One of the engaging myths of the more recent of America’s 200 years is that truckers know where to eat. The truth is that their soul is not in their stomachs—like everyone else, they prefer junk food—but in their ears. “Ears,” in highway lingo, as it happens, refers to CB (Citizen’s Band) radios, which carry special frequencies favored by the drivers and an increasing number of eavesdropping civilians. The new folk poetry of the last American frontier, the turnpike, is heard on CB, and the new poet laureate is C.W. McCall.
McCall, though, is a nom de plume for Bill Fries, 47, who has become the Johnny Cash-in of the new genre, having “hammered down” (accelerated) the piquant CB vernacular into hits like the new chart-topper, Convoy, on AM radio. Fries is actually an Omaha ad executive who is sometimes a klutz at the clutch when he tries to handle an “18-wheeler” (a semi) on a promotion tour. CB, which truckers use to keep from growing stare-crazy with “white-line fever” from the monotony, became almost required equipment when the 55 mph speed limit made the cops (“Smokey” or “the Bear”) a greater threat. Drivers alerted each other when they spotted a “camera” (police radar unit), or “plain wrapper” (unmarked cop car) or even “seatcovers” (attractive women in sedans).
Fries, born in Iowa to an artistic family, was torn between studying music or art at the state university. He finally wound up in showbiz as a $35-a-week set designer on an Omaha TV station, where he entered the ad game. An avid backroads camper with three now-grown children and a grandchild on the way, Fries installed CB originally for personal emergency use and became enthralled with the language. His office also had a commanding view of Interstate I-680. Though never a “ratchet jaw” (compulsive talker) himself, Bill dreamed up the idea of commercials in CB argot to promote one of his clients, Old Home Bread. The hero was a trucker (dubbed by Fries), the heroine a truck-stop waitress named Mavis “built like a burlap bag filled with bobcats.” “I’ve always been a frustrated poet,” admits Fries, “and I began to put the combination together, and sales went up 200 percent.”
Though both the bread and the spot were strictly regional, Fries won a Clio, the Pulitzer Prize of pitches. Then came a five-year MGM record contract. “Having all this stardom heaped on me, I just don’t know how to react,” says Bill. He hasn’t given up his executive position with the Bozell & Jacobs agency branch in Omaha or the house he bought there 12 years ago. Just as Fries’ “handle” (slang name) is “Rubber Duck” on the CB circuit, his wife, Rena, goes by the name of “Smart Cookie,” and the Frieses are not hammering their success too hard lest they run out of “green stamps” (dollars).