At a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the heart of Music City, four young music executives are discussing the state of country music. “Bluegrass is a plague on our industry,” says one, and all nod in agreement.
The four are talking about Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, the roots music soundtrack that swept most of the country awards at the 2002 Grammys and sold more than 5 million copies despite limited airplay. The music execs, who represent a major country star, are clearly not happy with its success.
Not many in Nashville are, says trucker and bluegrass disc jockey Big Al Weekley
“Nashville doesn’t get it,” he says, smiling over ham and biscuits at an adjacent table, as the execs discuss how to get that bluegrass sound on their star’s new record. Weekley, who has been driving a rig for 20 years, is way ahead of this trend in music.
From the willow trees at his childhood home in West Virginia to the treeless plains of Nebraska, Weekley has been spreading the bluegrass gospel by playing and sharing the music with radio listeners. Finally, more than 25 years after he first tuned into a Bill Monroe song, people are hearing his message. In early March, Weekley went to Nashville to cut a bluegrass album with country music legends Dave Dudley and Leroy Van Dyke, and a host of bluegrass musicians.
The album, For The Long Haul, Volume 1. Songs For The Open Road, due for release this month, will feature bluegrass songs with a trucking theme. Also on the album will be Dudley, the voice of the trucking classic “Six Days on the Road,” and Van Dyke, who wrote and performed “Auctioneer” and “Walk On By.”
A lifelong musician, Weekley has hosted a bluegrass show for two years on Nebraska’s KRVN radio, a 50-year-old radio station owned and founded by farmers. The 50,000-watt station broadcasts bluegrass to all points in the United States west of Lexington, Neb., his adopted hometown. Before Weekley started the show, which he hosts when he’s at home or when he’s on the road hauling for construction companies and touring bands, he approached 18 radio stations and was turned down by all of them. Finally, after pestering KRVN for six months, his show got off the ground and on the air.
“The show has a mixed audience. Kids call me. Lots of truckers call me. And a lot of older people,” he says. “People out West often go to bed early. They sit in bed and read and listen to the radio. We get calls from New Mexico and California – from the center of the country to all points west.”
The show has even received calls from fans as far away as Alaska and from fans on the Internet in New York and Washington D.C., Weekley says. So last year, the trucker and bluegrass musician felt the time was right to combine his two crafts. He began writing songs and planning a bluegrass album dedicated to trucking.
The album’s timing appears to be perfect, even though Weekley started work on it before bluegrass became the talk and scourge of Nashville and the darling of music lovers across the country. “This was the best kept secret in the world,” he says.
“They didn’t do this because of the (Grammys),” says the 73-year-old Dudley. “The idea was there months ago. They were on top of this. If Nashville wants to call it a plague, that’s OK. But bluegrass is cutting into their record sales.”
Dudley, who had never worked with bluegrass musicians before recording a song for the album, says the album is a natural fit for him. “Of course I had a good reason – I’m still doing the things I want to do,” Dudley says. “I’ve had records with mandolins. And there’s a banjo on my new album.”
In 2001, Dudley recorded his first trucking album in nearly 40 years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Called American Trucker, the album features 10 new compositions including “You Ain’t Gonna Truck With Us” and “Don’t Mess With U.S. Truckers.” It’s receiving limited airplay, mostly on trucking radio shows, but his contribution to the bluegrass recording may make mainstream, the artist says.
“We’ve got a hit,” Dudley says. The song, called “Driving Trains,” was cut in two takes, just like his famous hit “Six Days on the Road.” “‘Driving Trains’ has that driving sound. I’m the kind of guy with up-tempo running through my blood. I want to get my truck up to 85 and 90 miles per hour.”
The enthusiasm for the song is palpable in the studio as the song is mixed and fiddles are added.
“[My brother] had a nice guitar with the picture of a dove on it. When he came back for the guitar, the dove was worn out and there were holes in the frets.”
– Big Al Weekley
Dudley says the bluegrass project will have a lot of support among truckers because “they’re not going to say that’s bluegrass or that’s country. If the song has the right presentation, it will weld everything together,” Dudley says. “Mixing bluegrass with truck songs – I know that sounds good. It’s a unique sound. It’s a truck rolling down the road.”
While Dudley’s and Van Dyke’s voices and fame will help carry the album, the real driving force behind the project is Weekley. His father taught him to drive a truck and play guitar when he was a teenager. Music was part of the family in his Appalachian home. His father and brother played the fiddle and guitar and his mother sang. “It was just like the American dream,” Weekley says.
When Weekley was 14 his brother left a guitar at home for him. “He had a nice guitar with the picture of a dove on it. When he came back for the guitar, the dove was worn out and there were holes in the frets.”
Weekley even remembers the moment when he became a lifelong bluegrass convert. “We went to church and then over to my grandma’s house. I flipped on the radio and heard Bill Monroe singing ‘Old, Old House.'” He was hooked.
In the ensuing years Weekley followed his two passions, truck driving and bluegrass. He would haul construction equipment and front for famous bluegrass bands like the Osborne Brothers and the Lonesome River Band. He hosted an occasional bluegrass show on radio stations in Ohio and Virginia. When he finally settled down in Nebraska six years ago, he began to spread the bluegrass gospel again.
Now he plans to spread the word to his other passion, trucking. “Truck driving, radio and music are all like a mistress,” he says. “When I get behind the wheel or hit certain notes, that’s something special.
“The trucking industry has been neglected by music for years. People still need good road music, something to get them up the road. They want good music going down the road. This album is for everybody – but it’s also the kind of music a truck driver would listen to.”
Weekley still loves to drive, but he wants to be able to choose when he drives now so he can stay close to his music and his radio show. His most recent driving gig was hauling new age band Mannheim Steamroller around on their Christmas tour. They’ve called him back for an upcoming tour.
“I love the freedom of the road. I like listening to the motor run and looking at the dash lights,” he says. “But I want it to be where I can go when I want to and let it go when I don’t want to drive.”
Right now though, his focus is on the album. If it’s successful, it will be so because Weekley has never lost his faith in bluegrass. But the success of the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack certainly won’t hurt the project.
“Oh Brother is what broke this loose,” Weekley says. “Three years ago when I began approaching radio stations about a bluegrass show, they laughed at me. They don’t laugh at me now.”