My song today is ‘Copperhead Road’. This song was written and recorded by American country music artist, Steve Earle. It was released in 1988 as the first single and title track from his third studio album of the same name. The song reached Number 10 on the U.S. Billboard ‘Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart’ and was Earle's highest-peaking song to date in the United States.
The song's narrator is named John Lee Pettimore III, whose father and grandfather were both active in moonshine making and bootlegging in rural Johnson County in Tennessee. Pettimore's grandfather visited town only rarely, in order to buy supplies for a still he had set up in a hollow along Copperhead Road. Pettimore's father hauled the moonshine to Knoxville each week in an old police cruiser he bought at a surplus auction. According to a family story, a ‘Revenue Man’ once confronted John Sr. on Copperhead Road, intent on apprehending him for his moonshine activities, but never returned. John Jr. himself was killed in a fiery car crash on the same road while driving to Knoxville with a weekly shipment.
Pettimore enlists in the Army on his birthday, believing he will soon be drafted, and serves two tours of duty in Vietnam. Once he returns home, he decides to use the Copperhead Road land to grow marijuana, using seeds from Colombia and Mexico. He resolves not to be caught by the DEA and sets up booby traps similar to those employed by the Viet Cong.
Copperhead Road was an actual road near Mountain City in Tennessee. It runs through an area once known to locals as ‘Big Dry Run, although it has since been renamed ‘Copperhead Hollow Road’, owing to the theft of road signs bearing the song's name.
The song also inspired a popular line dance, timed to the same beat, and has been used as the theme music for the ‘Discovery Channel’ reality series called ‘Moonshiners’.
When I lived in Canada for two years from 1964-65, I worked in an hotel in Toronto called the ‘Glenview Terrace’. I was employed as a Desk Clerk at the hotel, and I worked alternate weeks on night shifts and day shifts. The hotel was the only hotel uptown in Toronto that was in a ‘dry area’. This was a part of the city where it was illegal to sell or buy alcohol. Our hotel was also the nearest to the airport and each time that either fog, snow or ice prevented the planes taking off (which occurred around six times a year), all the air passengers flying to the States and other countries out of Toronto would fill up every one of the hotel’s hundred-plus rooms.
Ron earned $1 an hour wage on the night shift as a Bell Hop (the man or boy who carried the cases of hotel residents to their rooms and dealt with their many requests), plus tips. I earned $1 and 75 cents an hour wages on the night shift, having a more responsible position as ‘chief welcomer’ to all hotel guests and fixer of their complaints. I was paid almost twice as much wage as Ron was by the hotel management, and at the end of the night, I would have earned the magnificent sum of $14 to Ron’s nightly wage of $8 plus a few dollars in tips for showing hotel guests to their rooms. Yet, although Ron was paid only $8 per night shift, he could easily pull in an extra $50 or $60 each time Toronto Airport had a foggy, snowy or icy night that produced hundreds of stranded passengers booking into the ‘Glenview Terrace’.
I was aged 21 at the time and Ron was in his mid-fifties. He had been married three times and was a ‘part-time’ alcoholic and a full-time gambling addict. Ron also held down a part-time day-time job in addition to his 8 hours nightly in the hotel. He had been brought up in ‘moonshine country’ and although he never had a proper education and couldn’t read the first page of a child’s book, he could read a bookmaker’s betting slip besides being able to accurately calculate his winnings on a multiple horse bet (minus the tax).
There are no prizes for guessing how Ron made up his additional income at the hotel we worked at. He would use up hundreds of dollars as an investment buying up bottles of the most popular alcohol and spirits (during one of his dry periods when he abstained from the hard stuff). Then, on fogbound nights when all the flights were grounded and we found ourselves full to the brim at the ‘Glenview Terrace’, when hotel clients discovered that the ‘Glenview Terrace Hotel’ was the only hotel in Toronto in a dry area of the city, what do you think they did?
Instead of going three or four miles to downtown Toronto to find themselves a bottle of alcohol or a woman for the night, they’d ask Ron if he could arrange such contraband on their behalf. Despite risking prison if he was found out, Ron had enough contacts to supply both booze or broads (an American term for a loose woman) at the end of a phone call. The amount or type of liquor mattered not; whatever the customer wanted Ron supplied; all at a greatly inflated price of course! While all the bottled whiskey, rye, and bourbon was the genuine stuff and wasn’t of the moonshine variety that Ron grew up around, Ron made an additional profit by the judicious watering down of his sales or the removal of a thimble full amount from each bottleneck, before re-bottling. No customer was ever the wiser to Ron’s inventiveness and I never learned of his illegal activities taking place on my watch during my first six months in the job, working alongside Ron nightly.
Ron was one of those alcoholics who would have periods of complete abstinence followed by a month of absolute drunkenness, drinking non-stop. During his dry spells, instead of drinking whiskey, he would sell it exclusively to hotel residents; watering it down to increase his profit margin. For a couple of months, Ron would work extra shifts at the hotel and build up a kitty of $1000. Once he had his $1000 kitty, he would put it all on one horse to win. If the horse lost, he would stay off the alcohol until he’d built up another $1000 gambling stake, but when his horse won, Ron would drink and celebrate for the next month until his drink and money had run out.
When Ron won on the horses, he always won big. He would finish out his week at work and then fill his station wagon up with crates of booze and go out into the wilds where he would drink himself silly and fish all day at a favourite spot. At night, Ron would drink himself to sleep under the stars and remember the deceased love of his life. He would stay off work until all his money and booze had run out. Then, he’d return to work and go back on the wagon while he built up another $1000 horse betting stake. I don’t know how he got away with this working pattern, but the hotel management never complained to me whenever he was absent from his employment.
Ron once told me that he met the second of his three wives while out in the wilds where he did his fishing. She seemingly was his soul mate; the one wife he loved. She was a woman who sadly died after she’d adopted the alcoholic lifestyle of Ron during the early years of their marriage. He even said that the very first time he saw her, she was bathing nude in a river stream, standing between the river boulders as she splashed the cool water over her head and breasts. Ron thought she would instantly take fright and run away as soon as she realised that she wasn’t alone, but added that instead, she simply started wiping herself down inside a towel as the couple continued to introduced themselves to each other. I got the impression that Ron’s boozing and unusual pattern of life was largely due to him still grieving his wife’s loss, especially as he would always return to the exact area they first met during his drinking and fishing month away from his hotel work when he won on the horses.
Although it was almost 55 years ago since I worked alongside Ron and it was less than one month ago when I first heard the ‘Copperhead Road’ song I sing for you today, the words of the song immediately reminded me of him and the moonshining background which Ron grew up in, and the bootlegging practices he continued within the ‘Glenview Terrace Hotel’ as I watched on nearby at the reception desk; unsuspectingly.
Ron was, without a doubt, the highest-earning Bell Hop ever to come out of the Canadian and American backwater. He was the kindest and most sociable of souls and during the short time I knew him, I grew to love him dearly. God bless you Ron. Given our thirty-year age difference, I guess that by the time your kidney function ran out on you, your horses were still running.
Do you know, if I possessed a wealth of such enormity that I could give away a £million here and a £million there without batting an eyelid, one of the things I would most certainly do is to pay for the exhumation of Ron's body, and the body of the wife he loved, and have both corpses flown to the riverside spot they first met in the wilds. There, in their special place, I would arrange to have hem buried together between the river boulders where the water and the fish could splash over them for eternity.
Love and peace Bill xxx