Tony Justice lives a two-lane life.
On a Thursday in mid-September, he delivered a load of peanut butter in Little Rock, AR, and was a little disappointed no one offered him a sample for the road. On Friday, he was in Joplin, MO, picking up an award for his contributions to the trucking industry and for the example he sets in doing so.
On Saturday, when many truckers are trying to unwind, he spent the day signing autographs and posing for selfies with fans before closing out the Guilty By Association Truck Show (GBATS) with a concert on historic Route 66.
On Sunday, he organized a convoy of trucks driven by military veterans for the video of an upcoming release, “Stars, Stripes, and White Lines.”
Come Monday, bright and early, he was checking in with dispatch and back out on the road—not in a fancy tour bus with his name on the side, but in his 2007 Peterbilt 379 with the big block letters “ETI” and a DOT number on the door. Just another 2,500-mi. week.
His ability to keep both his trucking and music careers moving ahead—and being relentlessly realistic and optimistic at the same time—is why we’ve named Justice American Trucker magazine’s 2016 “Trucker of the Year.”
There’s no formal process for picking our winner; no checklist or scoring system or essay contest. But some folks just stand out, and Justice, 45, is among the many outstanding men and women we’ve met on the asphalt, in the fuel line, or at the lunch counter this year. He’s at once representative and exceptional. And for truckers who might not be familiar with him as a performer known for the CDs “On the Road,” “Brothers of the Highway,” and “Apple Pie Moonshine,” or for fans who don’t know much about his day job, allow us to introduce both.
“Whatever we make on the music, we keep it in the music to keep it going. Each CD helps pay for the next one. But to support my family, I drive a truck,” Justice says. “It’s a great marketing tool too—much better than anything we could pay for. It keeps me with the people buying my CDs: Not only do they feel like they can relate to me, they know I can relate back. That’s a unique situation for any artist or athlete and his fans. It works out,” he pauses, “as long I stay upright.”
Indeed, that relatability is a big part of his growing success, explains Bryan Martin, owner of 4 State Trucks and Chrome Shop Mafia.
“Any trucking scenario that can be pitched at him, he’s been there, he’s done that,” Martin says. “Anything pertaining to the job, he’s lived it and breathed it. But he’s real personable. He may play in front of six or seven thousand people, but you can walk up to him at a truck stop café and talk to him about what you’re hauling and where you’re headed, or about an argument with your wife. He’s approachable.”
Photo: Gary Woods
LONG ROAD TO OVERNIGHT SUCCESS
That relationship with fans was evident at GBATS, where Justice, his wife Misty, and mother Sharon were on hand with a booth stocked with his CDs and other music business “merch.” (Justice lined up sponsors to underwrite the weekend so that the Martin family wouldn’t have to cut into the truck show budget, meaning more of the proceeds would go to Special Olympics.)
Standing on the asphalt in the hot, late-summer sun, Justice took time with each and every person—men and women, young and old—and listened to stories of how his music had touched them. Along with his talent, it seems that everywhere Justice goes he connects with people. And some of those people are in positions to help advance his music career.
“I think everybody sees the potential,” Martin continues. “Is the world full of 10,000 country music singers that all have amazing potential? Yes—and it has been that way forever. But Tony’s momentum and ability as a singer and a songwriter mean he’s rubbing elbows with people like George Strait. It’s just like we have to network at a truck show, he’s networking in the music industry. Every connection is just one more piece of the puzzle.”
Martin points out that overnight success actually comes after 10 or 15 years of hard work, and he sees Justice on that path.
“It’s a tough deal; not only to persevere and navigate through it, but to be upbeat and energetic is another thing to Tony’s credit,” he says. “I’m sure he’d love to be in front of an audience more, but he’s got to truck and provide for his family—to keep a job and benefits. Those are real day-to-day concerns for most of us, Tony Justice included. But he’s diggin’ and drivin’. It’s a long, hard trail to be a singer, and to be a successful trucker too. To try to do both, it’s really demanding.”
Martin honored Justice at GBATS with the Larry Martin Memorial Award, an annual recognition named for his father and the founder of 4 State Trucks, given to a long-time trucker who’s worked hard and shown a commitment to family values.
