Hardcore George Strait fans should recognize the title of this column, borrowed from a song of the same name from his 1986 studio album, “#7.” “Rhythm of the Road” wasn’t released as a single, instead of becoming the flip-side of the 45-rpm record (yes, those did exist in 1986), “It Ain’t Cool to Be Crazy About You,” which hit #1 on the “Hot Country Billboard” chart. The song is seldom, if ever, played on the radio, but “Rhythm of the Road” has been a concert favorite among George Strait fans.
So, as the column title suggests, my plan is to focus on classic country music, specifically “Truck Driving Songs.” Of course, I realize many of you just asked yourself, why not use Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”? The question is valid, and the answer will give you some insight into my lifelong hobby of country music, specifically “Classic Country.” I define “Classic Country,” for the most part, as ending around 1992, the reasons for which will start a debate I don’t want to get involved in, so I’ll keep those to myself.
Anyway, amateur critics (those posting “customer reviews” on various websites) sometimes claim “Rhythm of the Road” is George Strait’s sub-par effort to capitalize on the success of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” “Rhythm of the Road” was written by singer/songwriter Dan McCoy, a frequent performer at Strait’s old haunt, Gruene Hall, an 1878 dance hall in the one-time town of Gruene, now a part of New Braunfels, Texas.
Like Willie Nelson, the Texas Hill Country influences Dan McCoy’s music. And every musician crediting the Texas Hill Country for their material is equally influenced by Willie Nelson. The two go hand in hand. It would be disingenuous to ignore the similarity of the theme “Rhythm of the Road” and “On the Road Again” offer. Released in 1980 from the soundtrack for the movie “Honeysuckle Rose,” “On the Road Again” is Nelson’s signature song, reaching #1 on country charts, winning Nelson a Grammy and holding a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone even rated the song as #471 on its list of the top 500 songs of all time.
I’ve been a George Strait follower since first spinning his debut album “Strait Country” in 1981. But it’s futile to argue “Rhythm of the Road” holds a candle to Willie Nelson’s instrumental and vocal genius. But that doesn’t change the fact that the lyrics of both songs target a commonality between country artists and truck drivers—time spent on the road. The connection is a reason most truck-driving songs have been recorded by country artists. In fact, “Rhythm of the Road” and “On the Road Again” are sometimes listed as songs fitting into country music’s “Truck Driving” category.
To be sure, country music performers identify with “the road” more than those in any other type of music. For one thing, country music is uniquely American, its roots dating back before the radio was invented. Through much of country’s history, performers toured the U.S., particularly the South, first by car then by “Silver Eagle” buses. The 1970s rise in country music’s nationwide popularity came at the same time truck drivers and CB radios achieved status as pop-culture icons. It’s no stretch to give truckers significant credit for introducing country music to regions where it had been ignored, the kinship of “the road” fueling its spread.
While country stars don’t personally drive big rigs or even buses between tour stops, you can bet your dollar the drivers of both will be thanked during a concert. And, the musicians do spend long hours, days, and weeks touring without returning home. Truck drivers and country performers and their road crews stop at many of the same travel centers, eat the same food, and marvel at the same sites as they travel. There is certainly a disparity in the amount of money a country performer earns compared to a truck driver, but that wasn’t always the case. When musicians began recording truck driving music in the 1950s, the disparity was much smaller. At the time, country musicians were much like career minor league baseball players—they just wanted to play their music, and if they got paid a few bucks, the money was gravy. Of course, over the past 60 years, the difference in income has grown exponentially, but the values of truckers and country musicians remain similar. The kinship remains.
So, whether you’re a fan of George Strait or Willie Nelson, you can listen to “Rhythm of the Road” and “On the Road Again” and come away with the same story—life on the road is a grind that offers great rewards.
Of course, I didn’t answer the question, why not “On the Road Again”? It’s simple. I’m a bigger fan of George Strait than Willie Nelson.
Until next time, when those towns you drive to, through, or passed all start to look the same, take a line from “Rhythm of the Road”— “…better stop for a minute, be glad I’m in it, and remember just why I came.”
If you’d like to learn more about a Truck Driving Song or the artist behind it, drop me a line. I may feature it in a future column.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.