Shane Hamilton

 

On his book Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy

Cover Interview of May 01, 2009

A close-up

One of the reasons Trucking Country appeals to general interest readers outside of the academy is my attention to the cultural history of trucking, particularly the Hollywood movies and Nashville country songs that celebrated the American truck driver.  Many people may be aware of the 1978 film Convoy, starring Kris Kristofferson as a renegade trucker who defies the Teamsters, the federal government, and Sheriff “Dirty” Lyle Wallace (played by Ernest Borgnine) as he leads a “mighty convoy” across the country.  Most readers are, however, probably unfamiliar with such cultural gems as They Drive by Night, a 1940 Warner Brothers film starring George Raft and an actor who was then relatively unknown—Humphrey Bogart.  Widely regarded by film historians as a classic “social conscience” film from the New Deal era, They Drive by Night focuses on the travails of two truckers, Joe and Paul Fabrini, as they strike out on their own to make a living as independent haulers of farm products in California.  Not long afterwards, the Nashville country music industry hit upon the idea of marketing trucking tunes to roadside cafes via a new technology of the time: the jukebox.  Early trucking songs, including Art Gibson’s 1947 western-swing number “I’m a Truck Drivin’ Man” and Ted Daffan’s 1952 “Truck Driving Man” were aimed explicitly at truck drivers as a market segment inclined to listen to country music.

Like other country songs from the period (and unlike the rock n’ roll music that came to the forefront of American popular music in the 1950s), these tunes dealt directly with the daily concerns of working-class Americans.  Later country music songs about truckers scored tremendous successes, particularly Dave Dudley’s 1963 recording of “Six Days on the Road,” along with a raft of similarly rousing paeans to the American trucker in the late 1960s and 1970s—from Merle Haggard’s “Movin’ On” to Red Sovine’s spoken-word tear-jerker, “Teddy Bear.”  Country music scholar Bill Malone has gone so far as to say that trucking songs account for the largest component of work songs in the country music catalog.  For a style of music that has, since its commercial inception in the 1920s, drawn attention to the coal man, the steel drivin’ man, the railroad worker, and the cowboy, this certainly speaks volumes about the cultural attraction of the trucker in the American popular consciousness.

As I show in Trucking Country, the close fit between country music and trucker culture was a product of at least two phenomena.  First, many of the men who became truckers in the mid-twentieth century had deep rural roots; in fact, many turned to trucking because they saw little economic opportunity on the family farm in the era of agribusiness consolidation.  Having grown up in the countryside, many of these men (the vast majority of whom were white) appreciated country music above all other forms of entertainment.  Second, and closely related, the special brand of hyper-masculine anti-authoritarianism touted by country songwriters who wrote about truckers and trucking appealed to men who deeply cherished their sense of “independence”—as drivers of big rigs who, unlike factory workers or “desk pilots” did not have the constant oversight of management as they performed their work.  This anti-authoritarian sensibility also informed the broader public’s fascination with trucking songs, movies, and Citizens Band or CB culture, particularly in the 1970s, when much of American popular culture took a “southern” turn towards rebel-rousing defiance of mainstream middle-class standards of behavior.