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'The Ballad of Thunder Road': Hollywood Legend Robert Mitchum's Introduction to Country Music

Classic Hollywood anti-hero Robert Mitchum moonlighted as a recording artist, first as a calypso performer and later as co-writer and singer of film theme song "The Ballad of Thunder Road."

Despite some musical success (1967's "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" entered the Top 10 of the country charts), Mitchum is best known for his roles in the films Out of the Past (1947), The Night of the Hunter (1955), the original Cape Fear (1962) and John Wayne's El Dorado (1966).

Mitchum's 1957 album Calypso--is Like So... failed to chart, but he bounced back a year later with a minor pop hit he co-wrote, "The Ballad of Thunder Road."

The theme song for Thunder Road, a film about outlaw moonshiners that's sort of like a non-slapstick Dukes of Hazzard, teamed budding lyricist Mitchum with co-writer Don Raye and composer Jack Marshall. It's a different and much older song than Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road."

Future New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks sang a soft, gentle version in the film. Sparks may have gotten the spotlight at drive-in theaters, but Mitchum got his due at record stores-- the actor's gruff telling of his own lyrics became a minor pop hit upon its 1958 release and its 1962 re-release.

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Mitchum shares songwriter credits for a second song in the film, "Whippoorwill," which is sung on-screen by co-star Keely Smith.

Mitchum's delivery of a Marty Robbins or Johnny Horton-style story-song led to a second album, 1967's That Man Robert Mitchum... Sings. The album was a top 40 country hit, with the singles "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" and "You Deserve Each Other" also charting. So, despite its lack of attention from country music, the staying power of "The Ballad of Thunder Road" opened the door for Mitchum to briefly become one of the celebrity toasts of Tennessee.

"Ballad of Thunder Road" Lyrics

Let me tell the story, I can tell it all;
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol.
His daddy made the whiskey, the son he drove the load;
And when his engine roared they called the highway Thunder Road.

Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town.
The Revenuers chased him but they couldn't run him down.
Each time they thought they had him his engine would explode.
He'd go by like they were standing still on "Thunder Road".

And there was thunder, thunder over "Thunder Road",
Thunder was his engine and white lightening was his load.
And there was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst.
The law they swore they'd get him but the devil got him first.

It was on the first of April, Nineteen-Fifty-Four
The federal man sent word he'd better make his run no more.
He said "Two hundred agents were covering the state;
Which ever road he tried to take they'd get him sure as fate.

"'Son' his daddy told him, 'make this run your last.
The tank is filled with 100 proof; you're all tuned-up and gassed.
Now don't take any chances, if you can't get through.
I'd rather have you back again than all that Mountain Dew.'

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road,
Thunder was his engine and white lightening was his load.
And there was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst.
The law they swore they'ed get him but the devil got him first.

Roaring out of Harlan; revving up his mill.
He shot the Gap at Cumberland and streamed by Maynardville.
With G men on his tail light; road block up ahead,
The mountain boy took roads that even angels fear to tread.

Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike,
Then right outside of Bearden, they made the fatal strike.
He left the road at 90; that's all there is to say,
The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road,
Thunder was his engine and white lightening was his load.
And there was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst.
The law they never got him 'cause the devil got him first.

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'The Ballad of Thunder Road': Hollywood Legend Robert Mitchum's Introduction to Country Music