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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Politics and the American Trucker Song

The blue-collar economy as seen through songs of the road…

The 1973 country hit “Awful Lot to Learn About Truckdrivin’” tells a tale most people who’ve ever held a job can relate to. The song’s narrator, voiced by Red Simpson, starts off thinking he’s chosen the perfect life path:

“I knew that someday I just had to be a truck driver ‘cause it holds a fascination for me/ To have somebody payin’ you a living wage to travel all over the country.”

When he shows up to present his application, his naïvete becomes clear: “I told the man at the terminal I would work real hard, even 8 or 9 hours a day!” The veteran trucker laughs and offers a response that’s also the chorus of the song: “It’s a heck of a life bein’ married to a diesel, but son, you got an awful lot to learn.”

Awful, indeed. The nature of the American workplace is such that you’re unlikely to get paid a living wage to do something pleasant and engaging for eight hours a day. In trucking, the reality is a bit more extreme. The once-popular trucker music vividly described truckers’ long hours and exhausting lifestyle long before it was national news. A driver in Joe Maphis’ “Ten Days Out, Two Days In” complains that:

“I’ve had to drive ‘em every night and day just to make enough to pay my bills / Lately I’ve been seein’ two of everything and I ache from my head to my toes.”

A long-haul trucker in the 1970s could expect to work over 60 hours a week (exact numbers are hard to come by, since drivers rarely record their hours accurately), including time spent driving, loading, unloading, making repairs, and filling out paperwork. He’d usually end his 10-, 12-, or 16-hour day far from home and crawl into bed in a sleeper cab. Hence Maphis’ complaint that “I kiss my baby and I’m gone again…. My old dog bites me every time I come home…. I came home today, heard my little boy say, ‘well mama, who is that man?’”

Grueling hours and strained relationships aren’t unique to trucking. What’s most remarkable about “Awful Lot to Learn” and its ilk is hearing these realities depicted in a mass-market radio hit. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, popular music has studiously ignored the time its listeners spend working for a paycheck. Even the rawest of country music typically takes place in homes, hollers and honky-tonks. The trucker subgenre stands out as unique for being set in a workplace—the cab of a truck. During the decade and a half that trucker music made its mark on the country-western airwaves, it offered listeners a portrait, albeit romanticized, of the perils, frustrations, and petty triumphs of life on the job.

Although the figure of the lonely long-haul driver has appeared occasionally in song since the early days of recorded sound, the genre as such got its start with “Six Days on the Road,” a 1963 track by the then-unknown Dave Dudley that made it to #2 on the hot country charts. The time was ripe—with work having begun on the US interstate system seven years earlier, tractor-trailers were replacing railroads as the main avenue for getting goods from point A to point B. “Six Days” is a first-person account of a gear-jammer’s journey home to his sweetheart, and it established many of the tropes of the trucker genre.

The lyrics are a detailed evocation of the things that might frustrate or please a trucker. He’s in control of a fine piece of machinery—“I got my diesel wound up and she’s a-runnin’ like never before”—and has nothing to slow him down—“I don’t see a cop in sight.” If his highest gear isn’t fast enough, he has “Georgia overdrive”—the practice of coasting downhill in neutral, used (illegally) by truckers to overcome the inherent speed limitations of a 20- to 40-ton vehicle. The danger of getting caught for violating safety regulations is ever-present—“the ICC is checkin’ on down the line” and “my log book’s way behind,” but “I can dodge all the scales.” He misses his girl, but after all, “I’m gonna make it home tonight.” The deep-voiced Dudley’s swaggering vocals suggest the thrill of speed, even as the title suggests the tedium of overwork.

The song struck a chord with its detailed evocation of workplace jargon and routine. Truckers would have recognized the reference to the Interstate Commerce Commission, an agency which, starting in the 1930s, mandated that drivers keep a logbook recording their activities in 15-minute increments. The books were intended to enforce “Hours of Service” regulations, which, at the time, required the worker to take a break after 10 hours of driving. The HOS are meant to keep exhausted drivers off the road. Given that the driver is “taking little white pills” to stay awake, he’s clearly flouting them.

