Image: Ben Thomson
Prime Movers, a compilation of songs recorded before Slim Dusty's death in 2003, crams 20 of the country music legend's most recognized trucking anthems - from the mournful “Names Upon The Wall” to the feministic “The Lady is a Truckie” - into the front cab and rumbles out onto the highway .
Slim’s music is a defining feature of many truckies’ working lives. Phillip, a truck driver from Queensland who has spent more than 40 years on Australian highways, told me “If I had a dollar for every mile I did listening to Slim, I could pay off the national debt.”
David, another Queenslander truckie, told me that “Slim had a way of putting meaning into vocals in a way no one else could. Maybe because he lived his life on the road touring as we live our lives on the road and had an empathy for us truckies.”
Having never actually thought of Slim Dusty as anything other than an Anglo-Australian nationalist meme, I installed the album onto my phone, assuming I’d only listen to it long enough to think of something mean to say. No. In fact, I am an asshole and Slim Dusty is fucken incredible.
Musically, this compilation is a fantastic amalgam of cultural contradictions, blending Banjo Paterson style Aussie folk ballad lyrics with hokey rock and roll licks, all overlaid with searing bluegrass strings and thundering banjo rolls. Slim’s voice rings through the speakers like an Auscore Willie Nelson.
Listening to this album, I began to see why Tanya, who is herself both a truckie and the matriarch of a family of truckies in WA, told me Slim’s “music and lyrics are all that we are as Australians.” The songs romanticize the truckie experience, focussing on the freedom, honour and community tradition of life on the road.
In “Trucks Tarps and Trailers”, Slim sings “Next week I'll get the pension, but that won't compensate/That feeling of contentment, when the trucks all congregate.” In “Long Black Road”, Slim tells us “You can have your city mansions, swimming pools and gardens big/Australia is my playground and my mansion this old rig/It’s the kind of life we choose/And become addicted to.”
It’s these idealised moments of hardship and glory that define Slim’s trucking songs. The songs are vaguely marxist in their absolute veneration of worker’s stoicism, while still being totally apolitical in their absolute blindness to any structural disadvantage that might impede on the lives of these workers.
In “Pushin’ Time”, Slim sings, “there’s black tar underneath me and blue sky overhead/and while there’s one more load to fill I’m pushin’ till I’m dead.” David, who’s been trucking in NSW for nearly 30 years, told me that this song is actually a relic of the old days, before a lot of important oversight bodies were introduced into the trucking industry. Back then, David said, “drug use was common. You were expected drive 800-1000 kilometres overnight every night. No excuses for being late.”
Looking back at these dark days, when “drivers who couldn't or wouldn't run the times were told 'do it or someone else will,’” David seemed to lament how softer working conditions are producing a different kind of truckie. He says that truckies today “aren't interested in learning 'roadcraft' like we used to have too,” he said he felt like “we have lost a lot.”
Jimmy, a laborer cum truckie from NSW, assured me that truck driving is “definitely not a job for sooks” and it never will be. Slim Dusty’s trucking anthems definitely aren’t songs for sooks either. Slim sung about self determination, pride and individual liberty, in an environment where people were pushed to dangerous limits and found meaning in a life lived on the edge of bankruptcy or a fatal crash.
Two incontrovertible truths I've uncovered about truckies are firstly that they all love Slim; and secondly there isn’t a lot else they agree on. Everywhere I looked, I found different takes on the Transport Workers Union, different ideas about vehicular safety and what conditions were safe (or necessary) to drive in. Slim’s music has the ability to speak to this house divided by promulgating an unarguable sense of fairness, community and tradition, without having to worry about the politics of it all.
If there is one, the political message of Slim Dusty’s music is simply, “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Listening to Slim feels like sliding into a utopian tradie’s paradise, where hard work is its own reward and working women are the total equals of their male counterparts. It’s classic Australian pastoral poetry, played out in tales of big-rigs and jammed axles. Listening to these songs feels like a long conversation about the good old days with your truckie grandfather—just with all the amphetamine use left out.
‘Prime Movers’ is available July 15 through EMI.
Peter is a Melbourne writer. Follow him @leigh_sales1