The Raunchy, Underground World of Trucker Tapes
A tasteful 1968 print ad for the Beatles’ self-titled double LP advised consumers to “get yourself this album or get the double 8-track cartridge and turn your car on as well.” The portable music revolution is often credited to Sony’s cassette-playing Walkman, introduced in 1979. But it was the humble 8-track cartridge from 1964 which really gave people the power to take their tunes with them… provided they had a vehicle, that is. The allure of music-to-go, not just terrestrial radio but actual full-length albums that consumers could select themselves, made the 8-track a particular favorite of jean-jacketed stoners in the 1970s, who could at last dig some Led Zeppelin deep cuts while headed to the store for light beer and smokes. No longer was the LP shackled to the forever-homebound turntable.
The people who perhaps benefitted the most from the 8-track, however, were truckers. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. It was an ideal marriage of form and function. Truckers are on the road for days at a stretch, most of that time confined to the cabs of their vehicles, and they need something to entertain them in the lonely hours between truck stops. Enter the 8-track. There passed a time in the 1970s when the professional big rigger served as a kind of American folk hero, as epitomised by C.W. McCall’s #1 novelty smash “Convoy” from 1975. The trucker was a rule-breaking rebel, flouting the authority of the dreaded highway patrolmen and the government nanny state alike, but he wasn’t some effeminate, overly-sensitive hippie. No, he was all man and could take care of himself in a fight if need be. Put it this way: Clint Eastwood would have never played a hippie, but he damn sure played a trucker in 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose.
Like any good subculture, truckers had their own fashion (the ubiquitous trucker hat, which is still with us today) and their own slang (some of which was heard on “Convoy”). Musically, many truckers were inclined toward country artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. As documented in a memorable TV commercial from the 1980s, country storyteller Red Sovine was particularly loved by professional long-haul drivers. (“Red Sovine’s as much a part of trucking as CB and hot coffee!”) But truckers also developed a taste for recorded comedy, both of the standup and musical varieties, and thus was born an entire, ridiculously under-reported subculture of the humor business, one whose stars are virtually unknown to the rest of the world. As one might guess, the hyper-masculine truckers of America wanted X-rated humor that was profane, bawdy, explicit, and rife with content the outside world would likely regard as sexist, racist, and homophobic. And, naturally, they didn’t want to hear the same old routines about airplane food and the difference between New York and L.A. either. They wanted comedy which reflected their own experiences on the road, preferably told in the “lingua franca” of the trucking community. Outsiders need not apply. A still-existent record label called Laughing Hyena, which specializes in this exact form of comedy, makes the following, totally unverifiable claim on its web site:
It is an unknown fact that truckers and highwaymen buy more comedy CDs than are sold in record stores. Someone needed to produce comedy just for them and it turned out to be us. Spoken and sung in trucker language, the CDs are guaranteed to be 100% unintelligible to the average man. They keep drivers awake and save lives. Purely Left Lane material.
The reason such a boast cannot be backed up with evidence is contained within the very first sentence. So-called “trucker tapes” are, for the most part, not sold at traditional record stores and, thus, not considered part of the mainstream music business, comedy business, or even entertainment business. In the self-explanatory 2007 documentary Dirty Country, musician Larry Pierce puts it best: “All of my stuff’s available only in truck stops, as far as I know.” Adults-only comedy albums were hardly a new phenomenon by the 1970s. African-American stand-ups like Redd Foxx had been making so-called “party records” on tiny labels for decades by then. But as their name suggests, these risque LPs were meant to be played privately behind locked doors. Truckers took dirty comedy, recorded exclusively by whites, out on the road with them as they traveled the highways of this nation.
Only very occasionally would people outside the trucking community make reference to these underground albums. The writers on Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 seemed to be aware of them, however. MST3K’s Angels Revenge episode from 1995, for instance, contained the line “The air filled with Slim Jims and obscene trucker tapes.” And the show’s 1996 Laserblast episode contained the similar “Save the dirty trucker tapes.”
