[29 September 2009]
“Don’t believe it when they tell you truck drivin’ songs are ever going out of style.”
—Watermelon Slim, “Truck Drivin’ Songs”
Back in my bartending days, a trucker used to come into the bar when he was in town and, over a few pints, complain about this or that aspect of trucking regulations. That, and heavy exposure to Smokey and the Bandit movies as a kid, are pretty much all I know about trucking. Oh, and hoping a big rig doesn’t hydroplane and crush me on a rainy morning commute. And the Large Marge’s haunted highway segment from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
But I know that I’ve heard a ton of trucking songs. Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” and “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”, Terry Fell’s “Truck Drivin’ Man”, Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down”, “Looking at the World Through a Windshield”—the list goes on and on. And it’s growing constantly.
Just recently, Scott H. Biram gave us “Draggin’ Down the Line” and Chris Knight reprised his excellent “Highway Junkie”—a song that breathes “classic trucker song”—on his recent demo-packed Trailer II disc. And while it’s getting a few years on it, having been released in 1996, fans of the genre would do well to track down a copy of Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to American Truck Drivers, a collection of familiar and new trucking songs from the likes of Steve Earle, Son Volt, Nick Lowe, Del Reeves, Buck Owens, and more.
Surprisingly, there’s very little out there to read about trucking songs. Amazon.com lists nothing populist along the lines of The 50 Tire-Turningest Trucker Tunes nor scholarly like “Teddy Bear” as Emotional Weigh Station : Deconstructing Trucking Tearjerkers. For a constantly evolving songwriting genre like trucking songs, it seems to be cruising down a back road when it comes to getting attention beyond its own listeners.
So why are there so many trucking songs? Is it simply because, even though we all feel the lure and romance of the road in songs like “Route 66”, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”, or half of Bruce Springsteen’s early output, longhaul trucking is the only road-oriented profession that gives off a “freedom” vibe? Is that why there aren’t compilations of songs about UPS drivers, mail carriers, or cabbies? Trucking songs, with their heart-of-gold waitresses, foggy nights, heavy loads, and rolling tires, must hit some modern emotional sweet spot. And it probably doesn’t hurt that musicians, no strangers to the road themselves, probably feel some kinship with probably the only group of people on the road as much as themselves.
Which brings us around to Bill Homans, aka Watermelon Slim. Slim is best known as a blues musician of uncommon quality and serious slide guitar skills, but his new album, Escape from the Chicken Coop is a twangy record in the style of classic country and Delbert McClinton-style roadhouse rock. But it also deserves a prominent place by the register in every truck stop in the land.
To those unfamiliar with his songs, Slim might seem a strange source for new trucking songs—his degrees in history and journalism, not to mention his MENSA membership, would seem to indicate a tweedy, wistful, maybe even patronizing fascination with blue-collar work—until you discover that he’s spent most of his life actually working as a truck driver (a heart attack finally shifting his focus full-time to music). So it’s territory that he knows very well, and which he’s visited throughout his strong blues work (see “Truck Driving Mama” and the title track from 2007’s The Wheel Man, for example).
Not that he’s a stranger to writing what he knows: he returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam to record 1973’s fiercely antiwar album, Merry Airbrakes. But something about the Nashville environment that fostered Escape from the Chicken Coop apparently makes the trucking life especially fertile ground for Slim this time around.
Coming off of his most recent record with his regular band the Workers, 2008’s No Paid Holidays, Slim set up shop in Nashville with a batch of top-notch studio musicians and set the blues aside—to a point. Escape from the Chicken Coop‘s arrangements range from western swing (“Skinny Women and Fat Cigars”) to loping pedal steel-driven country (“You See Me Like I See You”) to shimmery bottleneck slide (his cover of Roy Acuff’s “Wreck On the Highway”) to emotional spoken word (“Friends on the Porch”). It’s an album that has its foot in several genres, but defies easy classification because the blend of styles can be so unique.
And then there’s Slim’s voice, rough around the edges and sometimes halting, that gives the impression that the years can literally be pressing down on his shoulders as he sings. And not every song is about trucking, but you come away from the album with the trucking themes making the biggest impression.
Songs like “Caterpillar Whine”, “300 Miles”, “18, 18 Wheeler”, and “Truck Drivin’ Songs” are worthy additions to the genre, looking at both the good and the bad of life on the road. It’s no surprise that the album’s dedicated to Dave Dudley, who recorded the trucking anthem “Six Days On the Road” (most recently covered by George Thorogood). With lyrics like “I’m a little hung over / And my log book is way behind / But nothing bothers me tonight / Just I can dodge them scales alright / Six days on the road and I’m gonna make it home tonight”, “Six Days on the Road” is such a classic of the genre that even mentioning it, as David Childers did on his “Six Days on the Road on the Jukebox”, gets a song plenty of extra mileage. And it’s a fitting dedication, since Escape from the Chicken Coop is a winning blend of the road’s joys and hardships, told by someone who can look at his years behind the wheel with a little distance, but who obviously maintains great affection for the miles he logged.
It’s hard to say whether any of Slim’s songs will become new trucking anthems themselves.We’ll just have to see what time holds for his unique blend of country and blues. But even if we aren’t truckers, we can appreciate the pull of the road. Maybe Slim says it best in “Truck Drivin’ Songs”: “I never get lonely though the being alone might drive a lot of men insane / I do it for the tunes I hear and a good cold beer waiting for me at the end of my last mile”. Heck, that’s the kind of sentiment that’s seductive enough to make a person think about driving right on past their usual exit ramp on a weekday morning, just to see where the pavement leads.