Song Analysis Corner: Convoy (1975)
Every now and then, when you thumb through the top-40 hits of days gone by, you run into a song whose popularity is a puzzle. How, you ask, did this song get to be so popular? History, a cruel mistress, tends to bury cultural contexts while leaving their culminating fad phenomenon intact. Thus, we have the almighty novelty song, the favorite of radio station morning Djs looking for a quirky spin to wake the audience up.
Today let’s talk about a completely forgotten fad buried in the mists of history: CB Radio. Citizens’ Band Radio was big, big, BIG in the 1970s, but absolutely lost now (well almost). Starting with a popular novelty song from a time curiously contrasting to ours now.
C.W. McCall started with bread commercials
We start in my home state of Iowa (Iowa: Eat bacon or die!). C.W. McCall was originally born in Audubon, Iowa (yes, the city is named after the famous ornithologist), in 1928 as “Billie Dale Fries.” He started his career not in music, but in advertising. Working as a commercial artist in Omaha, Nebraska, he worked in set design, sign lettering, and other blue collar art. And there Fries would remain, a nameless cog in the marketing machine, if not for his Old Home Bread campaign.
For the Old Home Bread TV commercials, Fries invented a truck-driving character called “C.W. McCall,” to be the face of the company as the truck driver delivering the bread to this absolute banger of a commercial in 1973:
Yeah, all that to advertise some bread. They made up a cafe waitress named “Mavis” who practically tries to seduce the driver right out from over his bowl of chili. Fries wrote the lyrics and a studio session musician plunked out the canned guitar chords, and a Clio-award-winning commercial was born. Not only had Fries’ warbling on the merits of whole wheat toast told through the charming narrative of a trucker/waitress coupling sold a lot of bread, but he’d almost accidentally picked up a country/western singing career at the absolute peak of that genre. He followed up with a proper album, again rapping (country-western style) various tunes that created a narrative universe populated by CB handles like “Rubber Duck” and “Pig Pen.”
And look, I’m going to say it out loud now: That look is 100% borrowed from John Denver. But meanwhile, what is going on with this jargon? A request to “copy” means “do you hear me,” a “bear” is a highway patrol officer, “10-4” means you confirm the last transmission, and this is the world of CB radio and trucker culture.
But more than anything, Fries, taking on forever the stage name of “C.W. McCall,” would see the peak of his success not from his original advertising campaign, but through the intersection of his career path with (checks notes) Saudi Arabia.
The 1970s Oil Crisis and trucker culture
In 1974, the US passed the National Maximum Speed Law, a mandate based not upon vehicle safety, but on trying to decrease gas consumption. This was in response to the oil crisis triggered by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, leader of OPEC, who called for an oil embargo against the US. In case you’re wondering how the math works out, it turns out that the estimated savings from the National Maximum Speed Law to our national gas tank were in the neighborhood of 0.5%. Hence, federal speed limit laws have since been gradually repealed.
BUT! There was nation-wide outrage about the law. We accept common vehicle safety features now, such as seatbelts and airbags, as if they were always taken for granted. But before the 1980s, this was controversial territory prone to criticisms of “nanny state” and “government overreach.” Most especially from truck drivers, who were now taxed with trying to make a living while forced to put in lower mileage per hour. You might say to yourself now, “so what was the hold-up forming a union?” But these are white rural Americans we’re talking about; unions were for sissies. They just figured to ignore the speed limits and try to outrun the police instead.
“Convoy” addressed that speed limit grievance, and along the way lashes back at other petty annoyances of the truck-drivers’ lot, such as weigh stations and logbooks. You might take note at this point that Fries’ resume, checkered though it be (including a 3-term stint as mayor of Ouray, Colorado), omits the profession of “truck driving.” He must have just been familiar enough with truck driving culture to address their anxieties.
Meanwhile, all across the US during the second half of the 1970s, suddenly everything was about trucks. There were whole media franchises like Smokey and the Bandit and the Dukes of Hazard, which pit fast-driving country boys against clownish buffoons portraying law enforcement. Along with that, the CB radio became the hot Christmas gift. As historians like this one point out, CB radios were handy for warning other drivers about speed traps and highway patrols, along with being a primitive form of “chat room” before the Internet was barely a few servers hooked up into Arpanet.
Part of this popularity was fanned by a commercial enterprise known to history as… wait for it… Radio Shack! At the time, CB radio became this kind of fringe culture, standing for rugged individualism and the call of the open road, wandering free spirits, etc. Think biker culture with bigger vehicles.
Convoy – the movie!
By 1978, there was an entire movie devoted to just this song! That’s Convoy, directed by Sam Peckinpah no less, with Kris Kristofferson playing… *sigh*… “Rubber Duck.” It’s about a convoy of trucks standing up to their arch nemesis, “bears.”
The CB fad passed as the early 80s began to wake up to the possibilities of home computers. In other words, consumer discovered better gadgets. Likewise, “good ol’ boy” trucker culture and the million and one country and western songs about it faded into the background, as the 1980s discovered cool.
So yeah, we have this song now. You just really had to be there!