“I used to listen to these songs when I drove a truck for a living and always imagined myself singing them. This album is something I’ve always wanted to do – and, with my own label, no one could tell me ‘no’ anymore.” –Aaron Tippin, former trucker turned country music superstar
OK, point of full and honest disclosure here – I’m a country music fan in addition to my love for heavy metal (I know, I know – I am violating a lot of good taste melding those two) and one of my favorite country artists is Aaron Tippin. So needless to say I jumped at the chance to talk with him by phone from his 500-acre farm in Tennessee about his new album “In Overdrive” – an album of classic trucking songs that he’s put his own unique stamp upon.
Tippin isn’t your average music star, by the way. Raised as a farmer, he’s also a pilot (owning four planes stored in a hanger on his own private airstrip), winemaker, outdoorsman (he owns two hunting supply stores), and competitive bodybuilder (it’s true – I’ve met Tippin in person and the dude is in phenomenal shape). Married for nearly 14 years, with two sons (Tom and Ted), Tippin still identifies deeply with his roots – a fancy way of saying musical fame and fortune hasn’t gone to his head.
“First and foremost I’m a farmer,” he told me. Born in Pensacola, Florida, back in 1958, Tippin grew up on a farm in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. “But as part of growing up on a farm, I learned to drive trucks from a young age. I started driving hay trucks, then dump trucks, and then started hauling heavy equipment,” he said.
He started driving commercial trucks to help pay the bills as he tried to make a living as a country western singer and songwriter, piling up the miles on the highway while singing in countless bars and honkytonks. “I started driving local routes, then moved on to truckload teams on the west coast,” Tippin recalled. “I wrote a lot of songs with my driving partner back in those days – none of which ever went anywhere, and all of them mostly love songs.”
But he listened over and over to the staples of trucking music on the road – especially the late Jerry Reed’s “East Down and Bound” – always wondering if he’d ever catch a break. Eventually he did – competing on The Nashville Network’s (TNN) You Can Be a Star talent contest in 1986, which landed him a song publishing contract. He moved to Nashville, TN, in 1987 and began penning tunes for the likes of The Kingsmen, Charley Pride, and others.
That hard work paid off in 1990, when Tippin performed his first Nashville nightclub show and bagged a contract with RCA Records as a result. His first single – "You've Got to Stand for Something," released in 1991 – became hugely popular with the U.S. servicemen and women fighting in the Gulf War; so much so that Bob Hope invited Tippin to come along as Hope toured the Mideast to entertain the troops fighting in Operation Desert Storm.
One of his biggest hits, however, came just after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001: “Where The Stars And Stripes And The Eagle Fly,” which reached number two on the country billboard charts. [You can watch the music video for it below – it’s a classic “anthem” devoted to the American working man and woman.]
Like all musicians, though, Tippin’s career has seen a lot of ebbs and flows. After five albums and a greatest hits package with RCA, he switched to Lyric Records in 1998, where he released two more albums and a number one single “Kiss This,” co-written with his wife, Thea. But in 2006, Tippin and Lyric parted ways, leading him to form his own label – Nippit Records – and helping him get back to appreciating what to his mind is a critical constituency of country music: truckers.
“Seems like somewhere along the line trucking music got shoved off the country music plate,” he observed. “I don’t understand exactly why. The trucks are still out there. And they’re busier than ever keeping America rolling. I know the folks who work and live in the trucking world still love this music—and so do most fans of real country music. This album launches my crusade to bring that music back.”
He told me that every time he plays the “trucking classics” at his live shows – Alabama’s “Prisoner of the Highway” and “Roll on,” plus “Truck Drivin’ Man” by Terry Fell and “Six Days on the Road” originally made famous by Dave Dudley back in 1963 – the fans “just go ballistic” in his words. “People still love this music, but country music doesn’t always seem proud of it,” Tippin told me. “It’s still great music.”
He broached the idea of putting together an album of trucking music to Jerry Reed – with Reed’s classic hit “East Bound and Down” at the top of the list – and got an enthusiastic response. Though Tippin kept in touch with Reed as the album "In Overdrive" came together, Reed’s failing health prevented him from playing a bigger role in the project (though Reed’s grandson plays the drums on Tippin’s version of “East Down and Bound.”)
“I got to spend a lot of time with him before he passed on – a guy that, in many ways, never really got recognized by Nashville for all he did for country music,” Tippin told me. “To my mind, his accomplishments got overlooked – especially all the work he did for veterans at the end of his life. But now he’s getting his glory.”
And Tippin also hopes this album brings a little “glory” back to truckers – a group of men and women that perform a vital job in this country of ours, yet who remain largely ignored. “I have a lot of respect for truckers and job they do – it’s important for them and their contributions to our country to be recognized,” Tippin told me. “Everything you get today comes by truck. Folks need to remember that.”
Amen to that.