Come Along and Sing

The title of today’s post are the opening words to one of my favorite songs, “Wilderness” by C.W. McCall. Bill Fries, the man who sang those words, passed away on April 1 at the age of 93. Back in 1975 and 76, it was hard to tune to a country music station and not hear his words. C.W. McCall’s trucker ballad “Convoy” rose to the top of the country music charts. It would serve as the inspiration for a Sam Peckinpah film of the same name and Rolling Stone Magazine would eventually name it one of the 100 greatest Country Songs of all time.

C.W. McCall was a character created by two people working at an advertising agency in Omaha, Nebraska: Bill Fries and Chip Davis. They created a series of commercials for Old-Home Bread featuring the trucker C.W. and his romance with a waitress named Mavis. An actor played C.W. and Fries voiced him in musical narration. The commercials were popular and they recorded a version of the jingle, which went on to become a popular record. Soon after, MGM Records offered them a deal. At that point, Fries went on to become the face of C.W. McCall as well as the voice.

C.W. McCall’s Greatest Hits and some speculative fiction it inspired

I was nine-years-old when “Convoy” hit the top of the charts. My dad heard the song “Wolf Creek Pass” on the radio, loved it, and bought the album. Soon after, I talked my parents into buying the Black Bear Road album which contained “Convoy.” I loved the music and would go on to buy every C.W. McCall album I could find. To this day, the music is a favorite for road trips and I can sing many of the songs.

It should come as no surprise the songs influenced my writing. I’ve written two stories directly influenced by C.W. McCall songs. One was “Captain’s Holiday” which appeared in David B. Riley’s Ghost Town anthology. Influenced by a song that paints a word picture of a ghost town, I tell the story of a starship captain who returns to Earth and connects to its history by visiting an abandoned town in the New Mexico desert. Another story was “The Convoy” which forms part of Firebrandt’s Legacy. In this case, pirate captain Ellison Firebrandt is hauling logs from a distant colony world and joins a convoy of space vessels. One of the captains falls sick and the pirates have to find a way to get help. Words and phrases from the songs have gone on to influence me in smaller ways as well.

After the C.W. McCall years, Bill Fries settled in Ouray, Colorado where he served as mayor for six years. Meanwhile, in the final years of C.W. McCall, Chip Davis and other members of the band created Mannheim Steamroller. In fact, if you go back and listen to C.W. McCall songs, you can often hear the sound that would make Mannheim Steamroller famous a few years later. Even “Convoy” has a violin section! As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I don’t often write to music with lyrics because I find it distracting, but Mannheim Steamroller is often playing in the background when I write.

Back in 2001, I learned through the C.W. McCall fan club that Bill Fries was open to correspondence. I sent him a letter and a CD to sign. I received a gracious reply along with my signed CD. It was a small connection with someone who has been a great influence and who touched my life, but a treasured one. I look back and have fond memories of listening to C.W. McCall songs with my dad, mom, and brothers. I remember sharing the songs with my friends. I remember singing the songs with my kids on road trips. As Bill Fries said at the end of “Aurora Borealis,” “I realized that life is just a collection of memories. And memories are like starlight: they go on forever.”

Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.