Organic farmer John Malayter needed to bring in more consistent income, and being in his 50s, he felt his career options were limited. So he got his CDL a few years ago, “which was pretty smart in hindsight, and I probably should have done it a lot sooner,” he says.
Though trucking hadn’t been on his radar, his history of working with his hands helped smooth the transition to driving professionally. “I grew up working on vehicles out of necessity,” he says of helping to maintain family vehicles. “It was necessary to know how things worked, and that helps me understand trucking a lot more.”
Now 57, Malayter drove for about one year with another company before switching to Jordan Carriers, based in Natchez, Mississippi, for its better home time and pay. He hauls mostly construction materials and steel on a flatbed.
A career change is nothing new for Malayter. His work has included four years in the U.S. Air Force, about 10 years as an electrical technician and then nearly a decade in the Air National Guard. All the while, singing, playing guitar and writing songs has been a constant. He’s occasionally earned a little money as a bluegrass musician.
Before he started driving professionally, he wrote “Take Me Back to Tennessee,” whose lyrics sound like they were written by a trucker – in retrospect, pointing to his career change. Trucking has helped his “songwriting inspiration 100%.” When an idea strikes, he dictates the lyrics into his smartphone. “I always have these things swirling around in my head,” he says.
He was 13 when he realized he wanted to play guitar, and an uncle gave him one for Christmas. “I sat for hours and hours teaching myself how to play a little,” he recalls. “Early on, I found that I was never able to tell the complete story with just the guitar alone. So singing became a necessity.”
After many years as an electrical technician, working on kitchen appliances, he joined the New Jersey Air National Guard. In fact, he was in uniform during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “I worked on the F-16 aircraft,” which included electrical and mechanical systems, “and loaded missiles and bombs.”
“The Atlantic City National Guard base had an alert wing associated with it but was shut down because of lack of a threat in years prior to the attack on the World Trade Center,” he says. “The alert aircraft were not in effect at the time. As the crow flies, the jets from Atlantic City could’ve made it to New York in about five minutes, but we had nothing prepared when it hit the fan. We loaded target practice ammunition in the F-16s to do something and got the airplanes up in the air as quickly as we could, but it was all over by that time. It was pretty hectic. Eventually, they brought out the live missiles – the real thing. I think that was the first time live missiles were ever loaded stateside for a combat mission.”
Malayter explains that all the members of the New Jersey Air National Guard were then activated for a year. Some of the young people had enlisted simply for the benefit of a free college education, so it was a shock for them.
“Some people had to go overseas, and some people were on 12-hour rotating shifts,” he says. “Some of these people lived an hour and a half or two hours away, and their lives were just completely upended.” For that year, “tensions were high,” he says. “Everybody was worried about local terrorism.”
The experience forced Malayter to reflect on his life. Soon after his yearlong activation, he realized he needed a change. Born and raised in a small town in northern New Jersey, Malayter found himself wanting to return to that slower lifestyle. “My mother never drove, so we walked everywhere, which was really nice, thinking back.”
He and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Rogersville, a small town northeast of Knoxville, to regain that lifestyle. The location was also well-suited for Malayter to continue developing his musical interests, whether it be the bluegrass influences of the southern Appalachians or the proximity to Nashville. A rural setting was also needed to pursue their plans for commercial organic farming.
They moved in 2003, and their daughter, Emma, was born the next year. After farming full-time for about seven years, Malayter began truck driving to keep the family’s income stable. Elizabeth and Emma have continued the farming operation on a smaller scale.
Malayter’s songwriting began to blossom long before the move to Tennessee. In 1996, he finally was moved to share his original music when he wrote a song about what his mother had meant to the family. “The first [of my songs] anyone ever heard was when my mother died unexpectedly,” he says. “I had a friend sing it at her funeral.”
His catalog of songs has since grown. He entered his original “I’ve Only Known You for 18 Years” for the 2020 Overdrive-Red Eye Radio Trucker Talent Search. It’s about his sense of Emma growing up too quickly, especially during his recent years as a professional driver.
The song earned him a place as one of three finalists in the talent contest. The final competition was held as part of Overdrive’s GATS Week in August, an online series of events that had been scheduled for the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, which was canceled. Malayter’s performance that week of “Take Me Back to Tennessee” earned him the grand prize of $500 and a recording session.
“John is a storyteller,” says Jay Vernali, owner of Jay’s Place Recording Studio, where Malayter recorded four songs. He credits Malayter for writing “great tales from personal experiences set with some great musical grooves.”
“This contest has brought me out of my shell a little,” Malayter says. “It’s given me more confidence sharing my stuff with others. I think some of the songs are pretty good. I’ve gotten some positive feedback on them, and I’m working on copyright and licensing now with some contacts over the years.”
Malayter says he will be “eternally grateful” he got to record at Jay’s Place. When he and his family moved to Tennessee, he said, the dream was always to play music in Nashville. “Whether anything comes from this [recording session] or not, I’ll always have this memory, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Run through this playlist of a few of Malayter’s original tracks, recorded at Jay’s Place, below, or visit Overdrive‘s SoundCloud profile: