C.W. McCall celebrates local train, talks about his road to music success

Worked in advertising and then became touring musician

County singer/songwriter C.W. McCall performs with the Bar D Wranglers on Friday afternoon in front of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot. McCall became famous for his song “Convoy,” among others. McCall said he first rode the train in 1961, and this summer will take his great-grandchildren on it. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

County singer/songwriter C.W. McCall performs with the Bar D Wranglers on Friday afternoon in front of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot. McCall became famous for his song “Convoy,” among others. McCall said he first rode the train in 1961, and this summer will take his great-grandchildren on it.

In Durango on Friday to celebrate the opening of summer Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train service to Silverton, local legend William Dale Fries Jr. – better known by his stage name, “C.W. McCall” – dropped by The Durango Herald to share tales from his storied past.

As freshly minted college graduates agonize about their futures, McCall spent Friday afternoon discussing his rich, circuitous career in country music, advertising and local politics – including the times he won a coveted Clio Award, performed on “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson and became mayor of Ouray.

Wearing a neat brown shirt, bolo tie, glasses, full white beard and striped railroad cap, Fries – born in 1928 – reasoned that because he was “born in Iowa, a flatlander, I always dreamed of the mountains – especially the Rockies.”

After working for his local newspaper as a teenager, Fries majored in music and fine arts at the University of Iowa. Upon graduating, he worked at an Omaha, Neb. television station, then as a sign painter.

“All that experience led me to get into advertising,” said Fries.

Fries quickly became art director of Bozell & Jacobs, an advertising agency in Omaha, Neb. When the Metz Baking Co. asked him to design a television campaign for Old Home Bread, he produced an ad that centered on the interaction between a wizened truck driver named “C.W. McCall” and a waitress called “Mavis” at the “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café.”

“These commercials became a huge sensation in Iowa, Missouri – the whole region. When we went to New York City for the Clio Awards, I’ll be damned if we didn’t win the top advertising campaign. We were competing with all these Madison Avenue types – the ‘Mad Men’ of that era. But we beat out Chrysler and Ford.”

The commercial also proved to be the springboard for Fries’ unlikely second career as a best-selling country musician, who toured the country singing songs such as “Wolf Creek Pass,” “Black Bear Road,” and the 1976 No. 1 hit song “Convoy,” which sold more than 2 million copies.

He said that suddenly he was getting calls from Capitol Records and MGM Records about doing an album.

“I wrote a lot of those songs about this area – Durango, Ouray, Silverton – and they caught on around the country. I don’t know why – people just identify with real, homespun stories, I guess,” said Fries, who became mayor of Ouray in 1986 and served for six years.

“You have to be at the right time and the right place with the right stuff – that’s all a matter of chance,” he said. “But people tell me, ‘You’re so lucky,’ and I don’t go along with that. I think you make your own luck.”

cmcallister@durangoherald.com