‘Convoy’: A Real Hit From A Fictional Country Star
Country music star C.W. McCall had a surprise No. 1 hit in 1976 with “Convoy,” a song about a group of long-haul truck drivers banding together to fight against “The Man.” In the song, the truckers used citizens band radios to organize moving blockades along the nation’s highways.
But McCall was actually an ad executive playing the character of a country singer.
In 1972, ad executive Bill Fries hired Chip Davis as a jingle writer. Together, the two created a folksy series of musical TV commercials for Old Home Bread, a company that made hamburger buns, rolls and other baked goods.
“It evolved around a couple of characters named C.W. and Mavis,” Davis said of the commercials.
Mavis was a gum-chewing waitress at a tiny cafe in Iowa while C.W. was a truck driver who would stop in her restaurant, Davis said. “They sort of had a little love affair going on.”
The commercials aired in only a handful of Midwestern states, but as each new spot aired – and the romance heated up – the campaign became a local phenomenon.
“Fan clubs sprung up,” Fries said. “People identified with these characters.”
Davis composed the music while Fries wrote the lyrics and voiced the character of C.W., who was played by an actor. The popularity of the characters led Davis and Fries to release the music from the bread commercials as a single. They recorded a song at Davis’ studio, credited it to the C.W. McCall character and put it out locally under the title "The Old Home Filler-Up An' Keep On-A-Truckin' Cafe."
“That was one of my very first ad campaigns,” Davis said. “I got all the guys from the recording studio, got them a bunch of quarters, and we’d all go out on a Friday night and run around a plug the jukeboxes in all the bars in Omaha and hit five plays of the same song and then hit the road and go to the next bar.”
The record sold 30,000 copies in the Midwest, prompting MGM Records to release it to a national audience. It peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The success of "The Old Home Filler-Up An' Keep On-A-Truckin' Cafe" gave the pair the chance to record albums and play shows under the C.W. McCall name. Fries sang and played the role C.W. McCall. He was backed by Mannheim Steamroller, a band started by Davis in 1974.
Did the audience know that Fries was playing a character?
“I don’t think so,” Fries said.
Once they started releasing records nationally and getting hits, Fries said the national audience assumed he was just a country singer and mostly were unaware of the original bread commercials. When they released a digitally-remastered CD in 1990, Fries said, “In the liner notes, we wrote who we were. I had to explain how a guy named Bill Fries got to be this guy named C.W. McCall.”
Their first album was Wolf Creek Pass. Their second, Black Bear Road, included the No. 1 single, “Convoy.”
With its tale of trucker rebellion told through C.B. radios, “Convoy” reflected actual nationwide strikes by truck drivers in the 1970s.
Sound Opinions Producer Evan Chung tells the full story of how “Convoy” became a cultural phenomenon for this episode of WBEZ Presents. He speaks with Fries, Davis and Historian Meg Jacobs, author of Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s. Jacobs explains how the oil crisis of 1973 upended Americans’ self-perception as consumers and led to turmoil across the country.
Subscribe to the WBEZ Presents podcast feed to hear WBEZ documentaries and stories that our staff loves and wants you to hear.
Digital producer Justin Bull contributed to this article.