Another source of the song’s appeal is the figure of the freight-hauler himself: a wily anti-authoritarian who’s nonetheless deeply wholesome. (“I could have a lot of women” while on the road “but I’m not that kind of a guy.”) As the years passed, this version of the trucker would become a pop culture archetype—in the words of a 1978 Journal of Country Music article, “the Last American Cowboy, a free spirit, a knight of the road, and the one hero for our time, the ultimate proletarian.”

As the hits piled up, subject matter came to include “road tragedies, good Samaritan deeds, tall tales and comic happenings” (as Frederick Dankers’ JCM article describes it). Tales of self-sacrifice abound. In Red Sovine’s 1967 “Phantom 309,” a hitchhiker encounters the ghost of a driver who deliberately crashed his rig to save “a school bus full of kids.” But lighthearted tales are just as common. The jaunty Red Simpson piano boogie “Country Western Truck Drivin’ Singer,” released in 1972, explores the downside of team-driving. The narrator’s partner, Homer Gooch, has bought a guitar in pursuit of Nashville stardom. “When I’m layin’ in that sleeper trying to rest my bones/ He’s up there trying to sing like George Jones.” The untalented Gooch is finally spotted “driving the Nashville garbage truck.”

Sentimentality is a common thread. In Red Sovine’s 1965 “Giddyup Go,” a trucker finds his long-lost son against all odds when he spots a rig with the same distinctive name as his. Sovine had a string of hits for Starday Records, many exploring the saccharine side of driving trucks. The 1976 #1 hit “Teddy Bear” tells of a paraplegic boy who talks to truckers via CB to ease his loneliness after his father’s fatal wreck. When he tells the narrator of his wish for a ride in a big rig, the man visits his home, only to see “18-wheelers lined up for 3 city blocks.” Sovine narrates these events in a voice that seems to be choking back tears. (In the bizarre answer song “Teddy Bear’s Last Ride,” a family friend describes how the little boy’s condition worsens until he becomes too weak to use the CB and eventually dies. At his funeral, “the sound of 100 engines filled the air” as weeping truckers line up to pay their respects.)

By depicting it in song, this music acknowledges the strong emotions of working life. The protagonist of the Willis Brothers’ 1964 “Give Me 40 Acres” has an emotional meltdown when he gets his unwieldy vehicle stuck in a tight spot and can’t change direction:

“The tears were streaming down his face, and they all heard him yell/

‘Give me 40 stick of dynamite, I’ll blow this rig to [repeat chorus].”

Per Danker, the music had traits in common with “the traditional occupational songs of the cowboy, railroader, miner, lumberman.” But despite these songs centering the worker as hero, any political message they offer is ambiguous. Mining songs might blame their woes on management greed and exploitation; trucker songs depict the hardships of the job as inescapable facts of nature.

Illustrations by Nick Sirotich

Workers in many industries risk dying for their employers’ profits, but truckers, imperiled by high speed and exhaustion, die the most overall, with around 750 on-the-job deaths per year. Steve Viscelli’s The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream records an interview with a driver, Claudio, who was ordered by his dispatcher to haul a load from Texas to Miami just as Hurricane Katrina was about to make landfall. Directly in the path of the storm, he sheltered from high winds in his truck and barely survived the trip. “And I came back all the way to home, tossed the keys on the table of my dispatcher, and I told him, ‘Next time you want to drive through that, get your license and drive…. No one is going to tell me to risk my life!’”

The risk of on-the-job mortality haunts trucker music, as titles like “Tombstone Every Mile” suggest, but moments of clarity like Claudio’s are rare. The classic “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” is a first-person account of a disaster in progress:

I was out last night drinkin’ beer with the guys
Got an achin’ head and bloodshot eyes
I ended up with a pretty little dame, I didn’t even know her name.

