Roctober #46 presents: Truckin’ Music!

thats-truckdrivin_225x231The new issue of my Roctober Magazine features a huge article on the history and highlights of the truck driving country and western genre that ruled the roads and airwaves in 60s and 70s. To celebrate the release of the magazine we gave away truckdriving music cassettes featuring covers of classics and originals by the Roctober staff. For those of you who missed the party, or who don’t have a cassette player, we are posting the compilation in its entirety here, including the “bonus track,” a rare 70s soul 45 that is all time funkiest trucking tune. Here are the stories of the cover songs and bonus tracks, adapted from the pages of the magazine:

“Six Days on the Road” by Dave Dudley (#1, 1963)

Dudley is, in death as in life, The King of the Truckdriving Songs. His booming voice and the big, boss guitar sound of his better known songs (provided by Johnny Voit) defined the truckstop sound, which was just coming into being when he cut his breakthrough smash, 1963’s “Six Days on The Road.” The song is the perfect trucker tune; his manly monotone invokes the macho of the road cowboys, yet he’s not too manly to avoid expressing his (universal theme of) longing for home (“my hometown’s coming in sight/If you think I’m happy you’re right!”), plus there’s enough trucker lingo to sound authentic, but not so much as to baffle Beetle drivers (“I just passed a Jimmy and a White”¦I’m a little overweight and my logbooks way behind”). Not to mention some of the only pro-drug lyrics aimed at Republicans in the 60s (“I’m taking little white pills and my eyes are open wide”).

From there, it was on to big rig classics like “Truck Driving Son Of a Gun” (#3, 1965), “There Ain’t No Easy Run” (#10, 1969), and “Thanks For All The Miles,” speaking a language the truckers understood (long before the C.B. craze of the mid-70s and its subsequent novelty hits). Not that Dudley was above doing novelties, check out the almost-Rockabilly “Cowboy Boots” (#3, 1963) or the hilarious “Rolaids, Doan’s Pills, and Preparation H” (which tells you what truck drivers REALLY live on). Dudley had a big, full sound, the kind that, along with Johnny Cash or George Jones, could win over the average rocker who’s just getting his feet wet in the Country pool. He sang in two keys, matter of fact and that’s that. Dudley’s career didn’t begin or end in the truckdriving song era that he helped launch. He was a rockabilly artist for King in the 50s and just two years before his death he released a truck driving reaction to the September 11th attacks called “You Ain’t Gonna Truck with Us” on his album “American Trucker.”

Though he was far from a one trick pony (his half-century career yielded well over thirty LPs, most of non-big rig c&w), between 1963 and 2001 he recorded at least 75 songs about trucks, one for every year he lived. When he rode off into the sunset in 2003 naturally, I expected to hear tales of truckers hanging their little flags at half-mast after Dudley made his last run, but, when I asked my friend, Pope, who’s a trucker himself, he just said, “Nahh, these younger guys don’t know anything about that.” But, we remember Dave Dudley, the real patron saint of truck drivers everywhere.

“The Girl on the Billboard,” Del Reeves (#5, 1968)

Franklin Delano Reeves had a long career, which hit its groove in 1961 with his first chart record “Be Quiet Mind” (#9, 1961). He hit the top of the country charts with the truckdriving tune “The Girl on the Billboard” in 1965. This ridiculous ditty in which Reeve’s trucking persona obsesses over a sexy billbnoard he keeps seeing as he hammers down the highways (“You’ll find tiny pieces of my heart scattered every which a way/Shattered by the girl wearing nothing but a smile/And a towel in the picture on the billboard in the field near the big old highway,” followed by the timeless lyric, “A doo da doo doo doo doo da doo doo doo dee da dee dee doo”) adapts the Johnny Cash “chicka-boom” rhythm that the Man in Black so often used to simulate train sounds to both overtly suggest the rhythm of the road and perhaps covertly bring to mind the sound of the song’s self-declared “double-clutching weasel” protagonist pumping his own piston as he stares at the title character. That song, and many of his signature tunes (including “Women Do Funny Things to Me,” #9, 1965, “The Belles of the Southern Belle,” #4, 1965, and “Philadelphia Fillies,” #9, 1971) were lighthearted, girl-happy novelty ditties, to go along with a career in which his comic persona (doing impressions at the Grand Ole Opry, hosting a zany TV variety show, appearing in a Burt Reynolds’ movie) outshone his music.

