Willis Brothers: Giants of Diesel

When you think of truck-driving country classics, the names of four artists should come readily to mind:  Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Red Simpson … and The Willis Brothers!  Brotherly harmonies + offbeat humor + trucker tales = a winning sound and track record.

“Give Me Forty Acres (To Turn This Rig Around)” would put The Willis Brothers on the musical map in 1964 with a Top 10 Country hit that would go all the way to #1 in Canada.

Willis Brothers 45-bAn album of the same name with a pronounced truck-driving theme would follow in 1965, as well as another in 1967 Travelin’ & Truck Driver Hits (recycled + new tracks) plus one last stellar effort Hey Mister Truck Driver! in 1968.

   Essential truck driving LP #1                    Essential truck driving LP #2

Willis Brothers LP-aaWillis Brothers LP-bb           1967 LP = old + new tracks               Willis Brothers in blue suits – LP cover

Willis Brothers LP-ccWillis Brothers LP-dd

Nathan D. Gibson would note in The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built:

“[Suzanne] Mathis [graphic designer co-responsible for Starday truck driving covers], like many others, got her job at Starday through her neighbor and accordionist, Vic Willis.  The youngest of the Grand Ole Opry’s Willis Brothers trio, John ‘Vic’ Willis was both a recording artist and a song scout for Starday throughout the mid-sixties.  He was also a career counselor on the side.  He convinced [Starday head, Don] Pierce to employ several of his friends and at one point he even had Shot Jackson’s daughter, Arlene, and three of the Willis Brothers’ wives working at Starday.

The Willis Brothers — Charles ‘Skeeter,’ James ‘Guy’ and John ‘Viv’ — began playing professionally in 1932 and already had an impressive resume before joining Starday in 1960.  Aside from making their own recordings for Mercury, Coral, Sterling, and RCA Victor (as the Oklahoma Wranglers), they also backed the immortal Hank Williams on his first recordings for the Sterling label (as the Original Drifting Cowboys), as well as Eddy Arnold for eight years at the peak of his career (1948-57).  By the time they joined the Opry in 1960, they were again known as the Willis Brothers and that same year began a relationship with Starday.”

The Willis Brothers would release an impressive number of classic truck-driving 45s on Starday going all the way back to 1961 (i.e., pre-“Six Days on the Road”):

Two Willis Brothers “non-truck driving” albums would yield a pair of classic diesel tracks – “Soft Shoulders, Dangerous Curves” from 1966’s Goin’ South and “Drivin’s In My Blood” from (previously-mentioned) 1968 LP Bob.

Note:  B-side “When I Come Driving Through” not yet available for preview on YouTube

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle to hear “When I Come Driving Through” by The Willis Bros.]

check out the Peter Max-inspired cover for 1973 MGM single “Truck Stop”

Willis Brothers 45-aThanks to “outlaw” voices in country music on “renegade” labels, such as Starday and Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Records, the “new social awareness” would begin to inform the country rockin’ scene by the late 1960s.  1970 would see the release of wry 45 “Women’s Liberation”:

Willis Brothers 45-cSurprise!   Live rendition of “Women’s Liberation” on TV’s Porter Wagoner Show – 1974:

“Ode to Big Joe”: Big Joe Talbot, That’s Who

Thanks to the contributor of YouTube’s only audio clip of “Ode to Big Joe,” I now know which country singers are being affectionately parodied by The Willis Brothers in this song. Question:  Can you close your eyes and identify the four country legends being spoofed?

Answer:   Hank Snow (the song’s narrator), Johnny Cash (the hummer), Ernest Tubb (Texan who sings a little flat) & Tex Ritter (the goofy one who falls asleep by line’s end).

Written by Jack Clement (with truck driving classic, “Drivin’s in My Blood” on the flip side), “Ode to Big Joe” was released as a 45 at the top of 1968, a banner year – as noted earlier – for the musical trucking genre.

“Ode to Big Joe” is a tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat to steel guitarist, Big Joe Talbot, who we last encountered at a 1955 overdubbing session for a 1930 Jimmie Rodgers flip-side.

Key Question:  Did Big Joe really – as The Willis Brothers sing – put the soap suds in the fountain at the Country Music Association in Music City USA?

