Captivating the Melodies of the Open Road: The Untold Tale of Merle Haggard‘s “Movin’ On”
Renowned country music icon Merle Haggard, known for his soulful and inspired songwriting, found himself facing a remarkable challenge when tasked with creating his 21st chart-topping country hit, “Movin’ On.” It all began when NBC approached him with an intriguing proposition: a brand new television series centered around the thrilling escapades of two truckers crisscrossing the nation, aptly named “Movin’ On.” In an uncharted territory, Haggard was commissioned to craft the perfect theme song, pushing him to adapt his unique songwriting prowess to someone else’s vision.
Accepting the deal, Haggard knew he would face unfamiliar pressures. The show’s executives had already provided him with half of the agreed payment upfront, with the remaining sum hinging upon the successful delivery of the song. Every composer has their own distinct creative process, and Haggard’s method involved taking an original idea, either conceived by him or inspired by a passing comment, and weaving a tapestry of lyrics around it. However, with the television project, Haggard would have to navigate uncharted territory in his songwriting journey.
To gain a glimpse of how he would approach composing this television theme song, Haggard ventured to NBC’s vibrant Burbank studios to witness the pilot episode of “Movin’ On.” Seated beside him in the screening room was the show’s star, the venerable character actor Claude Akins, whose face had graced both the silver screen and television for decades. Akins, an ardent country music enthusiast, held a particular fondness for Merle’s music.
As the two men immersed themselves in the pilot episode, a memory from the past resurfaced in Haggard’s mind. It was the classic hit by Hank Snow from a quarter-century earlier, “I’m Movin’ On.” Although unrelated to the world of truckers that the new television series embraced, Snow’s melody created a minor setback for Haggard. He realized that in order to stay true to the show’s theme, he needed to diverge as far as possible from the earlier song while maintaining the essence of the trucking narrative.
Upon witnessing the first episode, Haggard recognized that his best approach would be to authentically recreate the emotions and characters he experienced on the screen, paying homage to the main protagonists, “Sonny Pruitt” (played by Akins) and “Will Chandler” (played by Frank Converse). In doing so, Merle not only saluted these fictional figures but also extended a heartfelt appreciation to the countless real-life truckers who tirelessly deliver goods across the nation. The resulting record was nothing short of exceptional, showcasing Roy Nichols’ masterful guitar riffs on his Fender Telecaster.
On September 12, 1974, Haggard’s evocative theme made its debut on network television as the series premiered on NBC. Notably, even President Gerald Ford counted himself among the show’s admirers. However, while Merle’s song soared on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart, the program struggled to secure a place within the Nielsen ratings, ultimately making its last appearance on September 14, 1976, after a modest run.
Meanwhile, “Movin’ On,” the song, burst onto the scene on May 24, 1975, swiftly ascending to the coveted #1 position in a mere eight weeks—a remarkable feat for any record. Interestingly, this was not Haggard’s first venture into the realm of visual productions. Prior to this triumph, in 1968, he composed two songs specifically for the movie “Killers Three,” including the film’s theme and the chart-topping “Mama Tried.” Merle even showcased his acting skills in the movie, portraying a dedicated policeman. Two years later, Haggard lent his talents to the John Wayne film “Chisum,” contributing the compelling track “Turn Me Around” to its soundtrack.
The tale behind Merle Haggard’s “Movin’ On” not only encapsulates his extraordinary adaptability as a songwriter but also underscores the power of music to transcend mediums and touch the hearts of millions. This timeless ode to truckers and their unwavering spirit serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of Merle Haggard and his profound impact on the country music landscape.
Artist: Merle Haggard
Album: The Great Merle Haggard Sings
Big wheels rollin’, big wheels rollin’
Big wheels rollin’, gotta keep ’em goin’,
Big wheels rollin’,
The white line is the life line to a nation.
And men like Will and Sonny make it move.
Livin’ like a gypsy, always on the go
Doin’ what they best know how to do.
Jammin’ gears has got to be a fever,
‘Cause men become addicted to the grind.
It takes a special breed to be a truck drivin’ man,
And a steady hand to pull that load behind.
Big wheels rollin’, big wheels rollin’