The speaker is in bad shape, but must keep on:

If I deliver this hotshot freight
I gotta get a-goin, I’m runnin’ late….
Can’t stay awake, ain’t had no sleep

The final stanza leaves us right at the moment of the inevitable fatal crash:

I must have closed my eyes for a while
Cause here I am, I’m runnin’ wild
I burned my brakes, stripped my gears
Gonna have to ride her down, I fear…
I wish I’d left the women alone
It’s too late now, I think I’m gone

First recorded by Doye O’Dell in 1952, the song was memorably revived for the trucker music era by Red Sovine, Bobby Sykes, and others. The drama of the tale is variously enhanced by diesel-horn sound effects, anxious sixteenth-note playing, steel guitar slides to suggest the driver’s uncontrolled descent, and, in one version, a climactic female scream. Its message is one of the dangers of overindulgence. The driver “got myself into this fix” (the “natural” dangers of hilly roads and tempting female bodies are also to blame). Listeners aren’t encouraged to wonder who decided he’s “late,” or designed a schedule that doesn’t allow time to sleep off an occasional hangover.

How much can companies demand of the people they hire to haul freight? One might begin with the 1935 Motor Carrier Act, which sought to end wasteful hypercompetition by creating high barriers to entry. In doing so, it “cartelized” the industry: The relatively small number of carriers could set prices among themselves, keeping profits high. Carriers were required to publicize the rates they paid drivers. That way, if the Teamsters negotiated a higher wage with one company, others would follow. During the midcentury, under the canny leadership of Jimmy Hoffa, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters became the biggest and most powerful union in the nation’s history, and trucking the country’s highest-paid blue-collar job.

The legislation also gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to create rules for trucker hours of service. The ICC originally limited truckers to 15 working hours and 10 driving hours a day. Interestingly, the 8-hour day envisioned by the rookie in “Awful Lot to Learn About Truckdrivin’” was once broached as a serious option. “Representatives of organized labor (including the American Federation of Labor, the Teamsters, and the Machinists) petitioned for a stay of the original regulations…. Labor wanted HOS limits of 8 hours per day and 48 hours per week.”

The ICC responded that although the 8-hour day was “now… generally recognized as the normal standard for workers,” an exception was called for. Unlike “factory operations, generally sustained in character,” truck driving is “generally characterized by frequent stops for refreshments, gas, or rest…. Monotony or nervous and physical strain… is alleviated by these breaks.” This decision still stands. Hours of service have varied over the years, but have never approached a “normal standard.”

The hours of service have also never been consistently obeyed. The problem is that drivers were, and still are, paid by the mile, not the hour. Every hour spent waiting at docks or fixing flats is one not spent doing paid work. As a result, drivers systematically mis-record this “on duty not driving” time as “off-duty.” A trucker today can spend 30 or 40 hours just on this unpaid work, and is likely to record only 60 percent of their actual work time. Even in the union era, many drivers would have worked much more than the 60 weekly hours the ICC permitted. The situation is deeply paradoxical. The regulations are meant to limit exhausting workdays, but truckers only get paid for one category of the work that they do. So they falsify their logbooks, work far more than is allowed, and feel that they are gaming the system by doing so.

When drivers voiced discontent, it was often at regulators like the ICC. A recent journal article points out that they saw the “intrusions of state power into their work routines” as a threat to their status as “kings of the open road.” These complaints kicked into high gear in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, when the government lowered the national speed limit to 55 to conserve gas. Fuel costs spiked and the same trip took more time. Livelihoods were threatened.

That year, the trucker magazine Overdrive published an interview with University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, praising his “daring and outspoken” belief that “governmental agencies are far worse than the problem they were created to solve” and that “there is no justification for the ICC whatsoever.” In late 1973 through early 1974, independent truckers engaged in a series of rather chaotic actions, including blockading highways and protesting oil terminals, hoping for relief from the gas crisis. This flurry of activity concluded with an 11-day “strike” that won a small concession from the Nixon administration: a freeze in diesel prices.

These events also led to a surge in popularity of CB radios. Truckers used them to communicate about the newly urgent matter of avoiding speed traps, while the general public was fascinated by the possibilities of a seedy proto-ChatRoulette.

