This Country Sunday we visit with the master of the truck-driving ballad, Woodrow Wilson “Red” Sovine. (He dropped the presidential reference on stage.) On this tune he sings of a traveller who thumbs down a semi on a stormy night. The driver who picks him up is ghost trucker Big Joe and his rig, the “Phantom 309.” Big Joe drops the hitchhiker at a truck stop, where, over a cup of coffee, the hitchhiker learns that Big Joe died years ago in a highway smashup, when he swerved to save a school bus full of kids.
Sovine was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1918. His mother taught him guitar, and he landed a gig at Charleston’s WCHS when he was 17. He formed his first band in the late 40s, picking up the unfortunate nickname “Old Syrup Sopper” due both to his sponsorship by a syrup company and his syrupy balladry.
He was about to quit on music when none other than Hank Williams intervened, landing him a better radio slot on Montgomery, Alabama’s WSFA, and a record deal to boot. Soon Sovine was performing on the country music radio show Louisiana Hayride. Within five years he’d scored a number of chart-topping hits and joined the Grand Ole Opry.
In the 60s, he began composing his trucker ballads, lik ‘Phantom 309,’ ‘Giddyup Go’ and ‘Teddy Bear.’ Tom Waits later adapted ‘Phantom 309’ as ‘Big Joe And Phantom 309,’ from the Nighthawks at the Diner sessions. Red died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Ford van in 1980, while driving through Nashville.