Screen Door from Issue #10
The road, at night. Thirty miles up in the rare cold black, the ionosphere bounces madness back upon the earth. Waves of amplitude modulation yo-yo from the sky, hop-scotching squares of latitude and longitude. Roll the AM tuner and the dial winds through a netherworld; a pulsing, electrostatic ebb and swell of fuzz and flash. The ephemeral spirits in the machine spout prophecy and damnation, provide news without context, dawdle through the late innings of a White Sox game. Dante trips out with Marconi, and their nocturnal spawn dance the dash, dive through your head, chase you down no matter which way you travel.
The phrase “nocturnal spawn” would likely put Dave Nemo off his biscuits. He’s an unassuming man, with a light, friendly tone. Put himself through college in New Orleans, on the barges and in the bars, pulling tow and playing country music. Got a part-time job at WWL in New Orleans, but it was 1969, his lottery number was 17, and Uncle Sam was still taking. Wound up in Korea, on the overnight with Armed Forces radio. A year and a half passed, and he was back at WWL, broadcasting country music for truckers on a new all-night radio show they were calling The Road Gang.
25 years later, he’s still sending out skip, now from a tiny bunker of a studio a rock-toss from the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. And the members of the Hall would approve. In the gold-plated era of radio consultants and computerized playlists, Nemo works with a box of recipe cards and has gone toe-to-toe with guys in ties. Radio is no business for a purist, and yes, Shania Twain commands a card. But the bulk of the names penciled in the mix run to the likes of Cash and Cline, Haggard and Jones, Williams and Wynette. You can still hear Lacy J. Dalton on the Road Gang, or a teenage Tanya Tucker, or Tommy Collins — the man Merle Haggard called Leonard. Dale Watson is big with the truckers, and up until they caught the wave, BR5-49 used to drop by and pick a few on their way home from Robert’s Western Wear. If you drive all night, you’ll hear a pair of 15-minute Road Gang Hammer Down Bluegrass Breakdowns. Nemo keeps a banjo under his bed; sometimes he grins and says if he had his way, the Road Gang would be all bluegrass, all the time.
The legendary American trucker isn’t the hero he used to be. Clueless renegades, bad press and an ignorant public have all taken some of the shine from the stacks. Automakers love to tout their airbags and V-6 snap in the looming shadow of Tyrannosauric trucks. A van slides into the oncoming lane, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline reads, “5 Killed As Tractor-Trailer Hits Van”. Some yobbo in a bitsy four-wheeler sees a ten-foot patch of concrete off the front bumper of a Kenworth and homesteads it in a heartbeat. And this year’s behemoth Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville was salted with the occasional log-book-bending Deliverance extra. But the bottom line is this: Taken as a whole, the best drivers on the road — men and women — are still truckers. Shut ’em down, and the negative buzz will be obliterated by pampered howls of deprivation. On the Road Gang, truckin’ songs are received without irony.
You’ll hear truckers on the show. They are their own sort of skip, their low-fi voices ranging the Rand McNally plat. Night Train is on the line. He has his landing gear down, and will sleep at home tonight. Bowlegged Snake checks in. Half Breed, T-Trucker, Six Pack, King Korn, Gatekeeper, they all make contact. Cherokee is in Fort Smith, headed to Pennsylvania. The Denver Dreamer is rolling through Denver. Jeff, no handle, no truck, isn’t going anywhere — he’s calling from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
The writing life took me to the Mid-America show in March. Met the guys who haul the Budweiser Clydesdales. Helped Reba’s truckers load out 12 semi trucks’ worth of stage, rigging and electrical tinsel. Took three days and sifted through about 25 acres of trucks and all things big rig. Come Saturday afternoon, I pulled out for home. Glanced at the map, slipped inside the blue vein of I-65, and rolled north out of Louisville. By the time I hit the Wisconsin line, I still had three hours to go. I kept the Road Gang tuned, punching between WWL and WLAC. Kevin Gaskin, Ol’ Spiderbite, was covering for Nemo. He wished it was warmer, so he could go catfishing. Fugitive called from Albuquerque to talk about Hale-Bopp and remind everyone to watch for the eclipse. Pinkard & Bowden filled the “Trucker’s Chuckle” slot. In NASCAR news, as always, the names were the same, but they said Earnhardt was struggling. Chaplain Joe Hunter checked in with Truck Stop Ministries to help Mr. and Mrs. Trucker down Heaven’s Road. And between it all, the music: Johnny Paycheck. Jerry Reed. Roger Miller. Joe Stampley sang “She’s Long-Legged” with a straight face. I was just home when Ol’ Spiderbite pulled a new one from the recipe cards, something by a guy named Jack Ingram.
There are other trucking radio shows. The Trucking Bozo, out of WLW in Louisiana. Fred Sanders, with Interstate Radio Network. Bill Mack has been on the air for years; he wrote “Blue” for Patsy Cline, and a girl named LeAnn Rimes recorded it a while later. But I heard Dave Nemo first, at 2am, somewhere in the middle of North Dakota. And so, out of loyalty, when I’m on the road for the overnight, I drive as if my barnacled 1989 Tempo has 10 forward gears and a Georgia overdrive, usher in the skip, and collect my mile markers with the Road Gang.
The following stations carry The Road Gang (each one packs 50,000 watts of power, which means these six stations cover most of the country):
1520 WWKB-Buffalo 12:30-6am Eastern
880 KRVN-Lexington, Neb., 11:30pm-5:30am Central
1510 WLAC-Nashville, 12mid-5am Central
870 WWL, New Orleans, 12mid-5am Central
1540 KXEL, Waterloo, 12mid-5am Central
1160 KSL, Salt Lake City, 12mid-5am Mountain