Red Sovine - Biography
Although country singer Red Sovine is best known for his trucker themed narratives (a wildly successful series of late 1960s/early 1970s hits that earned him the title “King of the Recitations”) his long, colorful career embraced the full spectrum of country music tradition. Whether crooning sentimental “heart songs,” roaring upbeat honky-tonk or dabbling in supercharged rockabilly, Sovine demonstrated a natural gift for emphatic, appealing performances that kept him ranked as substantial force for decades. From his pre-war teenage start in the business to his post-war stardom, Sovine enjoyed alliances with such key artists as the legendary superstar Hank Williams and honky-tonk kingpin Webb Pierce, each of whom played an important role in raising Sovine’s profile. In turn, Sovine himself later went out of his way to boost the career of future African-American country star Charley Pride, doing so at a time when many of his colleagues may have preferred to keep country a closed, all-white enclave. A regular of both KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride and WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, Sovine merits far more attention than the limited recognition his trucking hits brought.
Born Woodrow Wilson Sovine in Charleston, West Virginia on July 17, 1918, his was a hardscrabble upbringing and country music seemed entwined with the boy’s life. Billy Cox, a first cousin once removed, began his recording career in 1929 (and wrote the much covered classics “Filipino Baby” and “Sparkling Brown Eyes”). Sovine’s closest teenage pal was Johnnie Bailes, of the musical Bailes Brothers clan. By the mid-1930s, Sovine and Bailes were trying to break into music and landed jobs with Jim Pike’s Carolina Tarheels. Sovine played on local radio station WCHS first (alongside Little Jimmy Dickens, Molly O’Day and Buddy Starcher) with The Tarheels and subsequently in a duo, the Singing Sailors. Work at Wheeling, West Virginia’s famed country hotbed, WWVA, the pair was unable to get any traction in the marketplace. Sovine was compelled to take a factory job and while he rose through the food chain to a managerial position, he also still did regular broadcasts on a small station in Eleanor, West Virginia. By the late 1940s, Frank Bailes — with his by-then famous siblings — had fared well in country music, even reaching the Grand Ole Opry. The brothers continually encouraged to Sovine to quit the day job and return to music.
It did not take much arm-twisting and in 1948, Sovine picked up his guitar and began broadcasting with the newly formed Echo Valley Boys on an early morning slot at KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Additional bookings, however, were few and far between. Sovine feared it was a case of “too little too late” but another KWKH regular, Hank Williams, stepped in. Williams secured Sovine both a better job at his former radio home base — Montgomery, Alabama’s WFSA — and a contract with MGM Records. Sovine was well received in Montgomery and in early 1949, he began cutting a series of Williams-influenced honky-tonk singles at MGM, none of which made the charts. Sovine returned to Shreveport several months later and was rewarded with better, midday time slot. After the break out success of “Lovesick Blues” earned Williams an offer to join the Opry (which he promptly did), Williams made sure that Sovine would replace him as headliner on the Louisiana Hayride.
Webb Pierce, another Hayride favorite, hired Sovine to front his band, brought him to Nashville and got him a deal with Decca Records. His 1955 duet with Goldie Hill, “Are You Mine?,” jumped into the country charts’ Top Fifteen. The following year, Sovine and Pierce’s rollicking version of George Jones’ “Why Baby Why?” went all the way to number one. The duo’s 1956 follow-up, “Little Rosa,” reached number five, as did the record’s flip side, Sovine’s solo “Hold Everything (Till I Get Home).” With a double-sided hit under his belt, Sovine accepted the Grand Ole Opry’s invitation to join as a regular cast member that year. He soon realized that the Opry’s requirement to appear there every weekend was more liability than asset and he up and quit. Joining the popular all star road show, the Phillip Morris Caravan, Sovine toured relentlessly throughout the remainder of 1950s.
At Decca, he was unable to repeat his earlier chart success and they cut him loose in ‘59. Sovine signed with Starday Records in ‘61 but didn’t produce a hit until 1964’s “Dream House for Sale.” Clearly the singer had not yet found his niche but that would soon change. While the truck driver had appeared in country music as early as 1939, with Ted Daffan’s “Truck Drivers Blues,” it was Dave Dudley’s tough, Benzedrine fueled 1966 hit “Six Days on the Road” that explosively re-invigorated interest in the subject. By December of that year, even the New York Times published an article titled, “Meet a New Folk Hero, the Truck Driver.” Soon, others like Red “The Bard of Bakersfield” Simpson and eye-patch wearing New Englander Dick Curless began cashing in on the craze at Capitol Records, but ultimately it was Sovine’s sentimental recitations that came to dominate — and epitomize — the genre. With his very first trucking song, 1966’s “Giddy-up Go,” Sovine nailed it. The single raced to number one and stayed there an impressive six weeks, even crossing over to the pop chart. His next foray into the genre, “Phantom 309,” easily sailed into the Top Ten.
But it was 1975’s tear-jerker, “Teddy Bear,” that really did it for him. With a CB chattering, bedridden, juvenile invalid as protagonist, the number was maudlin to the point of being corny but resonated powerfully with the record buying public. In the US, it topped the Hot Country charts, reached number forty in the Billboard 100, and topped the charts in the UK. Sovine, after almost forty years in the business, was riding high and the next five years were the most active and rewarding of his career. Audiences gorged on Sovine’s narratives and he cranked out equally sentimental numbers like “Little Joe” (in which a trucker loses his eyesight and seeks solace from faithful canine) and “The Little Family Soldier” (wherein a brave child endures abuse from drunken parents).
While Sovine’s remarkable recorded output — over 300 releases — yielded only a handful of major hits, his golden strain of corn ultimately made him a household name. Sovine kept working the road right up until the end, suffering a heart attack while at the wheel of his van while driving through Nashville on April 4, 1980. Injuries sustained in the ensuing crack-up hastened his death a few days later, supplying a tragic, if weirdly appropriate, coda to Sovine’s long, storied career.