A Brief History of Trucker Chic

Today being the birthday of C.W. McCall (William Dale Fries, Jr. b. 1928) it seemed an appropriate time to cut loose with my long-gestating post on the seemingly inexplicable trucker and CB radio craze of the mid-to-late 1970s. It’s a crucial piece of a story I hope to tell in book form some day about the cultural shift in America that led to the late-century explosion in reactionary conservatism, hard on the heels of some tentative progressive gains in the 1960s. It seems to me the “good old boy” celebration abroad in the ’70s certainly is foreshadowing for the Reagan Moment, though no one quite saw it at the time. If anything, we associated it with the then-current President Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian from Georgia, and even more with his beer can collecting (and beer can emptying) brother Billy.

I call the fad seemingly inexplicable for a reason. It is actually highly explicable. In response to the 1973 gas crisis, Congress passed a mandatory 55 mph national speed limit. This law didn’t just affect drag racing teenagers. Long distance truckers who hauled freight cross-country were adversely affected. Transporting cargo quickly was part of their job. Pressing the issue, as they frequently did, meant trouble with the law. So their plight was publicized — in the news media, but also in popular song, and on film and television. It was like a modern version of America’s old west outlaw tradition. It’s easy to romanticize guys trying to evade unjust law men, just trying to make a living. The highway aspect connects truckers to everybody from Robin Hood to Dr. Sin to Jesse James. And since the depiction of these guys on film necessarily revealed interesting facets if their unique lifestyle, the public learned about their use of Citizens Band Radio to communicate.

CB radios caught on as a fad with non-truckers for two reasons. 1) Their use required a formal protocol of speaking that was intriguing, on TOP of the fact that the truckers themselves developed a flashy and catchy lingo full of code words designed to help them evade the smokeys (their code word for the highway patrol). So this jargon became widely emulated; and 2) Wireless communication was extremely novel back then, rare, and hence intrinsically desirable. Imagine! This was a world that consisted almost entirely of land-line telephones. The convenience of the CB seemed a great leap forward.

Though it really wasn’t. By definition, CBs are extremely short-range. And you share a channel with others. So once it became a fad and a zillion people started using it, most people got crowded out, not the least of whom were the very truckers who REQUIRED the system. And lastly, that lingo and the radio protocol weren’t just a fun fad. You HAD to speak within that method. You couldn’t just say, “Honey, this is Phil! I stopped off to get that dozen eggs you wanted from the Piggly Wiggly!” You were forced to say, “Breaker 1-9, you got your ears on, Minnie Mouse? This is, Captain America, Over! ” “I read you, Captain America. What’s your 20?” So after about five minutes of that, most people said, “Fuck this!” And sold their CB radio at a yard sale. (Later the fad was to get a scanner and just LISTEN to the local police and emergency workers. That soon burned itself out as well).

All of this went down when I was a tween — the one time in my life when I was extremely susceptible to fads. Further, I’m from the same cracker culture that gave birth to this craze, and which was celebrated by it. So I was massively into it even though we kids only had Walkie-Talkies. But my dad got a CB, and my uncle did. The guy two houses down was an actual TRUCKER so he definitely did. And this bloody nonsense was part of our lives for years.

At any rate, here are some key moments in the pop culture end of the  phenomenon.

Movin’ On (1974-76) 

This dramatic series starring Claude Akins and Frank Converse as a couple of big rig truck drivers was on the leading edge of the trend. Its theme song by Merle Haggard was a #1 country hit in 1975, and Movin’ On branded walkie-talkies were a popular toy for children.

“Convoy” — the single (1975) 

This preposterous “song” by C.W. McCall, (really mostly a talking blues with dialogue, underscoring and sound effects) made it all the way to #1 of both the pop and country charts. For some, it must have seemed the end of American civilization, although as a ten year old, I thought it was top-notch! In this 1976 clip from The Mike Douglas Show, McCall seems embarrassed to be performing his own song. Astoundingly it wasn’t his only song, or even his first top 40 hit (that honor fell to “Wolf Creek Pass”.) His other hits include “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Cafe”, “Round the World with the Rubber Duck”, and “Roses for Mama”. A convoy, of course, is a refinement on an old navy maneuver: here, a bunch of rigs would group together so they couldn’t be bothered by the highway patrol. Which truck should they pull over? Ya can’t pull over all of ’em!

