Country Trucker Titan C.W. McCall (Bill Fries) Passes Away

Call him one of the overlords of country trucker songs, but don’t call him a one hit wonder. His name was William Dale Fries Jr., but the world knew him as C.W. McCall, and knew of him through his iconic country trucker epic “Convoy.” He was also one of the oldest living country music legends still around. But there was much more to this man who passed away on Friday, April 1st at the age of 93.

It wasn’t until his mid 40s when the man who became known as C.W. McCall started his country music career, and it was mostly by accident. Bill Fries as he was known (pronounced ‘Frees’) worked in advertising as a creative director, and a Cilo Award-winning one for the campaign he crafted for the Metz Baking Company. This is where the character “C.W. McCall” first appeared—a truck driver originally portrayed by an actor named Jim Finlayson. But when the ad campaign took on a life of its own, Bill Fries became C.W. McCall, and caught country music at a time when country trucker songs were all the rage.

Early songs such as “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe” and “Wolf Creek Pass” grew directly out of the advertisement campaign, but both went Top 20 in country, and Top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the crazy scheme of Bill Fries to take his advertising character C.W. McCall and make him a country star was born. The success of the first album Wolf Creek Pass in 1974 resulted in the followup Black Bear Road in 1975, which had another Top 25 hit with the title track, and launched the cultural phenomenon known as “Convoy.”

C.W. McCall was actually more of a collaborative effort. Bill Fries sang the songs and co-wrote most of them, but Chip Davis had a large hand in composing the music. The anthemic, cinematic approach to the music of “Convoy” might make more sense once you learn that Chip Davis would go on to be the mastermind behind the massive synthesized Christmas music staple Mannheim Steamroller.

“Convoy” not only went #1 in country music, it held that position for six weeks, and went #1 in all of American music for a week in 1976 as well. It also went #1 in nearly all English-speaking countries, including Australia, New Zealand, The UK, and Canada. In 1978, the song would become the inspiration for a motion picture starring Kris Kristofferson and Ernest Borgnine. Both the song and the movie capitalized off the prevalence of CB radios at the time as a way to subvert speed traps, stimulated in part by the oil crisis of the 1970s and the 55 mph speed limit instigated across the United States.

But that’s not where the success of C.W. McCall ceased. Along with another Top 20 hit in “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t Be No Rock ‘n’ Roll),” the song “Roses For Mama” that was a departure from the novelty nature of the C.W. material made it to #2 on the country charts in 1977. By 1980, the legacy version of C.W. McCall was retired, but would be rekindled in 1990 via The Real McCall: An American Storyteller, and again in 2003 with American Spirit with Mannheim Steamroller—both seeing Bill Fries working closely with Chip Davis.

After C.W. McCall had been retired the first time, Bill Fries took a more private approach to life, until he was compelled to run for mayor of the small, picturesque Colorado town of Ouray. Known as the “Switzerland of America” for the steep grades surrounding the town located at 7,700 feet, the population of around 1,000 elected Bill Fries mayor in 1986, where he remained for six years.

Recently, C.W. McCall and the song “Convoy” received renewed interest after the convoy protest of COVID-19 restrictions primarily comprised of truckers in Canada, which depending on who you speak to, was at least partially inspired by the “Convoy” song.

On February 9th, it was revealed that Bill Fries was suffering from Cancer, and was entering hospice care after refusing to be hospitalized.

Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Red Simpson, Dick Curless, Del Reeves, and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen are just some of the names of the 60s and 70s country stars that participated in the country trucker tradition, while later artists such as Junior Brown, Dale Watson, the Franklin County Trucking Company, and Bob Wayne would revitalize it in subsequent works. But nobody instilled country trucker songs into the American conscious quite like C.W. McCall and “Convoy.”

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