Thoughts from the Space Cadet
It's been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon.
Oops… wrong town. :)
Except for those disagreeable incidents out East (and Middle East), life's been continuing as usual here in the semi-wilds of McHenry County, Illinois. Autumn is falling, the frost is freezing, and the Canadian geese are swimming in the pond and leaving souvenirs in my backyard.
The beef farm down the road shut down this spring, the owner having sold the land to a housing developer, complete with a ready-made name: "Shamrock Farm". Bleah. Ain't gonna be no "Farm" anywhere, after the developer stacks 600 houses on the property, but the name will live on. I'd rather have an occasional whiff of steer blowing from the west than the inevitable crop of mailbox-bashing adolescents that blooms whereever cheap housing is planted.
And the plans for the "West McHenry Bypass" continue; interestingly, this bypass will roll right through the middle of "Shamrock Farm". Wanna buy a house next to a four-lane highway? I wonder when I'll be able to see a traffic light from my window.
I'm beginning to think that I didn't move far enough west, away from Chicago. I had considered buying land that was a bit more remote, possibly in Montana; but my wife says that the malls are too far away. Besides, the Internet access isn't as good as here. Not that a 56K dial-up is great (no thanks to Ameritech), but at least the phone lines aren't noisy.
Bill's birthday (yes, that's Bill Fries) is November 15th. He'll be 73 this year. If you want to send greetings, address them to P.O. Box E, Ouray, Colorado, USA, 81427-0589. Be certain to use the correct address; Bill says that the post office in Ouray is picky about that. By the way, if you have something that you would like Bill to autograph, you can send it to the same address; but be sure to include return postage, if you want to get back your item.
Surfin' With The Rubber Duck
The World Wide Webfooted-One splashes in the link pool
Crispy Critter Greg Lucke notes a story in the October 5th edition of the Denver Post: "Mesa College study clears cannibal Packer in deaths". According to this article by Nancy Lofholm, "…Alfred Packer may have devoured his five traveling companions 127 years ago, but he didn't kill them." I guess he was just a bit peckish. If you're wondering what's on the menu, visit Al's Café.
The Durango Train Gift Shop, at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum, has a DVD set on the Silverton train, which includes Tracks Through Time, narrated by Dennis Weaver; Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, narrated by C.W. McCall; and Rebirth of a Locomotive, narrated by C.W. McCall. The first two videos tell of the history of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and its Durango-Silverton line, while the third tells of the rebuilding of the 482 engine that's currently in service on the line. The best part: it’s only $23.17 . The gift shop also has several books about the Railroad, but they're not narrated by C.W. McCall. :)
Back in June, the Omaha World-Herald published an article, "Commercial Led to Country Phenonmenon", about the events of 25 years earlier when C.W. McCall and "Convoy" seemed to be everywhere on the radio. Unfortunately, the World-Herald article is no longer online (I've got a copy, and one of these days I'll add it to the Library); but there's a similar reference in the June 13, 2001 "Alternate Route" column of the American Trucking Association's Truckline Information Center. In scarier news, the current Alternate Route column (October 3) is "How To Simultaneously Read A Book And Drive A Truck". (If you're reading this paragraph after October 9, you can find the latter column in the "Alternate Route" archive.) [Update, 2012-05-01: The links to those articles are long gone. — Future Ed.]
Old Home Café
Back where it all began
From the Omaha World-Herald Sunday Magazine of the Midlands, March 27, 1977. Thanks to K.C. the Stealth Fan for the xerographic copy.
On The Cover. Bill Fries of Omaha, who sometimes masks as Good Buddy C.W. McCall, was a successful advertising executive when he started selling Old Home Bread. Then "Convoy" hit the airwaves, and the excitement (and problems) of instant fame arrived. Photo by James Denney.
Instant Fame: What's It Really Like?
Story by Al Pagel
Photos by James Denney
The waitress is hesitant, slightly embarassed.
"Excuse me. But you are C.W. McCall; aren't you?"
Bill Fries looks up out of his rumpled, lived-in face and smiles.
"Yes, Ma'am, I am."
"Well, my boy is a real fan of yours. He's got this CB radio he's always foolin' with and everything. I wonder… could I get your autograph for him?"
The waitress produces three sheets of white note paper she's been holding behind her back and puts them on the table.
"And for two of his friends?" she asks.
"Sure," says Bill Fries, and reaches for his pen.