Hank Snow Music Center, Once Managed by Talbot – closest thing to a photo of Joe

Big Joe Talbot

This piece by Robert K. Oermann – “Country Music Advocate Dies” – was posted on Steel Guitar Forum March 25, 2000, the day after Joe Talbot’s passing:

Joe Talbot, one of the Nashville entertainment industry’s last remaining champions of traditional country music, died yesterday at age 72.

As a record manufacturer, song publisher, SESAC performance-rights executive and musician, Mr. Talbot contributed to the development of Music Row for more than 50 years.  He was lifetime director, past board chairman and past president of the Country Music Association.  He was also a past Board Chairman of the Country Music Foundation, which operates the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Joe Talbot would have turned 73 today.

Mr. Talbot also served on the boards of the Recording Academy, the Gospel Music Association, the Nashville Better Business Bureau and SunTrust Bank.  “You won’t find anybody who doesn’t love Joe Talbot,” said legendary session guitarist Ray Edenton yesterday.  His forthright opinions were invariably delivered in his booming country baritone, rich with humor and warmth.  He was particularly outspoken about the roots of country music and his dislike of Music City’s pop-crossover record making.  “Country music is like a religion to me,” he elaborated during a 1995 interview.  “I get very emotional about it, to the point of tears; it stirs me that deeply.”

Born in 1927, the Nashville native served in the Army in 1945-46. In 1950 he realized his youthful ambition by becoming the steel guitarist in the band of future Country Music Hall of Fame member Hank Snow.  He performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Snow in 1951-52 and continued to tour and record with the superstar until 1954.

“Back then — the ’40s and the ’50s — there was no money.  Those of us who were in the business were in it because we loved it, and because we had to do it.   It was an obsession.  As I recall, to go on the road and play was $10 a day and out of that we had to buy our food and clothes.  Lordy, record sessions paid $41.45, and I’ll have to say this:  There never has been a pill that would give anybody a high like I used to get playing on those record sessions.  I would actually get chill bumps.  It didn’t make any difference about the money. I was getting to do what I wanted to do and best of all, I could turn the radio on and hear myself played back.”

During this same time, Mr. Talbot attended Vanderbilt University Law School, from which he graduated in 1952.  He floundered in business for a number of years before establishing United Record Pressing in 1967.  The company boomed as the manufacturer of vinyl discs for Elvis Presley and the million-selling Motown Records acts.  In 1967 Mr. Talbot also became the manager of SESAC’s Nashville operations.  SESAC is a performance rights organization similar to BMI and ASCAP.   He remained there until 1971.

Mr. Talbot’s other ventures have included Harbot Music in 1965-67.  This company published the songs of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Ted Harris.  He also owned a prominent Music Row office building.  In 1991, Joe Talbot was recognized by the Nashville Entertainment Association with its Master Award.  The honor represented the deep affection that the music community had for him, as well as his contributions to the creation of the Nashville show-business industry.  Joe Talbot is the second of the CMA Lifetime Board members who has died, after Wesley Rose — the original five were Mr. Talbot, Mr. Rose, Bill Denny, Frances Preston and Ralph Peer Jr.

“Bob”: The Willis Brothers, Not Weird Al

“Bob” is the title track of a Willis Brothers album released on the Starday label in 1967:

Bob - Willis Brothers LPThe song is written from the perspective of Bob’s wayward pal, who playfully chides him for choosing the path of domesticity rather than remaining carefree and unencumbered:

“Remember the good ol’ days ’round the ‘Frisco yards, Bob?   For you, they’re gone,” the song taunts.  Bob’s friend, the song’s protagonist, is staying with Bob for a short visit – telling stories of the past, stoking the fires of wanderlust and making Bob’s wife nervous.  But then, in a nice ironic twist, the friend surprises us by informing Bob:

“Just forget all the talk, Bob, about the good ol’ days.  ‘Cause your wife is a little bit scared, Bob, you want to be free.  But you and me both know, Bob, you’re better off than me.  Remember those cold nights out in the ‘Frisco yards, Bob – and the hard cold ground?”

Album produced by Jack Clement, who also wrote “Bob” – along with Vincent Matthews.   Is it really true that “Bob” would serve double duty as both title track and B-side?

Bob - Willis Brothers 45Song title would be commandeered 36 years later by Weird Al for his brilliant Dylan spoof.