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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 404

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This is the grave of Red Sovine.

Born in 1917 in Charleston, West Virginia, Woodrow Wilson Sovine was known as Red from a young boy because of his hair color. He grew up trying to get into the country music world. His first band as a kid was with his friend Johnny Bailes, who later had a lot of success as part of the Bailes Brothers. Sovine didn’t have a lot of success early in his career. He got married and took a job in a hosiery factory as a supervisor while playing on local radio, writing songs, and trying to make it as a country musician. By the mid-40s, the Bailes Brothers were down in Shreveport, Louisiana, which at that time was the second city of country music, thanks to the Louisiana Hayride, which was a country music show that rivaled the Grand Ole Opry. They decided to help Sovine out. He moved down, got a radio show in the mornings and, more importantly, got some slots on the Hayride. This gave him his first real exposure. He got his first contract in 1949 with MGM, more or less as a Hank Williams copycat. That was hardly uncommon. George Jones’ first recordings are basically Hank impersonations too.

The next break for Sovine was becoming good friends with Webb Pierce, who brought Sovine in as his bandleader. This made him even more connections and he finally started seeing some chart success. “Are You Mine,” a duet with Goldie Hill, reached #15 on the country charts in 1955 and the next year, Pierce and Sovine had a #1 hit with a duet on Jones’ “Why Baby Why.” He spent the next few years as a mid-range country figure, one with a few hits, quite a few songs recorded by others, but not a real leading light. He did discover Charley Pride in these years and convinced him to move to Nashville, where he became country music’s first African-American star.

It was only in 1965 that Sovine truly came into his own. That was when he started recording a lot of trucking songs, mostly that he co-wrote with Tommy Hill. The entire trucker phenomena of American culture of the 1960s and 1970s is really fascinating to me. The symbol of independence against the man placed in the figure of the trucker seems nonsensical now, but it was a huge thing, not only in country music, but of course in films, reaching its ridiculous apotheosis, if one can call it that, with Convoy, Sam Peckinpah’s disastrous late-career movie. Other than perhaps Dave Dudley, who made it huge with “Six Days on the Road,” no one personified the trucker genre in country music more than Sovine. This really peaked with his album Phantom 309, with the title song about a trucker who is now a ghost because he swerved to miss an oncoming school bus who occasionally returns from the dead and helps out hitchhikers by giving them rides. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s a pretty great song and the album is quite fine too. You should buy it. “Teddy Bear” and “Little Joe” were among his other trucker hits. He also wrote a bunch of sappy songs about Christmas tragedies. His last big hit was in 1978, a cover of Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” of all things. He died in 1980, when he had a heart attack while driving and wrecked his car.

Let’s listen to some Red Sovine:

That last one might be a little over the top, even for me.

Red Sovine is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. You can’t imagine how excited I was to visit Red Sovine. I’ve loved him for years, for all the sappiness. If you would like this series to cover more country musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Johnnie Bailes is in Swainsboro, Georgia and Dave Dudley is in Danbury, Wisconsin. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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