White Line Fever (1975)

Jan Michael Vincent as a sort of trucker Sir Galahad. He plays an independent hauler who refuses to participate in a system that forces drivers to cart illegal loads! (e.g. slot machines and untaxed cigarettes). So he organizes all the drivers and they go on strike! Normally trucking culture celebrates the law breaker; this movie is about rehabilitating the image.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977) 

Burt Reynolds had already done a few movies with his Good Old Boy mafia by this point, including several comedies involving speeding cars fleeing law enforcement officers. It was a stroke of (box office) genius to hitch his rig to the swelling trucker trend. Some more about my memories of the late Reynolds and this film, which I loved when it came out, are here. By Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and Smokey and the Bandit III (1983) the wave had already long since crested.

Citizens Band a.k.a Handle with Care (1977)

Citizens Band was Jonathan Demme’s first post-Roger Corman mainstream feature. It stars Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark (both from American Graffiti) and former Russ Meyer star Charles Napier. Le Mat literally plays a CB radio repairman who crusades to battle illegal use of CB radios.

Breaker! Breaker (1977)

This was one of Chuck Norris’s first mainstream movies, and one of the few at the time not to put martial arts front and center. “Don’t muck around with an 18 wheel trucker…he’s got a CB radio and 100 friends who might get mad!”

Convoy: The Movie (1978)

Easily dismissed as a craven attempt by producers to capitalize on a trend and exploit a popular song, this movie (despite the cheesy poster above) is probably the most critically distinguished exponent of the genre. It is the penultimate film of Sam Peckinpah and his biggest grossing feature (despite going 2x overbudget and having an original running time of 220 minutes.) The relatively prestigious cast features Kris Krisoffferson, Ali McGraw, Seymour Casell, Ernest Borgnine and Burt Young. It’s a measure of how fast things were changing (and how I was changing) that when this movie came out I was well OVER the trucker trend, and totally disinterested. A movie based on a three year old song seemed lame. At that point, three years constituted a quarter of my life, and a third of the part of my life I could actually remember!

Highballin’ (1978)

Canadian made comedy co-stars Jerry Reed of Smokey and the Bandit, and Peter Fonda. 

Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980)

Depending on your point of view, these two comedies are either a low point or a high point for star Clint Eastwood. Some people LOVE these comedies starring Eastwood as an ornery truck driver with an orangutan companion named Clyde. Years ago, I referenced them, and another simian related vehicle BJ and the Bear (below) in my play House of Trash. 

Smokey and the Good Time Out Laws a.k.a. Smokey and the Outlaw Women (1978)

Fairly familiar character actor Dennis Fimple and complete unknown Jesse Turner play a couple of aspiring country singers on their way to  the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately they can’t stop from speeding and other minor peccadilloes along the way, causing them many a tangle with a sheriff played by Slim Pickens.

BJ and the Bear (1979-81)

In this TV series, Greg Evigan played a trucker with a chimp companion. I’m sure everyone involved will swear up and down that this is not a pirated idea, but I don’t know how you put a primate in a truck cab and claim it has nothing to do with Every Which Way But Loose. B.J. would sometimes encounter a smokey named Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins, from Movin’ On), who then got his own spinoff series The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo a.k.a. Lobo (1979-81). If it is meant to be a tribute to Tor Johnson’s character in Bride of the Monster, I cannot say.

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NOW: this trucker business is only a piece of a much larger puzzle that also includes Southern Fried Rock, and movies and tv shows about cars (not trucks) outrunning policemen — topics for another time, and other day, and hopefully another book — one with deeper implications than I was able to get into here. I wasn’t going to spend much time blogging today and it turns out I signed up for the long haul! Honk, honk!