1975’s slickly produced “Convoy” presents these possibilities in overheated fictional form. Using CB dialogue and first-person narration, the song depicts a spontaneous trucker rebellion. A few drivers decide to “put the hammer down.” As more join, they use their strength in numbers to speed through a roadblock and defiantly “tear up their swindle sheets [logbooks].” Coordinating their action through CB, the now-1,000-strong group finally insists “we ain’t gonna pay no toll” and “[crashes] the gate doing ninety-eight,” proving the chorus’s assertion that “ain’t nothing gonna get in our way.” If the 1974 strike failed to accomplish much, “Convoy” is a fantasy of what might have been. It offers a vision of solidarity and cooperation that’s completely ad hoc—no union required.

By the mid-’70s, as Shane Hamilton writes in Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, “truckers’ antistatist, antiunion, and antiauthoritarian neopopulist politics” were beginning to gel. More drivers than ever were self-employed, and these non-unionized owner-operators believed they could make more money if they could freely compete with big firms.

1979 saw a repeat of the anti-regulation strikes and blockades. A repeal of the 1935 Motor Carrier Act was inevitable. When the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 passed, undoing the reforms of the ’30s, it did so with nearly everyone’s support—mainstream economists, Overdrive magazine, even Ralph Nader.

Within a few years things changed dramatically. With barriers to entry lowered, new companies were undercutting existing ones by hiring cheap non-union workers, carriers were going bankrupt, and profits for surviving firms were razor-thin.

The deregulators had gotten their wish: manufacturers were paying much less to ship their goods. Meanwhile, membership in the Teamsters fell to below 10 percent, and wages per mile for drivers declined by 44 percent. The already-long hours expanded. Today it’s not uncommon to work 90 or 100 hours a week. Most drivers are unhappy, but they’re quickly replaced. Taxpayers subsidize high turnover through government assistance to industry-run Commercial Drivers’ License schools. In Steve Viscelli’s words, “A class project has transformed trucking from an industry with some of the best-paid workers and one of the strongest unions in American history into one in which unions play almost no role, and workers live for weeks at a time out of the machine they operate, often earn less than minimum wage, and work hours equivalent to two full-time jobs, sometimes more.” Big rigs have become Sweatshops on Wheels.

Of course, by 1980, the public’s interest in the romantic trucker figure was already fast waning. The public spotlight moved elsewhere as the dream of independence and high wages quietly died. Country music’s brief moment of class consciousness died too. If the reality of blue-collar work is becoming ever more grim, you’d never know it from anything you hear on the radio. Protagonists of contemporary country music aren’t workers—they’re consumers, either of tequila and Bud or of inspirational bromides. (One recent hit informs the listener that “most people are good” and “every breath’s a gift.”) Some veteran drivers notice what’s changed. On a Youtube upload of “Ten Days Out, Two Days In,” user “1500 Mike” comments: “Someone should make a modern [version] of this. 6 weeks out 2 days in. Thanks deregulation.”

In the end, the song that most insightfully reflects drivers’ woes may be Red Simpson’s “I’m a Truck.” This 1976 hit gives voice to the exploited worker through a striking creative sleight of hand: The narrator is a sentient eighteen-wheeler complaining about his boss, the driver.

“You’ve heard songs about truck drivers, many times their story’s told…. But if you could spare a minute, I’d like to tell you mine.” In the truck’s telling, drivers are a sort of self-involved management class: “Look at him sippin’ coffee and flirting with that waitress. And where do you think he left me? That’s right, next to a cattle truck.” Drivers can make mistakes with no repercussions: “If we’re on time he takes the credit, if we’re late I get the blame.” Meanwhile, the truck’s efforts go unacknowledged: “I take him south and bring him back without a word of thanks… Hadn’t’ve been for me, we’d’ve both wound up in the ditch.”

If the trucks have so little power that their needs are easily disregarded, they can reflect that their obscure, thankless work keeps everything rolling along:

There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
No double-clutchin’, gear-jammin’, coffee-drinkin’ nuts
They drive their way to glory
And they have all the luck
There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks. 

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