However, his finest moment as a recording artist was a truckdriving song that seemed more about sublimely expressing the sincere joys of the life of the road than it was in getting giggles. In “Looking At The world Through A Windshield” a second generation trucker comes to understand his father’s lifestyle as he starts, “looking at the world through a windshield” and seeing, “everything in a little bit different light.” With this song’s swelling chorus, as rousing as a German drinking song, and the fantastic rhythmic phonics of the lyrics (“I’ve pushed this rig through sleet and rain/And I’ve driven through the rough terrain/Of the Rockies to the docks of old L.A./On down that old Pacific shore/Swing north and head for Baltimore/Or some place ’bout two thousand miles away”) songwriters Jerry Chesnut and Mike Hoyer composed one of the most convincing tributes to trucking. Though he died on New Years Day 2007 Reeves continues to impact popular culture. Without his support Billy Ray Cyrus would never have made it, and if that didn’t happen we’d have no Hannah Montana today. And when Hannah covers “Girl on the Billboard” the circle will close. (unless it already did, due to the out of court settlement”¦but that’s another story).

Here’s “Looking at the World” live on TV, and here’s “Looking at the World” through 60s home movies of driving:

“Give Me 40 Acres (To Turn This Rig Around)” by The Willis Brothers (#9, 1964)

There are plenty of trucking songs about despair, death and destruction (and even ghosts) on the highway, including King of Bluegrass Jimmy Martin’s poignant classic “Widowmaker,” the tale of Billy Mack, a trucker who will never see his beloved Wanda Ann again because he drove his rig into oblivion rather than plow into a stalled busload of kids, honoring that “one life for ten has always been the diesel driver’s code.” But to my knowledge there are only two about trucking chaos in the Northeast. The more serious of the pair is “A Tombstone Every Mile,” by the eye-patched “Baron of Country Music” Dick Curless, the tale of a “stretch of road up north in Maine that’s never, ever, ever, seen a smile/If they buried all the truckers lost in them Woods there’d be a tombstone every mile.”

A far more light-hearted turn on the theme of truckin’ gone bad in New England is presented by the Willis Brothers, the Grand Ole’ Opry members whose long career (from the early 30s to mid 90s) is validated by history because they backed up Hank Williams on some key early records, and is validated by Billboard by this, their sole Top 10 hit. This goofy novelty tune is this tale of a rookie trucker reduced to tears by the narrow, congested, tangled, one-way city streets of Boston. Perhaps this is an allegory about a collective Southern inferiority complex/sense of marginalization in the long wake of Civil War defeat. Or maybe it just sucks to drive in Boston.

Hear the original:

“Soul Dog Pt. 1” by Soul Dog (R&B #65, 1976)

“Soul Dog” is a funky CB-novelty song using Blaxploitation soundtrack wah wah and sassy soul sister backup vocals to tell the tale of b-a-a-a-d black trucker who is doing 95 miles an hour through the South, where a redneck highway patrolman (who keeps calling Soul Dog “boy”) is outfoxed by the speedy trucker. Soul Dog eventually gets up to 250 miles an hour, and his woman is near orgasmic as she urges him to “whip it, Soul Dog, bring it on home.” “Soul Dog” was portrayed by Sweet Charles Sherrell, best known for playing bass (and some keys) for James Brown from 1968 through the early 80s (he also co-wrote some songs including “Get Up Offa That Thing”), and for his 1974 solo album on Brown’s People label. Songwriter Willie Johnson composed the tune and Sherrell produced and did the vocals on what stands as the all-time funkiest CB record, good buddies.

  1. Road Hog by Johnny Sampson
  2. Give Me 40 Acres (To Turn This Rig Around) by Japanese Master Track
  3. Angel of the Rest Stop by The Slow Poisoner
  4. Girl on the Billboard by High A-Wake-A-Fi
  5. Ridin’ High by Velcro Lewis Band
  6. Comin Home by Slink Moss
  7. Six Days on the Road by Gentleman John Battles
  8. Trucker Song by F. R. Forster
  9. Harley Girls by Short Punks in Love
  10. Truck Stop by Gary Pig Gold
  11. Orlando Run by Ken Burke
  12. Roll Truck Roll by Slink Moss
  13. Soul Dog by Sweet Charles

JAMES BROWN!

[photo of James Brown bobblehead]While it was jarring to wake up Christmas morning to learn of James Brown’s death, it was far from sad. Though the tireless workload he took on in the sixties and seventies that earned him his “hardest working man in show business” title eased up in subsequent decades, his long, difficult life had become especially challenging in recent years. Few septuagenarians could painlessly endure a steady schedule of grueling, physical performances, but Brown’s activities were complicated by debilitating diabetes, a rushed recovery from colon cancer, money troubles, legal woes, traitorous relatives, and a strained, strange marriage. The sad fact is that James Brown’s death is not merely occasion for the standard “rest in peace” well-wishings, but is likely the first time in decades that he has been able to genuinely rest, period.