In presenting the award, Martin praised Justice for emphasizing the tremendous responsibility that comes with driving a truck, and used Justice’s own words of advice to young truckers: “Be true to old-school values, do your job and do it well. Don’t fall into the trap of modern ignorance and carelessness. Pay attention, work hard and do it right the first time.”
He also recognized Justice for his placing a lot of importance on seeing his family grow strong in their Christian faith, for being a man of his word, and for working hard and doing whatever it takes to “get the job done.”
Martin became acquainted with Justice through the course of doing business in the trucking industry. He has since become one of Justice’s biggest fans and supporters, sponsoring various appearances and the “Brothers of the Highway” video with Aaron Tippin.
“As we worked together, we became friends and shared some thoughts and ideas—visions for where we could take this and what we wanted to get done,” Martin says. “We just wanted to scheme and dream and think outside the box a little bit about his music and how it pertains to the industry—ways to make trucking better.”
ROOTS RUN DEEP
While Justice’s double-dream career is certainly based on passion and commitment, he comes to it naturally. Born and reared in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, he grew up around mines and trucks: His father and five uncles each hauled coal.
“As a kid, I don’t know if there’s any bigger hero than your dad. And my heroes have always been truck drivers,” Justice says.
And his mother Sharon is, you guessed it, an “amazing” singer and piano player who led her own gospel group. Still his biggest influence in music, she invited 7-year-old Tony to join the band when he was hardly big enough to hold the bass guitar. But Justice had to wait a bit before he could truck, going over-the-road full time in 2000 after spending the 1990s getting his musical career off the ground.
And like many successful truckers, Justice emphasizes that he couldn’t make it on the road—whether trucking or performing—without a lot of support at home. He met Misty in 2011.
“I’ve been working on music for 27 years, and it’s really gotten traction in the last five-and-half years,” he says. “If you do the math, that’s exactly how long Misty’s been in my life, keeping the music going. Her encouragement gives me confidence. It’s a huge testimony to her influence. She’s very, very smart and has tremendous work ethic. She doesn’t take no for an answer.”
His list of sponsors is long (“I couldn’t do this without them,” he says.) and he’s especially grateful for his relationship with Greeneville, TN-based Everhart Transportation.
“They just bend over backwards not only to support me, but also to encourage me,” Justice says. “If I have to have the truck tied up for three or four days to be at a show, they don’t say a word about it.”
MUSIC, TRUCKING MERGE
For his next single, “Stars, Stripes, and White Lines,” Justice is working on a three-pronged release plan on Memorial Day that he’d rather not publicize because it hasn’t all been finalized—and which American Trucker doesn’t want to jinx—but let’s just say that it involves a social media blitz, a country music star and a really big event.
If you catch him at the right time, and he’s got his little wireless speaker with him, he might let you hear the song. The chorus goes something like this:
A big part of the music video will be the veterans Justice and Martin recruited at the Joplin truck show. Chris Fiffie of Big Rig Videos will produce and direct, and on an overcast Sunday morning he went over the rules of the road with the dozen or so drivers who would convoy south on I-49, with formation instructions coming over the CB from Fiffie in his camera-laden chase car.
But not before Justice led the group in prayer.
“The most exciting part for me is the veterans and drivers who are in the video,” Justice says. “It’s about putting them in the spotlight. It’s not about me, it’s about those who served our country and fought for freedoms who are now sacrificing once again to keep America rolling.”
Justice is quick to admit it’s the truckers and fans who keep him rolling.
“I get messages all the time on my Facebook account saying, ‘Tony, I don’t know if I could’ve made those last two hours to my delivery without your music’—and that’s the biggest compliment I could ever ask for. If my music never achieves anything more, that’s bigger than a number-one hit or any big awards.
“To still play my music, and have all these truck drivers listening to it—they don’t know how much I appreciate them. I wouldn’t be doing this without their support. It’s a mutual feeling of gratitude that goes a long way.”
The last time American Trucker checked in with Justice, he was sitting in a rainy parking lot, keeping an eye on a rig backing into the slot next to his. He was waiting for his delivery window with another load of peanut butter.
And the people at the receiving dock probably had no idea that the tall trucker, in boots and a cowboy hat, is a star on two different stages. To say nothing of being our Trucker of the Year.
(Editor’s note: The CDs by Tony Justice are now carried by major truck stop chains, as well as online music download services. Or check out his website: tonyjusticemusic.com.)