So who were the comedians making these proudly filthy trucker tapes? As far as these things can be documented, the biggest name in the game was Gene Tracy (1927-1979), affectionately known as “Mr. Truckstop.” Born Ivan Eugene Morris in El Paso, TX, Tracy was a boisterous ex-circus promoter with the physique of Ralph Kramden, the lumpy physiognomy of Buddy Hackett, and the nasal Southern twang of a backroads sheriff in a Hal Needham movie. In the 1970s, Tracy released low-fi 8-track after low-fi 8-track of crude cornpone comedy, often recorded live at actual truck stops in front of noticeably rowdy crowds, with titles such as A Truck Stop Is The Best Place To Eat and 69 Miles To Gene Tracy’s Truck Stop. These tapes were released by small-time operators like Party Time Productions in Charlotte, NC and were apparently popular enough to warrant advertising in Billboard magazine, even though they would never grace the charts in that publication. Tracy’s official backstory was that he had been a truck driver himself, giving him some literal street cred with his intended audience.
While comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin were boldly reinventing the form of stand-up comedy in the 1970s, making it more personal and philosophical, Gene Tracy was very much in the traditional Borscht Belt mold, give or take the profanities and sexual candor. His act consisted of what are now called “street jokes”: little stories which exist solely to set up punchlines. This is exactly what black comedians had been doing on party records and the so-called “Chitlin’ circuit” for years. (Delve into LaWanda Page’s discography for some choice examples.) Tracy’s stories, not surprisingly, tend to be about the mating habits of truckers, prostitutes, hayseeds, and (his odd specialty) people with harelips. In the thirteenth installment of his “truck stop” series, entitled I Like Drunks, Tracy defines his act to his audience:
I talk about everybody. I try not to miss anybody. Talk about the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans, call them spics. Talk about the Jewish people, call them hebes. Talk about the black people, call them spades. Talk about the people from Mississippi, Alabama, and South Georgia, call them rednecks. Talk about the people from up North, call them yankees. Talk about the Italians, call them dagos. Talk about the politicians, call them sons of bitches. In other words, I more or less talk the same way here that you do at home.
The portly, hard-living Tracy died in 1979 at the age of only 52, but the tradition of trucker comedy hardly expired with him. The format of choice changed from 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs over the decades, but the raunch never died. In fact, still to this day, the truckers of America have their own parallel showbiz universe with its own set of stars. Along with lone wolf Larry Pierce, whose ribald repertoire contains “She’s a Nymphomaniac” and “Good Hard Screwing,” Laughing Hyena has its own stable of highway-friendly funnymen, including a performer named Katfish, who was supposedly discovered while doing his act over the CB radio as a genuine trucker. Over the years, trucker comedy has become much more specialized and insular, to the point that it is now unwelcoming to the newcomer or interloper. While Gene Tracy’s 8-tracks could be understood by just about any English speaker, more recent albums by Trucker Wally and Ernie Shill, the later of whom proudly identifies as a “crackerhead,” are so steeped in trucker lingo that they might as well be recorded in Elvish.
And then there is the case of possibly the second-biggest name in the trucker game, Elmer Fudpucker, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 79. Born Hollis Champion in Decatur, Illinois, he began his musical career in the late 1950s as a straight singer with such tunes as “Old Red Devil.” In the 1960s, he switched to comedy music and began recording under the Fudpucker name. By the 1970s, he was fully immersed in the trucker comedy scene. Vintage photos and album covers reveal Fudpucker as a handsome lounge singer type with wide lapels and a mane of greying hair, looking like a cross between Charlie Rich and Steve Lawrence.
Elmer’s signature tune was a hair-raising screed against the dreaded Department of Transportation, that eternal foe to the time-is-money trucker, called “Damn D.O.T.,” which tells the story of a beer-hauling driver who is waylaid during his travels by a nosy, meddling government inspector who threatens him with fines. The song takes a bizarre left turn into homophobic territory when the inspector turns out to be an on-the-make homosexual who offers to overlook the driver’s violations in return for a quickie. Naturally, Fudpucker’s trucker nixes that plan. Sample lyrics: “Listen, you fucked up human turd/I’m on the CB, and I’m spreading the word!/Soon the world’s gonna know that you’re a freeway queen!” According to the singer’s own web site, “many of Fudpucker’s party albums are geared toward truckers and one of Fudpucker’s early albums, Damn D.O.T., Volume 1 was No. 1 for 44 weeks on the trucker’s Top 10 chart,” which suggests that perhaps truckers had their own alternative to Billboard.
Despite the fact that Elmer Fudpucker was a CMA nominee and a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (as Hollis Champion) with over a half-century of success in show business, his death last year went all but unnoticed by the mainstream media. None of the major entertainment news outlets bothered to run obits for the man. This, however, is typical in the shadowy underworld of trucker comedy. Fudpucker’s albums presumably remain for sale in truck stops across America and are probably blaring in the cabs of a few 18-wheelers right now.