fries and Davis produced a second album in 1975 called Black Bear Road. That’s when things really took off for C.W. McCall and company. A single on the new album began receiving airtime on radio stations nationwide. By 1976, the song, “Convoy,” was the No. 1 single on both Billboard’s Country and Pop charts.
As record sales went through the roof, Fries, then in his late 40s, found himself the subject of articles in People magazine and performing as C.W. McCall on “The Tonight Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show.” Fries even endorsed a line of Midland CB radios.