Trail Mix

As a kid I’d often be the first one to fall asleep during the main movie at the drive-in and wake up just as the second on the double bill was starting.

By then everyone else in the car was sleepy or drifting off and I’d be watching the opening credits of some low budget road movie on my own, riveted.

Invariably, in my memory at least, this kind of film commenced with a pickup pulling a trailer across a vast landscape to the sounds of a plaintive, twanging guitar.

The characters always seemed to be bail bondsman, truckers or bull riders on the rodeo circuit, drifting around the backcountry of rustbelt towns.

Their journeys evoked, in part, the huge interstate road trips my family embarked on for holidays or to visit family, squashed into the car, a cream VK Commodore, where blankets, pillows and clothes were piled up in the spaces children could not fit.

At night, on the highway, Kenworth roadtrains ablaze in lights, roared by, before disappearing into the darkness.

These impressions last in the mind. In the background of these motion pictures, which felt like a collection of scenes set in roadside diners, bars, truck stops and cinderblock motels, the distinct sounds of a Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner or Patsy Cline could be heard.

Despite largely being background music, it captured the essence of those transitory environments and the characters who inhabited them, only the music conveyed what the characters seemed to be aching to say but couldn’t.

The best country music, perhaps because it deals indirectly with leaving things behind, does this better than almost anything.

“The song is the cheapest psychiatrist there is,” prolific outlaw country artist Billy Joe Shaver, whom Norm MacDonald called the greatest songwriter on the planet, once said. “I pretty much need one all the time.”

Writing songs as therapy, for many truck drivers, though isn’t an option.

More than half the 1,400 truck drivers surveyed in the Driving Health Study by Monash University reported what has been categorised as severe psychological distress.

That’s something to be taken seriously given driving is the most common form of employment for men accounting for one male in 33.

“They frequently experience isolation and separation from loved ones, and the nature of long haul work in particular offers limited opportunities for incidental physical activity and good nutrition,” says Lead Researcher Dr Ross Iles.

“This reveals a need for additional supports to ensure they can do their work safely – it’s our turn to keep them moving.”

The newly launched Australian Truck Radio is one platform that has answered the call by providing a soundtrack and voice for the many drivers who may be out on the highways and backroads miles from anywhere familiar.

What’s more it plays a range of country at night.

An abandoned drive-in movie screen.

Music, after all, is sometimes the best companion. He who sings, Miguel de Cervantes noted, frightens away his ills.

For many getting behind the wheel of a truck, especially working interstate, affords a modicum of independence from the corporate superstructures that are intertwined with normal working routines.

Country music and road travel work in natural tandem, as if in communion with the wide-open spaces.

I’m sure Gram Parsons must have written a song about it.

In subject matter, there’s not much distance country music hasn’t covered though admittedly it’s changed a lot since those drive-in movies of my youth.

Nowadays, the romance of the road in songs like Merle Haggard’s ‘White Line Fever’ and George Jones’ ‘Six Days on the Road’ has been impounded, it would seem, by love affairs with Ford F-150s. Truck driving country lives, just in another guise.

That said the likes of Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson and the Brothers Osborne, for those who still associate road trips with a Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, are keeping the flame alive.

Who knows you might even hear it played on Australian Truck Radio.

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