Remembering the ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Radio legend Bill Mack was an advocate for the trucking industry.

October 2020

Wendy Parker

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It gets lonely on the road sometimes, especially in the wee hours of the morning. There’s not a driver out there who’s been at it for more than a minute that didn’t wish for someone to talk to them to keep them alert during the lull between 3 a.m. and sunrise.

Of course, nowadays there are cellphones with earpieces and headsets and geegaws that allow drivers to make a nearly instant telephone call when they’re feeling blue, or need to hear a friendly voice to occupy the time and keep them awake.

When Bill Mack started his radio career, that wasn’t the case.

Mack began what would become a radio legacy in 1969 at WBAP, a clear-channel AM radio station out of Fort Worth, Texas. The overnight country music show soon became a favorite of long-haul drivers rolling on when most people were tucked in bed sleeping.

Legend has it that Mack got the “Midnight Cowboy” handle from a driver who called in. Mind you, this was back in the day when a driver would have to pull over at a place with a pay phone, find change to use the pay phone, and stand still while making the call.

Whether you knew it as “The Country Roads Show,” “U.S. 1 Trucking Show” or “Midnight Cowboy Trucking Show,” there was never a doubt that Mack was a friend of the truckers. Described as “the consummate host,” Mack was also a Grammy-winning song writer and someone who never met a stranger.

The passing of a legend

The trucking community and radio airwaves lost one of the greats on July 31, when Bill Mack passed away from COVID-19. He was 91. Mack’s accomplishments also include winning a Grammy after penning the song “Blue,” which was made famous by LeAnn Rimes in 1996. He also had songs recorded by such country music legends as George Strait, George Jones, Ray Price and Jerry Lee Lewis. Mack is in the  Country Music DJ and Radio Hall of Fame.

“He passed peacefully, cracking jokes while we were saying goodbye to him,” his son, Billy Mack, told Land Line about his dad’s final hours. “He told us to pull ourselves together, because we were embarrassing him in front of his beautiful nurse. That was just Dad. Always worried about how people around were feeling.”

Mostly, Billy remembers how much the truckers became a part of his own family.

Billy’s memories of his father included more than one time in which he would visit the child of a trucker if he knew they were in the hospital.

“This was before social media – he didn’t do it for publicity – he did things like that because he genuinely cared,” Billy said. “My dad was exactly in real life as he was on the radio. He shared everything.”

Billy remembered a time in which Mack had called him during an airtime break. He had a flat tire, and told his dad about it.

“Of course, as soon as he went back on the air he mentioned me having a flat tire, and, I’m not kidding, there were 10 drivers who called in to see if I needed help,” he said.

Consummate professional

Gracious, humble and a consummate professional are the words Mack’s protégé and eventual replacement used when describing the man.

Eric Harley began his radio career experience with Mack long before they worked together.

“I grew up in Texas. I listened to Bill for years before I ever worked with him,” Harley said.

Harley was working for a rock ‘n’ roll station when he happened to see an advertisement in a trade magazine for an opportunity to work with Mack. Harley was hired as producer for the show, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And it’s a history filled with fond memories.

“I had been listening to Bill for as long as I could remember,” said Harley, “So I was a little star-struck meeting him for the first time. He was honestly the nicest, most-accommodating person I had ever met.”

Formats have changed, but Harley continues to carry the torch of the overnight shift with Red Eye Radio.

Billy Mack says he and the family would love to have an all-out big-time memorial for Mack as soon as all the COVID-19 concerns calm down.

“We’d love to see a big ol’ convoy in Dad’s honor,” he said. “That’s what we envisioned.”

Rest well, Midnight Cowboy. LL

Editor’s note: We’ll continue to follow the progress of the memorial and let you know dates as soon as we do.