Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Endless Black Ribbon: Truck Driving Music from Beyond the Grave

Truck driving music is something I grew to love early on, and still retain that love today. When I was a kid, country music infused the world around me. My mother and father were both from deep in Appalachia, and the twangy strains of honky-tonk and jangling rush of bluegrass the main soundtrack of their lives. Bluegrass had a primal feel to it, its narrative deeply rooted in a hardscrabble culture. This was a genre of music that rose out from the coal mines, thickly-wooded mountains, and farmlands, carrying the laments and prayers and humor of that people out across the hills and hollers. The truck driver subgenre shares a lot of its family tree with bluegrass, and bluegrass is, or at least was, notoriously fatalistic. Both genres paint a bleak picture of life. The truck driver sub-genre is interesting because it deals with a very specific career, something not often done with an entire type of music. It's a music about unending hard work, and the danger inherent in that work.
Even the most humorous songs depicted life as a ceaseless struggle. In Give Me Forty Acres by the Willis Brothers, simply trying to maneuver through a big city, in this case Boston, becomes an Odyssey:
In Nitro Express by Red Simpson, the lonely, unheralded, and Herculean effort to avoid disaster that often confronts drivers is played almost for laughs.
Overloaded Diesel by Jimmy Griggs demonstrates another kind of danger; this time in truck stop hook-ups.
The trucks themselves became characters, as companions, partners, occasionally antagonists, and, ultimately, avatars of the truck driving life. Sometimes it's expressed in a rollickingly funny way, as in I'm a Truck by Red Simpson:
Or it's expressed in a melancholy, "high lonesome" way, the ceaseless errantry of the truck driver an effort to outrun heartache, with the uncomplaining truck a reliable companion, as in Eighteen Wheels Hummin' Home Sweet Home by Mac Wiseman

And, of course, Phantom 309, by Red Sovine, where the faithful truck follows the driver into the afterlife.
Probably the most common theme in truck driver music is the passage of time and, ultimately, the futility of life, exemplified by Six Days on the Road by Dave Dudley:
Looking at the World Through a Windshield by Del Reeves puts it into a slightly more light-hearted perspective:

The ultimate, in my opinion, is White Line Fever by Merle Haggard, always a troubador for the working man:

The truck driving genre is pretty much dead. Long dead, really. Sometime in the early '80s, country music in general began to move away from this type of music. Certainly roots-oriented country music, including bluegrass, still exists and is being created everyday, but it has lost its prominence as far as influencing mainstream country. But it still has a power, a mystique, that wafts in like a memory of long ago, an audio artifact of a culture that is slowly fading away and being supplanted by another. Still, though, the trucks keep roaring along the highways, the endless black ribbon stretching forever into the distance.