Six Days on the Road

Rig Rock Deluxe Trucks Down Country Byways

For most people, songs about truck drivers begin and end with C.W. McCall's 1976 hit "Convoy," the novelty song that went to Number One on the charts during the C.B. radio craze and later became a film with Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. But if you listen to Jeremy Tepper of Brooklyn, New York's Diesel Only Records, truck-driving songs are an important sub-genre of country music. He claims it started as far back as 1939 with Cliff Bruner's original recording of "Truck Driver's Blues" and continues today.

"It's an ongoing tradition," says Tepper. "If you look at the history of country music, there have been blips where it crossed over to the mainstream audience. There was a big one in the Sixties when Dave Dudley's `Six Days On The Road' was a hit. But there's a truck-driving song on the new Brooks & Dunn album and Randy Travis has included a version of the song `Highway Junkie' on his new record."

Tepper's label is a part of that tradition as well. In conjunction with Upstart Records (a division of Rounder), Diesel Only has just released Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver, the third in a series of "Rig Rock" compilations. The previous two, Rig Rock Jukebox (1992) and Rig Rock Truckstop (1993) are excellent collections, spotlighting the underground country scenes both in New York City and around the United States. Featuring the likes of Five Chinese Brothers, Mojo Nixon, the Blue Chieftains, Gwil Owen, Killbilly, Jean Caffeine, Go to Blazes, Courtney & Western, and Tepper's own World Famous Blue Jays, Rig Rock Jukebox and Rig Rock Truckstop collected songs that Diesel Only had originally released in the jukebox-friendly 45rpm single format only.

Yet with Rig Rock Deluxe, Diesel Only has moved up a notch. This time around, Tepper has corralled a healthy herd of `name' acts such as Buck Owens (his first recording in six years), Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, Son Volt, the Bottle Rockets, Shaver, Jim Lauderdale, Nick Lowe, and Bill Kirchen. Austin being the capital of alternative country these days, its artists are fairly well represented as well: Kelly Willis, Don Walser, Junior Brown, Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, and Toni Price all make appearances, while a good part of the recording was done locally -- including the now-famous SXSW Saturday afternoon at The Hit Shack, where Walser recorded his track with a small media mob looking on.

"I think this record is about being part of a living tradition," says Tepper, "acknowledging the past and bringing it forward with new songs that will hopefully become standards." Some of the artists involved, while happy to be part of this celebration of country music, don't fully agree.

"I got a bigger grin out of this record than any record I've heard in a long, long time," says Marty Stuart, the most commercial country artist on the record. "There's just more heart and soul of country music there. But as far as truckin' songs, they're as obsolete as a guy singing about trains, or the land or fishin'. The subject matter is cliché, but I think it's a cryin' shame that it's gone by the wayside." Stuart's contribution, "Miss Marie & the Bedford Blaze," is a wild and tragic tale of two truckers bound by their love for David Allen Coe. "I'd written the song before this project came along. I wrote it, kinda laughed at it, and put it away. It comes from way too many days of smelling diesel fuel on the bus." "My husband drives a truck," says Cheri Knight. "Everybody has these really romanticized ideas about what truck drivers are. But it's not like this gun-slinging, tobacco-chewing kinda lifestyle." Best known as bass player and principal songwriter for Boston's Blood Oranges, Knight embarked on a solo career earlier this year and along with her first solo album on East Side Digital, The Knitter, found her contribution to the Rig Rock Deluxe project a good coming out. Her tune, "Wagon Of Clay," stands out with its dirge-like tempo, but obviously the subject matter -- a woman who is married to a trucker that hauls ceramic supplies -- hits close to home. "I'm writing about the reality of it. It's true of all my songs. I try to write about stuff that I know about from first-hand experience."

When it comes to first-hand experience, Dale Watson has plenty; he spent a good chunk of this summer touring truckstops. "One thing I've found out through this tour is that a lot of truckers miss the kind of country music that we're doin'," says Watson of his brand of hardcore honky-tonk. "But anybody that puts out an album of truck-driving songs, [is doing it] purely because they love the music, 'cause they're not gonna make a killin' on it -- by no means." That said, Watson nevertheless confesses that he wrote nearly 20 trucker songs during his summer trek and hopes to release an album of them some time soon.

