Though he had a long, distinguished career in country music, singer/songwriter and guitarist Red Sovine is best remembered for his earnest, funny, and at times highly sentimental recitations that took the cab of an over-the-road truck for their settings. Born Woodrow Wilson Sovine into an impoverished family in Charleston, WV, he was inspired as a child by WCHS radio musicians Buddy Starcher and Frank Welling. Sovine and his childhood friend Johnnie Bailes joined Jim Pike's Carolina Tar Heels and performed as "Smiley and Red, the Singing Sailors." They appeared briefly on the powerhouse WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, but Sovine returned to Charleston to get married and took a factory job. He continued to sing on Charleston radio, but his friend Johnnie went on to greater renown as one half of the Bailes Brothers.
Bailes continued to encourage Sovine's efforts, however, and in 1947 he assembled a band called the Echo Valley Boys. After a year of performing in West Virginia Sovine moved to Shreveport, LA, where the Bailes Brothers were performing on KWKH. Sovine's own early morning show snared few listeners, but among his stagemates on the station's Louisiana Hayride show was Hank Williams, who steered Sovine toward a better time slot at WFSA in Montgomery, AL, and toward a contract with MGM Records in 1949. Over the next four years he recorded 28 singles, mostly following in Williams' honky tonk footsteps, that didn't make much of a dent on the charts but did establish him as a solid performer.
Sovine continued to perform on the Hayride and made another valuable friend in fellow performer Webb Pierce, who in the early '50s was just at the beginning of a long string of Top Ten country hits. Pierce convinced Sovine to lead his Wondering Boys band and helped him along toward a contract with Decca in 1954. The following year Sovine cut a duet with Goldie Hill, "Are You Mine?," which peaked in the Top 15, and in 1956 he had his first number one hit when he duetted with Pierce on a cover of George Jones' "Why Baby Why." Sovine had two other Top Five singles that year and joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. After recording close to 50 sides with Decca by 1959, Sovine signed to Starday and began touring the club circuit as a solo act. In Montana in 1963 Sovine passed on the helping hand given him by older performers when he heard the singing of African-American minor-league baseball player Charley Pride and suggested that he move to Nashville. Sovine opened doors for Pride at Pierce's Cedarwood publishing house, but his own career hit a lull. "Dream House for Sale," which reached number 22 in 1964, came nearly eight years after his last hit.
The genre of the spoken word truck driving song dated back to the late '40s, and Starday featured several specialists on its own roster, but it took several albums before Sovine's emotive baritone voice was paired with trucker material. In 1965, Sovine at last found his niche when he recorded "Giddy-Up Go," which, like most of his other trucker hits, was co-written (with Tommy Hill) by Sovine himself. That story of a father-son truck-stop reunion spent six weeks atop the country charts and even crossed over to become a minor pop hit. Subsequent truck driving hits included the ghost story "Phantom 309" and a tearjerker tale of a disabled child's CB-radio relationship with caring truckers, "Teddy Bear." The last-named song became Sovine's biggest hit since "Giddy-Up Go," spending three weeks at the top of the country charts in 1976 and reaching number 40 on the pop charts. Sovine followed up "Teddy Bear" with "Little Joe," a tale of a blinded trucker and his devoted canine friend which became his last big hit. Sovine died in 1980 after suffering a heart attack while driving his van. ~ James Manheim