“Ah, breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck – you got a copy on me, Pig Pen, c’mon?”
Those lines penned by William Dale Fries Jr. — better known by his stage name of C.W. McCall — were remembered fondly among truckers in the wake of his death last week.
McCall’s story about a “Convoy” of semi-trucks earned him a No. 1 hit in 1976 and made him the unofficial balladeer for the nation’s long-haul truckers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Fries passed away on April 1 at the age of 93 at his home in Ouray, Colorado, after a long career as the troubadour of truck drivers. As the fictional “C.W. McCall,” Fries paired his unforgettable voice with music by composer and songwriter Chip Davis (founder of Mannheim Steamroller) to create songs that brought the lifestyle of long-haul truckers to radio audiences across the country.
“Those songs made you feel like you were part of a culture,” said Bill Froehlich, who drove truck as a young man in the 1970s. “They made truckers feel like they were important. And they are.”
Froehlich not only drove semis himself, he also owned and operated the Interstate Standard station in Buffalo in the 1980s, which catered to truck drivers coming off I-90.
McCall Knew The Industry
He said songs like “Wolf Creek Pass” – while humorous – resonated with people who lived that life.
“He really must have been involved in the industry and knew a lot about it, because a lot of his songs, what he said was true,” he said.
Lyrics for “Wolf Creek Pass,” for example, detailing a harrowing trip down mountain roads into Pagosa Springs, Colorado, ring true for Froehlich: “Well, Earl reared back / And cocked his leg / Stepped down as hard as he could on the brake / And the pedal went clear to the floor / And stayed right there on the floor / And he says it was sorta like steppin’ on a plum.”
“A lot of the times, if you stepped on (the brakes), it WAS like stepping on a plum,” Froehlich said, laughing. “They were just soft, and they didn’t hold.”
Froehlich said he appreciated the citizens band radio lingo in McCall’s songs as well. The song “Convoy,” for example, featured a character whose CB handle was “Pig Pen” – and Pig Pen hauled hogs.
“That’s what that song was about – the jargon,” Froehlich said. “And everyone had to have a handle.”
Froehlich’s handle was “Willie.”
Another trucker who retired to Wyoming worked under the handle “Low Chunk” while he drove rigs in the 1970s and ‘80s. Don Frame of Cody said the song “Convoy” inspired more than just the drivers..
“It was kind of a rallying call,” Frame said. “It inspired a lot of truckers, it really did. And even people who weren’t truckers were loving it and enjoying (McCall’s) music.”
Trucker Al Reccardi, a truck driver from Dayton, Ohio, who drives through Wyoming on a weekly basis, told Cowboy State Daily during a stop in Cheyenne on Thursday that McCall still has an impact on truckers.
A lot of younger truckers, he said, will ask what the profession was like 50 years ago. The song always comes up, he said.
“We talk about ‘Convoy’ because it was our national anthem,” Reccardi said. “C.W. McCall captured our way of life. Ain’t no one done it better or done it since.”
He said McCall explained to America the CB culture and how important the short-range radios were to the trucking industry.
“If there was an accident ahead, a smoky (law enforcement) on patrol, or a good batch of lot lizards (prostitutes) at a truck stop, we let each other know,” he said. “You can’t get that with an app or with the Google.”
Reccardi said members of the truck driving community were more tight-knit at that time because people actually spoke to each other.
“We looked out for each other,” he said inhaling smoke from a Marlboro light.
He said the song just “brought everyone together” and the lyrics that McCall wrote were evocative of the language that was actually used.
San Francisco was called ‘Shaky Town,’ as McCall mentioned in his song. ‘Good buddy’ is what truckers called each other, he said.
“I miss those days,” he said.
McCall and Seger
Thomas Morrow, a truck driver since 1978 who is moving to Cheyenne in May, said while the CB radio is still in use, truckers do not us it to contact each other as frequently as they did in the past.
“I’d say not even 50 percent of the drivers out here don’t even use a CB anymore,” he said.
His misses that culture but refuses to give up on it, noting he used to eat in the same diner that Bob Seger before the singer had attained star status.
“I used to see him at the Fleetwood Diner in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” he said. “Saw him there all the time.”
Seger’s song about life on the road, “Turn the Page,” approached the topic from the standpoint of a musician rather than a trucker.
C.W. McCall had his day, Morrow said, but Seger outlasted “nearly everyone.”
Kind Of A Brotherhood
However, “Convoy” is not a favorite of all truckers.
Phil Losinski, a jet fuel trucker for MG Oil who has been trucking for more than 30 years, said he likes to hum along with some of McCall’s songs – “Convoy” not being his favorite – but for his money, he’d rather listen to Dave Dudley.
“Dudley tells a really good story,” he said. “I find his songs much more interesting.”
Froehlich, though, pointed out that McCall’s songs are still resonating today, especially with the caravan of big rigs that recently drove across the country to the U.S. Capitol.
“People waving flags, and standing on bridges,” he said. “If trucks stopped going within a week, this country would be shut down.”
And that sentiment is much of the reason why McCall’s music still means so much to those who drive trucks, and those who rely on them.
“It’s kind of a brotherhood,” said Frame. “You’d meet people, which was part of the fun, and you have a camaraderie of doing the same thing and having the same interest. (McCall) understood the truckers.”