As the original guitarist for Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Bill Kirchen has a long history of playing trucker music. The group's 1972 album, Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites, is a landmark of the genre, and it's from this album that Kirchen's contribution to Rig Rock Deluxe, "Semi-Truck," originates.

"I remember a record called Roll, Truck, Roll by Red Simpson," recalls Kirchen. "That was the first record I heard that was nothing but songs about trucks. It was recorded during the heyday of the Bakersfield sound in the mid-to-late Sixties. There's a relationship between the low-end bluegrass runs that Doc Watson is so good at and the Don Rich [of Buck Owens fame] twangy bottom-end stuff. When I first heard that stuff, I was just learning how to play electric guitar and I tried to steal as much of it as I could."

Kirchen and his guitar have the distinction of appearing three times on Rig Rock Deluxe. Besides his own track, he's also on Nick Lowe & the Impossible Birds' hot version of Johnny Horton's "I'm Comin' Home" (recorded live in that hotbed of country music, Stockholm, Sweden), and Don Walser's positively uplifting contribution, "Truck Drivin' Man," which opens the album.

"We had a ball that day," says Walser, referring to that Saturday session during this year's SXSW. "They picked the song for me and asked if I could put a yodel in it. I told 'em I didn't know if I could or not. But now, I think I could put a yodel on anything." A known historian of country music, Walser agrees with Tepper on the album's perspective. "Truck-driving songs have been a big part of country music. Truck drivers especially like my kind of traditional country music. There's still several over-the-road radio programs late at night that are geared to the long-haul truck drivers. I've been on them a couple of times."

Walser follows a long line of artists that have covered "Truck Drivin' Man," including the
J. Geils Band and Uncle Tupelo. It was originally recorded by Terry Fell for RCA's "X" label in 1954 and remains a truly enduring country music classic. Still, it wasn't until 1963 when Dudley hit it big with "Six Days On The Road" that trucking songs emerged as an important sub-genre of country. Artists identified with the genre, like Dick Curless -- who passed away during the recording of this record and subsequently has the record dedicated to his memory -- Del Reeves, and Red Simpson all had their biggest hits in the mid to late Sixties.

That's not to imply that trucker songs were done by men only. Kate Adams was voted the "Most Promising Female Artist" by The Academy of Country Music in 1965 for her concept album, Wheels And Tears, which featured "Six Days Of Waiting," the answer song to "Six Days On The Road." On Rig Rock Deluxe, Kelly Willis follows in Adams' footsteps with a stunning version of a Lowell George/Bill Payne song, "Truckstop Girl," which appeared on the first Little Feat album. "We were looking around for a cool song to do," explains Willis, "and my A&R woman, Teresa [Ensenat], suggested it. I don't think it's ever been covered by a woman before. It's not really a truckers' song, but I felt the subject matter made it appropriate for the record." At a time when alternative country is garnering a lot more attention from music fans and critics alike, Rig Rock Deluxe amplifies the connection between the past and the present that for the most part has been ignored by Nashville these days. The best examples of this are in the record's collaborations. Simpson (who wrote "Close Up The Honky Tonks" and "Highway Patrol") and Junior Brown duet on Simpson's revved up "Nitro Express," while Reeves (best known for "Lookin' At The World Through A Windshield") and Jim Lauderdale pair up for "Diesel, Diesel, Diesel," a song Lauderdale wrote specifically for Reeves. Also, Adams teams up with Nashville's traditional country outfit, BR5-49 on "Mama Was A Rock (But Daddy Was A Rolling Stone)," a classic composed by her husband, Buck Moore.

As Tepper explains, "What we were trying to say was, country music, and truck-driving songs in particular, don't have to be just one thing. Musically, we wanted the artists to be free to go wherever they wanted. All the camps of the alternative country scene are represented and it's totally now, 1996. My only fear is that the record won't age well."

With a record this diverse and packed with good songs, he has nothing to worry about. n

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