If you haven’t read some entries from the “Staying Fit on the Road” section of The Trucker’s site by Bob “The Trucker Trainer” Perry, after reading this edition of “Rhythm of the Road,” please make it your next stop. Only Bob can offer the advice you might need to save yourself from filling the shoes of The Willis Brothers in their 1968 song, “Quittin’ While I’m Still Alive.”
It’s been a good while since I’ve written about the Willis Brothers, so let’s review a little of the trio’s background. The Willis Brothers — actually one of the original three was a Caldwell, but who’s counting? — got their start in the music business during the early years of the Great Depression in Shawnee, Oklahoma, a small city east of Oklahoma City.
Interstate 40 didn’t exist, and even Route 66 bypassed Shawnee, but the city had long been an oasis along cattle drives northward from Texas, and it goes down in history as a thoroughfare along the West Shawnee Trail. In fact, with three major railroads building lines through the city along with well as depots, Shawnee was a fast-growing place that put up a good fight with Oklahoma City when it came time to choose a state capital. But when a major meatpacking plant chose Oklahoma City as its home over Shawnee, the neighbor to the west won out. Today, Shawnee isn’t a whole lot larger than it was in 1930, while Oklahoma City is home to some 650,000 residents. But Shawnee lives on as a major suburb of the capital.
The original Willis Brothers trio were known locally as “The Oklahoma Wranglers,” and for the better part of the 1930s they appeared live as a regular feature on Shawnee radio station KGFF. But at decade’s end, one member left the group. A roller coaster of Willises started coming and going, interrupted only by World War II, when the entire trio served overseas.
When the war ended, The Oklahoma Wranglers reunited and caught their first big break — an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry performing as themselves and as backup to Hank Williams. Their popularity quickly grew, and the group became permanent members of the Grand Ole Opry before the 1940s came to an end.
The next big step for the group was an eight-year stint touring with Eddy Arnold, who was among the biggest names in country music at the time. When they decided to move on, the Wranglers also changed their name — and The Willis Brothers was officially born. After all, the name fit, since Caldwell had left the group and all three slots were now filled by men from the same family.
All this is to let you know that The Willis Brothers probably inhaled a whole lot more than their share of dust in the 1930s, not to mention far too many liters of bovine-produced methane gas. And because they were on the road so many years (much like truck drivers), the fellows no doubt the developed a few other health problems they ignored a little too long. These experiences might have given birth to “Quittin’ While I’m still Alive.”
During their career, The Willis Brothers had one big hit — a trucking song — “Give Me Forty Acres (and I’ll Turn this Rig Around),” a subject of one of my first columns for The Trucker. But this was far from the group’s only song about truck drivers. In fact, the genre became the band’s specialty.
Using a Telechord electric guitar, The Willis Brothers developed a distinctive “highway beat” to their music, all the while keeping to a bluegrass style, particularly in their vocals. The combination made for some masterful trucking songs. Sticking with two-minute-long songs, the band recorded more than were found on other country albums. While few of those songs charted, The Willis Brothers discography was impressive
In 1968, recording for Stardust Records, “from Nashville, Tennessee — the Musical Heart of America,” the group released “Hey, Mr. Trucker Driver,” an album bulging with 12 of the group’s short looks at life through a windshield. A long overlooked “Quitting While I’m Still Alive” is one tune every prospective truck driver needs to give a listen before deciding on a career in the industry.
In “Quittin’ While I’m Still Alive,” The Willis Brothers play the role of a still-young 42-year-old man who has been driving a big rig more than half his lifetime. But the diesel has taken its toll. This isn’t a case of being lonesome; rather, it’s a matter of being “plum beat down,” as some might say.
The singer realizes, after 22 years behind the wheel without a scratch or a dent, he’s pushing his luck. Chances are that time will catch up with him. After all, he sings, he’s seen too many rigs on the road go up in flames with the driver still inside. He’s also run across too many crazy driving “punks” and more than his share of drunks that leave him wondering how much longer he’ll remain unscathed.
Aside from the fear of continuing to drive, The Willis Brothers tell us of the various maladies the trucker has come down with over the years. Thanks to the diesel, he claims he can see, he can’t smell and he can’t hear. (I guess if enough diesel residue builds up in one’s system, at least three of the five senses can be permanently damaged.) The only sense the driver claims to have left is being used up trying to keep his rig on the road. And how about those kidneys? I suppose 22 years of chain coffee-drinking does a number on those as well.
With that, two minutes and 19 seconds later, we are left assume the trucker arrives in Memphis, where he turns in his papers and puts his truck up for sale.
Until next time, scoot on over to Bob Perry’s column. Bob offers up some good advice to help you stay healthy out there on the road.