From Billboard to Hollywood

When Truckers News published its first issue in November 1977, truckers were the darlings of mainstream pop culture. Just one year earlier, trucking had gone mainstream with a monster hit song called “Convoy.” The song, which held the No.1 spot on both the country and pop music charts, had propelled the CB and the language of trucking into the forefront of American culture.

Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon and a year later released the first of a string of trucking movies that glamorized the cowboy image of truckers, and an icon was born. While the late 1970s and early 1980s were a high water mark for the trucker as celebrity, truckers have always been portrayed and courted by the entertainment industry. From the first trucking song in the 1930s to recent television shows, truckers, for better or worse, have been the stars of the road.

On the radio
One place where the trucker image has been particularly at home is on the radio. Travelers and road warriors have always been the subjects of ballads. As early as 1939, a song called “Truck Drivers Blues,” written by Ted Daffan, was hot on the charts. The song did so well, that Columbia signed Daffan as an artist, even though someone else performed the song.

As the trucking industry matured in the 1950s and ’60s, the songs did too. Terry Fell penned “Truck Drivin’ Man” in 1954 and the song became an instant hit. It’s been recorded by dozens of artists and been a hit several times, including a version by Dave Dudley, a singer who made a living off truck-driving songs. Other artists tapped into the trucker lifestyle, too: Dick Curless, Bill Kirchen, Jerry Reed, Del Reeves, Red Simpson, Red Sovine and Dale Watson all made money singing about truck drivers.

Trucking radio host Bill Mack, a longtime veteran of country music and trucking culture, says truckers have an eternal appeal in pop culture. “They are travelers,” he says. “They’re not just isolated to one spot geographically. People have always been interested in those who travel.”

Truckers appeal to songwriters and listeners because the image of a trucker is something everyone can identify with, says Mack. “Truckers themselves are obviously important people in our culture. It’s their spirit. They’re intriguing to a degree. And they have a bit of mystique. When a motorists passes a truck, there’s a mystery about them.”

That’s one of the reasons why some of the most popular songs have been about truckers. The biggest trucking song remains “Convoy,” which hit the top spot on both pop and country charts. The song helped its writers sell 20 million records in just a few years. It even convinced millions of Americans to buy CBs for their cars and homes. More importantly, perhaps, it spawned several movies and television shows.

At the movies
Bill Fries, the personality behind the fictitious “Convoy” singer C.W. McCall, says the success of the song created a race among movie studios to capitalize on the cowboy image of truckers. While MGM, which released McCall’s records, struggled to produce a movie version, Universal Pictures quickly put together the Burt Reynolds classic Smokey and the Bandit, and released it in 1977. The movie became the third highest grossing film for that year (behind Star Wars and Rocky) and is the 55th highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. Two sequels followed with less success.

The movie Convoy came out a year later, but was not as popular. Fries says much of that has to do with the popularity of the song “Convoy,” which had peaked and faded. “We thought the movie came out much too late,” Fries says. “Long after the peak. The song hit No.1 in January 1976. You could still hear it on the radio a year later in 1977. But it was a golden oldie by the time the film producers got the movie going late in 1978.

25 years ago . . .
former truck driver and rock-and-roll superstar Elvis Presley, 42, died at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn., Aug. 16, 1977.

“It was a battle between Smokey and the Bandit and our crew, and they got out first, even though we were done shooting before they were,” Fries says. “Smokey and the Bandit got credit for romanticizing the trucker.”

Television also got in the act with NBC’s “B.J. and the Bear,” a comedy series about a trucker and his pet chimpanzee that ran from 1979 through 1981. While most of the movies of the era portrayed truckers as affable, if not law-flouting, heroes, others began showing truckers in a negative light, reviving an image that even Hollywood director Steven Spielberg capitalized on in his film debut.

Spielberg’s movie, Duel, preceded the late ’70s craze and used the public’s fear of big rigs to spook moviegoers. In it, a truck bears down on a motorist for miles and miles. More recent films also play on these fears; Breakdown and Joy Ride portray truckers as sinister villains.

Mack says the cowboy image popularized in the 1970s may have played out, especially as the mainstream media has often portrayed truckers as drug users and road menaces. The image was so tarnished by the mid-80s that the American Trucking Associations started its Road Team to reverse the trend and portray truckers in a more professional light.

Recently, Mack says, “The truckers have stood up more, and expressed themselves in a manner in these last few years that have left a better image. They’re not looked on as just old boys and girls running down the highway without any sense. There’s a greater respect now.”

That may also be showing up in pop-culture again. Television network TNN launched “18 Wheels of Justice,” which featured an FBI agent posing as a truck driver. Again, the trucker was a hero. While the show faltered and was cancelled, it caused a lot of industry interest especially from truck maker Kenworth, whose T2000 was a central character on the show.

The show was an example of pop culture influencing trucking as well. Kenworth used the show in its marketing and invited the show’s stars to its booth at truck shows. In the 1980s, the company also marketed a special James Bond edition W900. The truck’s paint scheme matched that used in a stunt in a James Bond movie. The trucks became collector edition rigs. So have trucks from the TV show “B.J. and the Bear.”

Pop culture has also been important to the life of Truckers News. The earliest issues featured movie and music reviews and articles on country music stars like Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Donna Fargo and Tom T. Hall. Truckers picked up the magazine, in part, to read stories about their favorite musicians. Articles about truckers who follow Jimmy Buffet and even drivers who haul musicians have graced the pages.

So have old musicians who lionized truckers years ago. Four decades after his performance of “Six Days on the Road” was a hit on pop and country radio stations, Dave Dudley is still making a living off trucking songs. Last year he released American Trucker, an album featuring 10 new trucking songs including “You Ain’t Gonna Truck With Us” and “Don’t Mess With U.S. Truckers.”

Mack, who currently hosts a trucking radio show on XM Satellite Radio, says those kinds of comebacks are putting a positive spin back on the tarnished trucker image. And the songs are popular with a new generation of truckers. “I’ve played Dudley’s songs a lot,” he says. “Trucking songs are hot all over again because of that album.”

Maybe trucking movies will stage the same kind of comeback too.