"So your boy's a CBer," says Dave Mack, promotion manager for the growing McCall enterprises. "What's his handle?"
"Richard," answers the waitress.
Mack's mouth hangs open for a second, wondering whether to pursue it.
"Richard, huh," says Fries, and starts to scrawl "To Richard," in the arty penmanship of those who have worked their way through the advertising business.
He asks for the names of the other boys and pens a personal note to each, signed by C.W. McCall.
"Thank you," says the waitress. "Thank you very much."
"My pleasure," says Fries and turns his attention back to the half-finished martini.
"That's nice," he says, half to himself. "That's nice."
Lots of nice things have happened to Bill Fries in recent years. Since he gave birth to C.W. McCall.
You remember C.W.? You do unless you've been hiding out somewhere the past four years. Sure, you know the guy. He drives a bread truck. Old Home, it is. Gotta gal named Mavis, out Pisgah way; a dog, Sloan. It was a right good TV commercial. Sold a lot of bread. Even won the Clio, advertising's highest award.
Yeah, nice things have happened to Bill Fries since C.W. came along. He's sold 10 million records, for one thing, including a gold single, a single platinum, a gold album, a near-platinum album, a gold in Canada, a gold in Australia. That's nice.
And it's nice he's appeared on the Tonight Show, the Rich Little Show, the Dinah Shore Show, the Mike Douglas Show, Hee-Haw, the Tomorrow Show and a bunch of other out of Nashville and Chicago.
It's nice, too, that Billboard magazine picked "Convoy" as the nation's No. 1 song in 1975 and that Fries and Chip Davis (who writes the music to Fries' lyrics) were named the best country-western song writers of 1975.
Or how's this one? United Artists is going to make a film of "Convoy," with Sam Peckinpah directing and Kris Kristofferson handling the male lead.
And you talk about nice… well, all of this has made a truckload of money for Fries and his two partners, Davis and Don Sears. Now that's nice. That's really nice.
Particularly for Fries. Not that Davis, at 27, doesn't get a few jollies from such success; and Sears, about 10 years older. But Fries… well, at 48, a guy begins to suspect that ship he's been waiting for all those years is hung up on a shoal somewhere.
Of course Fries wasn't exactly on welfare before C.W. came along. He was creative director for Bozell and Jacobs, one of the nation's top advertising agencies. It was a good job, a fine job. But Fries, like most, had his dreams. And dreams start to die, by 48.
So here's old Bill Fries, dreams dimming, hair thinning, waist growing, and — WHAM — fame, riches, a whole new life.
Sweet, huh, Bill, really sweet?
Fries thinks about it. He thinks about the fantasy of success compared with reality, and shakes his John-Denver-look-alike head.
"It's not what you think it's going to be," he says. "No it isn't. There are an awful lot of things that go on that are not fun at all.
"At first you're amazed that somebody recognizes you. Then, after a while, you begin to understand why some of these performers run and hide. You come out of a building in Chicago after a television show, for example, and there are a whole lot of people you've never seen before and they're reaching and asking for autographs.
"And some of those gals do some pretty brazen things. They come up, for example, and pull up their blouses and say, 'Here, sign my navel.' And they'll want me to sign their arms and their shoulders and they're constantly asking for kisses, you know.
"Well, I sign every autograph I'm asked to sign. That's part of it. And I do it with a smile.
"But I'm very, very glad to get home and get some privacy."
But home is not the haven it once was. The phone is unlisted now, insulating the family against a flood of unknown callers. You don't just ring up Bill Fries like you used to do. There are barriers — a promotion manager, a Nashville attorney, a New York booking agent, a Chicago accountant… about 14 employes for the two companies — American Gramaphone and The McCall Group, Inc. — in which Fries, Davis and Sears are partners.
It's a necessary isolation.
"I run into people I've known, vaguely known. They're coming out of the woodwork. People I haven't heard of in years, and thought I never would again. Suddenly, now, they're calling and, you know, they've got ideas.
"It's been tough on the family… on the kids. Suddenly their father is somebody he wasn't before. And this creates an aura around the kids, too. You know, somebody will come up to them and say, 'Hey, your Dad is…'
"I wouldn't say they resent it, but they're kind of embarrassed by the whole thing."
Fries looks out the window of his Ponca Hills home — the same one he's owned since 1968 — out past the bird feeder, past the rambling deck, out into the 14 acres of second-growth as that go with the house.
