Voices of the night
Shortly before midnight on March 22, a small crowd assembled in the darkly paneled, pseudo-posh lobby of the Executive Inn West hotel in Louisville, Ky. They had gathered to witness the ending of an era: the last remote WBAP broadcast of radio personality Bill Mack, a.k.a. the Midnight Cowboy.
“This is a sort of going away party for me,” said Mack, who is being succeeded by Eric Harley. “And I couldn’t ask for a better place to be tonight,” he said, referring to the audience in front of him on folding chairs.
Many in the room had listened to Mack for years, and they knew him to be a guy who understood their industry and shared their concerns. He was also a country music icon who’d personally known every big star since the days of Hank Williams Sr. Just as important, he was one of the founders of truck-oriented radio, a genre catering to the unique interests of drivers working through the night.
For truckers, radio isn’t simply a utility. It is a constant companion, a major source of entertainment and information, friendlier than a standard-issue truck stop waitress and more reliable than the CB. During the early days of Overdrive’s 40-year history, nobody had targeted this segment of the listening public. In 1970, Charlie Douglas began his Road Gang show on WWL in New Orleans. Mack soon followed suit. Since then, many other DJs – among them, Billy Cole, Gene Davis, Dave Nemo, Billy Parker, Fred Sanders, Larry Scott and Dale Sommers – established trucker shows.
Mack, who plans to host a trucking show for XM Satellite Radio when it launches this fall, hadn’t intended to hitch his career to the trucking industry when he got into radio during the ’50s, even though his father had driven truck and owned a truck stop in Mack’s hometown of Shamrock, Texas. In fact, he’d already become a successful radio and television personality when fate came calling – literally – on March 2, 1969, the date he began working as an all-night disc jockey for WBAP, a 50,000-watt station in Fort Worth, Texas. According to Mack, “The first call I received that night was from a trucker in Minnesota. The guy says, ‘Man, I’m glad to hear we have some country music we can listen to at nights. Looks like we got us a midnight cowboy.’”
Mack says he’s had many memorable experiences as a truckin’ DJ. One of his more embarrassing moments occurred when a woman requested a song for her husband. She told Mack, “We just got back together after a long separation, and he left tonight to go trucking. Please play something good for him.” Mack hung up the phone and, without thinking, dedicated the very next song, which was already cued up.
Unfortunately, it was Roy Clark’s “Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone.” “I said [on the air], ‘I’m going to play this song for Ed out there. It’s from Geneva.’ Well, the trucker quickly called in and said, ‘You can tell Geneva what she can do. I’m gone.’ Then, the woman called back, nearly in tears,” Mack says. “I spent the rest of the night apologizing to that couple.”
In radio, though, even disappointed callers are better than no callers. Charlie Douglas remembers his start on WWL. “I didn’t answer the phones for the first week,” he says. “They never rang. We just kind of sat around with our thumbs in our ears.”
For Douglas, the initial silence was all the more troubling because he had worked hard to convince WWL’s management that truckers were a vast, untapped market. “The management was quite traditional,” he says. “They had great trepidation about going country at night.”
Douglas had come up with the idea for a trucker-oriented show while working as a rock ‘n’ roll jock at KNOE in New Orleans. “I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t like the manager there nearly as much as he didn’t like me,” he recalls. “I started talking with John Pela, who was then the program director at WWL. He was brave enough to let me try [my idea].”
The station was soon flooded with late-night callers, securing the show’s future.
It wasn’t long before other stations began paying Douglas the ultimate compliment by imitating his Road Gang format. One of them was KMO in Seattle, where “Big John” Trimble was working as an afternoon announcer. Trimble says the idea started when someone mentioned the success that Douglas was having. This led to a decision to try the same thing in the Northwest. Co-workers elected Trimble to be the host because they believed his Southern accent would lend authenticity to the broadcasts.
The Seattle gig lasted three years. Trimble moved to KGA in Spokane, Wash., and then to KWKH in Shreveport, La., where he broadcasted from Kelly’s Truck Stop. “I started meeting people in the trucking industry: at first, all drivers, and later, some of the leaders and union people,” he says. “I just got involved and jumped in with both feet.”
After three years at Kelly’s, Trimble was offered a job at WRVA in Richmond, Va. He told management that he would work only if he could set up shop in another truck stop. They found him a space at Jarrell’s Truck Plaza in Doswell, VA. This became Trimble’s command center for 18 years.
At Jarrell’s, Trimble brought in experts to discuss the industry’s hottest topics: deregulation, strikes, escalating taxes and fuel price spikes. “During the shutdowns,” he says, “I’d sometimes go five or six nights without ever playing a record. I would just turn it into a talk show.”
Overdrive founder Mike Parkhurst was a frequent guest. Many others weren’t quite as well known – or controversial. In 1978, Trimble brought in a postal worker from Pennsylvania who’d written a book about truckers and their humor. The author, Gwyneth “Dandalion” Seese, had become interested in the trucking industry during her hour-long commutes to and from a third-shift mail-sorting job. Hers was not the kind of background that would normally make trucking history, but Seese apparently wasn’t an average walk-on. The two struck up a friendship, and later Trimble invited her to host his show while he went on vacation.
Seese, 41 at the time, had to quit her job to sit in for Trimble. Her friends and family disapproved, but, to everyone’s surprise, she parlayed that brief experience into a successful 21-year career as a trucking DJ, working first at WIOZ in Ephrata, Pa., and later at WRKZ in Harrisburg, Pa. For a while, she even had her own network show, “which was a first for a woman,” she says.
Describing her show as “very up-tempo,” she says, “I played a lot of trucking music and a lot of the older stuff. I played every type of country music: bluegrass, Western swing, Western, Cajun, top-20. I think that’s why [the show] lasted so long.”
Seese has won many awards for her work. “That usually doesn’t happen to night jocks,” she says. “They’re usually the dregs of radio. A lot of them think that no one is listening, so they just throw on anything. They don’t care.”
Seese retired from broadcasting last year and now works in radio station management.
“It was a great career, but I’d probably never go back on the air,” she says. “Hell, I’d worked nights for 30 years. You never get used to it. I always tell people, ‘Once you reach your 60s, getting up at 11 p.m. to go to work really isn’t any fun.’”