Full disclosure: my James Brown fandom borders on fanaticism. Always fascinated by prolificity, I fell under the Godfather’s spell in my pre-school, where the sturdy classroom record player was turreted by towering stacks of Brown’s Polydor, King and People singles, many with his striking portrait on the label. For the last twenty years I have tried to see Brown live as many times as possible. Though he is perceived by many as an oldies act, mechanically (if enthusiastically) executing the same signature gimmicks for half a century, fans who kept close dibs appreciated both the potency he still possessed, and the absurdity of some of his would-be-innovations, including James Brown cookies, the James Brown Macarena, and the surprisingly funky, though absurdly didactic, 2001 single, “(Killing is Out) School is In.” Of course, Brown’s live shows are the source of his legend (my personal favorite was a fiery 1996 Grant Park concert in which the photo pit became a private V.I.P. section for legendary pimp/evangelist Bishop Don Magic Juan). But as a child weaned on the boob tube, for my money Brown achieved immortality on the television screen.

As a burgeoning music fan in the late seventies and early eighties his TV appearances became an obsession of mine, and in the days of independent video stores I was lucky that our local shop stocked well-worn copies of The Best of Ed Sullivan and The T.A.M.I. Show. In my book TV-A-Go-Go: Rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol I hold up Brown as perhaps the greatest icon of televised pop. His 1965 appearance on Shindig may be the best argument ever for the validity of lip-synching as an art form. Liberated from a microphone cord, his scrambling, shuffling, hypnotizing performance was a clinic on the magic of movement. Conversely, when his full band took over the Soul Train set, they unleashed one of the best live performances in TV history, culminating with Brown engulfed in a sea of vibrant, beautiful black teenagers pumping their fists and chanting, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” Brown is famed for staving off a race riot in Boston by performing a live televised concert in the wake of Dr. King’s 1967 assassination, but his influence over his people extended well into the 21st century. In 2003, like a faith healer, Brown’s touch redeemed a man who had spent a fortune denying his race. When Michael Jackson joined his idol in performance at the inaugural BET Awards the Godfather offered the pale pop star his famed cape. In the wake of this exhilarating moment the show’s host declared, “Michael Jackson – you’re still black! You’re still one of us!” Such is the power of Brown.

I spent my Christmas holidays, and the ensuing weeks, glued to the television, and buried in newspapers and magazines, surveying the news coverage and tributes. Nearly every story led with, or quickly segued into, the idea that rap music owed its existence to James Brown. These statements are, of course, accurate, and it would be irresponsible journalism to omit them, but it still seems a bit distasteful to validate such a extraordinary artist by cataloguing what he spawned rather than with his own work. In the only Christmas night prime time programming change, BET replaced a rerun of In Living Color with a special called Timeless which told Brown’s story in a montage of archival BET coverage, with Donnie Simpson, Tavis Smiley and Jacque Reid converging for a parade of praise. But with nearly every segment focusing with laser precision on what rap records sampled, quoted, or ripped off Brown, the show in many ways insulted a quarter century of teenagers. While a kid could conceivably dismiss a chestnut like “Try Me” as a crusty dusty, I profoundly believe that any adolescent hip hop fan can fully appreciate Brown’s funk compositions from the early seventies without an iota of contextualization. At his peak Brown made music that was so powerful, so timeless, and so singular that despite decades of building upon, stealing from, and remixing his work, not only has it not been improved upon, it also has not become old. While newly produced specials on BET, unearthed Brown tributes from the vaults of VH1 and PBS, and countless network news segments all made statement after statement about Brown’s influence, each of these programs peaked when they let the music make its own case.

The other thing that seemed a little off was that, appropriately I suppose, none of the press seemed to be telling the James Brown stories that are inevitably told when people tell James Brown stories. Brown’s genius was not unrelated to madness, and anyone who ever had personal, artistic, or business dealings with the performer, or even met him in passing, usually heard him say something outrageous, do something strange, or make a baffling demand.

If he told you it was OK to take a photo with him, he might rage if you took a second. His most infamous incident, an interstate car chase that helped land Brown in prison in 1988, was set off by a perceived violation of the sacred space of his private bathroom. Each interview or conversation likely contained dynamically orated musings on politics, spirituality, and race that often contradicted whatever he said in the previous sentence. But the eccentric portrait these anecdotes paint was absent in most coverage immediately following his death. Other than an unintentionally horrific political cartoon in the Chicago Defender that showed the Grim Reaper in sunglasses draping a cape over Brown, the only non-lionizing portrayal I saw in the local press was Dave Hoekstra’s account of his bizarre, three-hour-late, confrontational interview with a hot dog-gobbling Brown.

[cartoon of James Brown from the Chicago Defender]

By far the most positive, and the most important, post-mortem James Brown TV show was his elaborate Augusta, Georgia funeral. Airing in its entirety on CNN, and then re-airing in an edited version on BET, the ceremony featured moving tributes by legendary African American orators, tense drama via his wife’s tenuous presence (the family and estate had launched a publicity campaign against disputing the marriage, though Brown clearly considered her his wife and partner — making her an integral part of his revue, as thousands of confused fans who attended his 2001 Washington Park concert can attest), and the surprise of Michael Jackson’s return to the States from post-trial exile. Jackson, who essentially launched his career as a James Brown impersonator (a film of Jackson mimicking Brown led to the Jackson 5ive’s Motown contract) delivered a heartfelt farewell.