"You know, if you've spent 20 years of your life not being in the spotlight and having people ask you for your autograph, suddenly, when you find yourself in that situation… well, you become two people.
"Part of the time you're out there on the road signing autographs and acting the way people expect you to act.
"Inside, you're the person you always were and you're trying to be that person, too. But the only time you can be that person is when you're home and shut off from the rest of it.
"I think I'm still the same inside. If it had happened to me when I was 27— well, you could go bananas at that age."
But not at 48; not to Bill Fries?
"I know what you're getting at — has all the success made me somebody else. No it hasn't. It just hasn't. But somebody else has to say it."
Rena Fries, Bill's wife for 25 years now, volunteers.
"He hasn't changed," she confirms. "Not a bit. He's still Bill Fries."
But it's not easy, acknowledges Fries.
"It seems like people expect you to be different when something like this happens.
"It's a funny thing. Some of the people — not necessarily friends now that I'm talking about, but acquaintances, people like that. When this thing first started happening, they'd say, 'Hey, you're making a record. Best of luck. It's just gonna be great. It's gonna be super.'
"And then the next thing happens and the next thing and they say, 'Oh, boy, that's greate.'
"And then something like 'Convoy' comes along and it's so huge it overwhelms everybody, even us, and suddenly those people wh, have been wishing you well all this time have a different attitude. They begin to say, 'Well, this won't last forever so enjoy it while you can.'
"And if it keeps going up and up, then pretty soon you never hear from those people agin. Never! I mean they just go away.
"But you can spot your real friends. All of this doesn't mean a damn thing to them. You still talk about the same things you used to talk about. It's the same relationship as before.
"Your real friends are the ones who understand your problems. The ones you can be with and feel relaxed."
Friends are nice to have all right, but suppose, just suppose, those others, the acquaintances, have a point. Could all this be temporary?
Fries squints his eyes and shrugs deeper into his chair.
"Well, I'm at a point where I'm befuddled by it. I don't know whether it is or not. I tought it was a passing phenomenon when Wolf Creek Pass came out. And then with 'Convoy'… well…
"I know now that 'Convoy' was a total smash happening that seldom occurs. I mean people who have been in the business for a long time don't sell six million records at a crack.
"The record company did a little study. They had to go back to the Beatles to find a record that did that much in such a short time.
"And I don't expect it to happen again. We can't top 'Convoy.' What it's done is establish us. And we can keep this going at a certain level for about as long as we want to pour our energies into it."
"But if it doesn't work out that way, I'm not going too feel badly."
Now don't get Bill Fries wrong. There are a few flaws, sure, but he's enjoyin' the fool out of all this.
"There's no doubt about it," he says. "A lot of money can help you do some things you've always wanted to do."
Like what? What is it a guy does, first thing, to prove to himself that fantasy has become reality?
"Well… oh boy… I don't know. I can't think of anything really. All this money has not meant as much as you might think it has meant.
"The only things I want now are the things I was striving to get before — a home out in Colorado to go to, some traveling… but we were going to do those things anyway."
His face brightens.
"Hey! I did buy a bamboo fly rod. Yessir, a hundred dollar fly rod."
And there were other things, too — some remodeling on the Ponca Hills house, that chalet in Colorado…
"But this is our home. Because it's comfortable here. It's nice to go down to the Florence Drug Store and walk in and say hello to somebody you know, the people you live with, your neighbors. They all know this has happened and it hasn't changed them either. We're all just the way we always were.
"When I go to another town now, it's different. I really am somebody else."
The rumpled face unfolds into a broad smile.
"I know something I did. I bought my mother a house. My dad died in '55 and since that time my mother has been living in Audubon in my grandmother's house. It was really an old house, built in 1880. And mom had always wanted a home of her own again, like when dad was alive. We couldn't do anything about it. We had enough problems.
"And so now, a phone call, and we bought her a house. We let her pick it out in Des Moines. You know, her own style. Where she wanted it. That was a great satisfaction. It really was."
It's gratifying, too, says Fries that he and his sons, Bill Jr., 23, and Mark, 21, are now in business together out in Ouray, Colorado.
"We're producing a 35- or 40-minute multiscreen show with narrative and music. It's a very emotional thing, about the mountains and the area out there. (Daughter Nancy, 19, also lives in Colorado, but is not involved in the business.)
"Yeah, these are the things that are really meaningful," says Fries.
And the future? What's in the future?
