Twenty-five miles north of Richmond, Va., just off I-95, is the “world’s busiest truck stop,” self-proclaimed. It is called Jarrell’s (“Geraldine’s” in CB lingo) and has a 21-acre parking lot, two restaurants (one for truckers only), a motel, a campground—and a radio station. Inside a tiny studio overlooking the huge cafeteria sits John Trimble, a lanky, loquacious 40-year-old, manning the dials of a WRVA substation every night except Saturday. For the second year in a row, his rolling audience has voted him the No. 1 trucker disc jockey in the country. Heard in 32 states and all of eastern Canada, the Big John Trimble Show is completely free-form. “Whatever happens,” he says, “we let happen.”
Working without an engineer, Trimble takes 200 to 250 phone calls a night, gives frequent and vital weather reports in a deep, rich, Dixie voice and tells wives when their truck-drivin’ hubbies will be home. “Radio has become so slick,” reasons Big John, “that it’s a welcome change to hear something human, even if it is fouled up.” The management gives Trimble a free hand. “The only thing WRVA has ever told me,” he laughs, “is that at 11:30 I go on and at 5 a.m. I go off.”
Trimble disdains trade magazines; he has no idea what songs are selling well. “The telephone’s my chart,” he says. “I go straight to the people for my playlist.” The truckers favor country tunes from Hank Williams and Kitty Wells, while Trimble’s personal taste runs to old-time rhythm and blues. In keeping with his audience (which also includes highway patrolmen and all-night security guards), Big John often lapses into CB argot. Dedications go out to Rigor Mortis, Undercover Lover and the Warthog. He refuses to say the “obscene number”—55, the legal speed limit loathed by truckers—on the air. So a weather report might give the temperature as “one degree more than 54.” His show specializes in the unexpected. A year ago a Canadian couple was married on the air with the benefit of the truck stop chaplain. “I thought it was sort of a tacky thing to do,” admits Trimble, “but after we got going it was pretty.”
Trimble grew up in Paintsville, Ky. listening to all-night radio star Nelson King. At 15 he began broadcasting an hour a day on the local station, and by the time he finished high school he was working full-time. Since then his life has been an odyssey of the airwaves. He has spun discs in six states, switching to night radio eight years ago. “I got tired of playing the day game, the ratings and all that hassle with formats,” he explains.
In spite of Trimble’s affinity for truckers (his father and two stepbrothers drive tractor trailers), he has only piloted a rig once. He was broadcasting from a truck stop outside Shreveport, La. when one of his listeners suggested they trade places. Everything went smoothly until Big John became so engrossed with the trucker’s on-air slipups that he missed his exit and ended up in a mobile home park, unable to get the 18-wheeler into reverse. An experienced driver was dispatched to get him out.
On another occasion, a trucker phoned Trimble and threatened to commit suicide by driving off a cliff. Big John kept his cool and called in the rig’s 10-20 (location) to the local sheriff, who arrived on the scene in time. Three weeks later the trucker came by the studio to say thank you, good buddy.
Trimble lives with his wife and their three sons in a sprawling apartment complex outside Richmond. He has just released his first album, Big John Trimble: Fun for the Road, a collection of one-liners and stories he has heard over the years. But he is already wary of overexposure. “Maybe people around the truck stop will start thinking I’m something I’m not,” he frets. Since he was lured to WRVA in 1977, Trimble says, he has turned down three job offers in bigger markets. “At this place I don’t have anybody telling me what to do,” he points out. “That’s the perfect situation. I could sit right here until I’m 105 years old.”