But despite the memorial service being the most prominent television moment, the most powerful footage came days earlier, when CNN cablecast the footage of throngs of Harlemites lining up to view Brown’s remains in the Apollo Theater. Far from somber, the excited crowd chanted, “James Brown! James Brown! James Brown!” in a seemingly endless loop as they waited to see the legend lie in state. Of course, CNN used that phrase “lie in repose,” as Brown was not a dignitary, a royal, or a federal officeholder, but to his cheering subjects that wasn’t the case. Perhaps many of Brown’s seeming eccentricities — his sense of entitlement, his lashing out at errors in protocol, his propensity to hold court whether his ideas were fully formed or not — stem from his knowledge that he was in fact a monarch with divine rights. If the entire world recognized what his chanting subjects in that queue understood then perhaps a lot of the conflicts that plagued his later years could have been avoided.

Though I did not find Brown’s death a tragedy, one thought did make me very sad. At that same concert where I saw Bishop Juan tip his pimp hat to the Godfather I witnessed something that I consider the greatest moment in all of my concert-going experiences. Early in the set a young father, after having obviously pleaded his worthy case to the security guards, walked up to the front row and held his infant son aloft so that the baby could gaze, with his own newborn eyes, upon the world’s greatest living showman. He then calmly walked back to his distant seat, satisfied that his child was a witness to history. At that moment I vowed to give my then-theoretical child the same gift. Since my daughter Maiya’s birth my family has prepared her for that moment with a steady diet of scratchy 45s and dance parties. Maiya became a Brown devotee, and her third birthday party (at her request) was a James Brown–themed soirée (actually a James Brown/Dora the Explorer party, as we couldn’t secure James Brown party napkins and paper plates).

[photo of James Brown/Dora the Explorer party decorations] Anxious to fulfill the prophecy, I was prepared to take her to an announced James Brown festival in South Carolina last year, but it never came to fruition. I was fairly confident I could get her into his 2006 House of Blues show, but after negotiating with a sympathetic publicity director (I pitched a magazine article about my daughter’s fandom), it was concluded that legally a three-year-old was not allowed to attend the concert. I was subsequently put in touch with Brown’s people about possibly attending a sound check, but an odd Swedish woman, ostensibly part of Brown’s management team, apologized, explaining that a fatigued Mr. Brown would not be performing at the sound check, though she promised to send my daughter a package of souvenirs (which she did not do).

Of course I didn’t realize that was Maiya’s last chance to see him. I certainly feel worse about my fatherly failures in not affording her the opportunity to lay eyes upon the great one than she does about his passing. While I’m proud of how easily she’s handling the concept of death, it’s a little jarring, on two fronts, to hear my four-year-old bluntly tell people, “James Brown died,” when his music comes on the radio. Luckily she very easily grasped the concept that an artist lives on beyond his lifetime. Perhaps in this my child has, for the first time, actually benefited from growing up in a home in which every wall is lined with videos and records.

It seemed that the official end of the televised James Brown lovefest would be his loony wife’s appearance on the January 3rd Larry King Live to cry crocodile tears over the injustices she claimed the Brown estate was heaping upon her. But even that crazy-eyed, ex–Janis Joplin impersonator showed restraint, declaring she would not badmouth Brown’s children in their time of grief, and attempting to keep the tawdriest anecdotes about her ex under wraps (deftly explaining away everything from domestic abuse to Brown taking out an ad in Variety denouncing her). In a week uglier coverage would surface on the tabloid shows, as family disputes left his body unburied, and his youngest son’s paternity questioned, but for that night, a surprising amount of dignity was maintained. Dignity so dull and lifeless that, like most of the media coverage, it seemed unrelated to James Brown’s grunting, spinning, yearning energy. But, in a wise move, for major portions of Tomi Rae Brown’s interview, her talking head shrank considerably as archival footage of Brown, soundlessly performing, dominated the screen. As she monotonously rationalized her rehab stint, viewers were entranced by a bare-chested, sweat-covered genius freeing the souls of the Riker’s Island prisoners lucky enough to see him perform in 1972. Moving like a funky teenager, a martial arts master, a futuristic robot, a gravity defying superhero, and ultimately, like nobody but himself, that brief clip reiterated that the magic he possessed could not be summarized with the generic accolades being heaped upon him, and that his greatness placed him above the earthly pains and woes that burdened his life and looked to plague his estate long after his death. Finally, at peace, papa didn’t have to deal with no mess.