Over 40 years after its crossover chart success, C.W. McCall's "Convoy" probably sounds like just another novelty song. To young listeners, it's "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" or Porky Pig singing "Blue Christmas," without annual family gatherings needing its light-hearted touch. But in its time, the song sparked a legitimate cultural phenomenon, impacting more than just country music with its timely themes and glorification of the "trucker" image and citizens band (CB) radio use.
A Product of Its Time
A song built around truckers identified merely by their CB radio tags, "Rubber Duck," "Sodbuster" and "Pig Pen," provided the listening public of 1975 with a different kind of outlaw. These truck drivers, limited by a nationwide gas crisis and a government-mandated 55 mph speed limit for big rigs, skated the threat of highway patrol officers together. From Arizona to Illinois, the trio "put the hammer down" speeding, lied about how often they stopped to sleep on their "swindle sheets" (slang for log-books) and weren't "a-gonna pay no toll." Fudging such rules represents cutting corners for the greater good, not petty crimes, for this trio of modern day Robin Hoods.
Between "Tulsa Town" and the roadblock in "Chi-Town," the convoy of professional drivers found allies in a "suicide jockey" hauling explosives and a chartreuse microbus filled with "11 long-haired friends of Jesus." The former upped the intrigue for sure, while the latter worked at the time because truckers probably saw busloads of "Jesus freaks" heading eastbound toward big cities back then.
In all, the song presented an over-the-top fantasy about truck drivers, maneuvering the highways of the United States on their terms. The past glamorization of cowboys as free-roaming believers in moral relativity received a modern facelift, with themes lifted from post-oil embargo headlines.
An Unlikely Hit
Songs about truck drivers were hardly new to country music audiences in the mid-1970s. Such established stars as Buck Owens ("Truck Drivin' Man") and Merle Haggard ("White Line Fever") found success with stories about a trucker's life. Even Kris Kristofferson's famed Bobby McGee became part of public consciousness as a hitchhiker riding along in an 18-wheeler.
The song that truly captured the public's imagination about truck drivers came from an unlikely source. C.W. McCall wasn't a country music legend by any means before the November 1975 release of "Convoy." He wasn't even a real person. Vocalist Bill Fries created the McCall persona while working for an Omaha, NE advertising agency. Fries' lyrics for McCall's earlier material, often paired with music composed by future Mannheim Steamroller member Chip Davis, were initially created to advertise loaf bread.
A Widespread Phenomenon
McCall's hit changed the pop culture landscape for the next few years, to an extent caused by no other novelty song that comes to mind.
First and foremost, the song topped more than the country charts. It spent one week atop the pop charts, proving that its glorification of CB radio tags and lingo wowed a broad audience.
CB radios, affordable since the late 1960's thanks to technological innovations, became more popular beyond truck drivers. Fans of the song soon found themselves responding with "breaker one-nine," "Roger" and "10-4, good buddy" from their cars and pickup trucks.
Songs about similar topics had a better shot at chart success in the years that followed. Red Sovine, a veteran performer, known in part for singing about truck drivers, rode the wave of CB radio popularity the following year with his own sappy yet sweet hit, "Teddy Bear."
The song's popularity transcended music over the next three years. It inspired a 1978 film by the same title, as well as other movies and tv shows. Most famously, the Smokey and the Bandit series began in 1977, strengthening the Hall of Fame case for co-star and "East Bound and Down" singer Jerry Reed, a genuine country singer born of a proud mama instead of a marketing campaign.
The Lasting Legacy of "Convoy"
Like most fads, the trucker song and CB radio crazes eventually became passe. Signs of market over-saturation include McCall's sequel song "'Round the World With Rubber Duck," featuring globe-trotting redneck jokes about Australia's "cue-wala bears." Still, the best parts of this moment in time remained cool long after they stopped being popular, with "Convoy" remaining integral to '70's country's lasting cultural legacy. The occasional cover song, from Canadian country singer's Paul Brandt's earnest tribute to William Shatner's jokey nod to McCall's television ad roots, points back to a time when a would-be joke song temporarily turned the country charts into an advertisement for CB radios.