"Well, there's the movie, of course. We've got a percentage of that. And we're working on another album and it looks like we're gonna make a tour of Australia this spring and…"
Bill Fries pauses; grows reflective.
"You know our record contract has two more years to go. I'm going to take a very hard look then and say, 'Okay, that's something I didn't expect. I did my best at it, but now it's time to live like I want to live.'
"At my point in life, I'm looking at what I'm going to be doing the next 10 years. I want to make sure it's what I really want to do."
And what's that, Bill Fries? Now that you've tasted the riches, the fame, world acclaim, what is it you really want from life?
"What I wanted, what we all wanted out of this thing, whether we made any money or not, was a chance to be creative.
"I think what I'd like to do, when this is all over, is some serious writing. I'd like to publish some poetry or get involved in some research on Western history, because… well, because I really love it. I have that freedom now."
What's playing today
Published by Mike Nicolen Records, Kearney, Nebraska
Somewhere in a bar near Kearney, Nebraska, Mike Nicolen is playing guitar with his band, The Lost Sidemen. But if you were looking at the stage, you'd see only Mike, because the Lost Sidemen are a Yamaha QY700 Sequencer, a Digitech Harmony Vocalist and a Yamaha REX50. Yeah, Mike's a one-man band with low union overhead.
But on Mike's eponymous debut CD, "Mike Nicolen", The Lost Sidemen stayed on the side and Mike used some real musicians to record twelve songs about life, love, trucks and beer, not necessarily in that order of importance.
This isn't a "big label" release. Mike Nicolen is his own record company; and what better way to keep the profits than to publish your own record?
Mike wrote all of the songs and plays rhythm and lead guitar. He sounds a bit like Hank Williams, Jr., and his songs aren't the flashy type that seem to rule the playlist at CMT. There are a lot of broken hearts on this album (and one broken truck) but nothing that'll make you cry. Well, maybe "She Wants To Be Friends" will.
My personal favorites:
• "Covered Wagon" is a bit like C.W. McCall, bemoaning the invasion of the Interstate and the loss of the old local stops along the state and U.S. highways.
• "Uncle Sam" is the story of a freeloader living on welfare, because the benefits are better than what he can get from working. But there's a Burger King in his future.
• Milwaukee may have made it famous, but "A Can That Just Says Beer" is a warning against trying to drink away your troubles with generic brew.
• As for the broken truck, it's just part of "Can't Rev 'Em Cold", about the danger of an insufficiently warmed-up woman, uh, engine.
You can check out four of the songs from the CD — "Didn't Think Twice", "She Wants To Be Friends", "Evelyn", and "Don't Lie To Me" — at MP3.com.
When you're in the Kearney area, check Mike's web site for his schedule of appearances, some pictures of The Lost Sidemen, and of the places where Mike has played (he seems to have a fondness for having his picture taken next to the marquee that advertises his gig).
If you want a copy of Mike's CD, don't bother shopping at CDnow or Amazon.com because you can get a copy only from Mike himself. The cost is $18.00 per CD ($15.00, plus $3.00 shipping), money orders only. Drop a line to Mike and he'll tell you where to send your order.
[To those who may be wondering: yes, I bought my copy (two of them, actually). — Ed.]
Song A’ Th’ Week
Words without music. Call 'em poems.
Rocky Mountain September
(Bill Fries, Chip Davis)
From the album
Wolf Creek Pass
When the skies are gray, and the wind is cold, I remember. How the snow was silver, and the leaves were gold when I left her. It was early mornin', on a Rocky Mountain September. And she was gone.
Well now it's five A.M. an' I'm a hunnert an' ten miles from Denver
An' the snow is silver an' the leaves are gold an' I miss her
'Cause it's another mornin' on a another mountain September
An' I'm alone
Yeah, we climbed the mountain together, an' we stood on top a' the world. But now I gotta remember it all... alone.
When the fire is warm, an' the sun is cool, in November. When my heart is young, and my mind is old, I remember. An early mornin', on a Rocky Mountain September. And she's gone.
Well now it's fall again an' I'm a thousand miles from nowhere
An' I can can hear her voice an' I see her smile an' I miss her
An' it's another mornin' on another mountain September
An' I'm alone
Yeah, we climbed the mountain together, an' we stood on top a' the world. But now I gotta try to remember it all... alone.
The Legend-News is Copyright 2001 TechRen Enterprises. "Hey, who would've thought that William Shatner could sing?" Thanks to Bill Fries and Chip Davis for the words and music.