He may have come to Ouray as an accidental tourist, but Bill Fries ended his life as a beloved community member and friend.
The rest of the world knew him better as “C.W. McCall,” his stage name under which he became famous for the 1976 No. 1 Billboard hit trucker anthem “Convoy.” But here, in Ouray County, he was Bill.
Bill, the mayor for six years. Bill, the down-to-Earth guy who drove an old M38 Jeep in the Fourth of July parade. Bill, who stopped in at the hardware store for more bird seed. Bill, who you ran into at the post office, like anyone else.
Fries, 93, died April 1 at his home in Ouray, in hospice care. He had been sick with cancer, family members said.
His death left not only his family mourning, but longtime Ouray friends who were fond of the man who had become a treasured community member.
Fries embraced Ouray and Ouray hugged him right back after he stumbled upon the little mountain town that took his breath away.
He and his wife, Rena, their kids and family dog were on a trip to the Grand Canyon and Disneyland – their first trip west of Denver – in 1961. They wanted to drive over the Million Dollar Highway on the way, and they stopped in Ouray for the night. It was cloudy and dark. They couldn’t see much, but camped at the Amphitheater, and woke up blanketed in fresh snow. Fries was mesmerized by the view.
“We walked to the overlook in the amphitheater and I took one look and said, ‘Rena, someday we’ll live here,” he told the Plaindealer back in 1992.
At the time, Fries was an advertising executive in Omaha, Nebraska, using his creativity for campaigns and jingles. He wasn’t famous yet, but specialized in jingles for high-powered national companies. His ad campaign for a bread company led him to create the fictional character, C.W. McCall, a truck driver from Pisgah, Iowa. He told folks he chose C.W. because he liked the way the initials looked, embroidered on a shirt.
The bread commercials made his persona of C.W. McCall famous and won Fries a Clio award, a top international advertising award. The country jingle with his spoken-word narration was so catchy that listeners would call in to radio and TV stations, asking when the commercials were running or request them. The popularity of C.W. McCall and the Old Home Bread commercial led to a recording contract with MGM for Fries. He partnered with Chip Davis, who later went on to found Mannheim Steamroller, to write the music, while Fries wrote the lyrics.
In 1975, their song, “Convoy” became a smash hit, a trucker anthem complete with CB radio. It sold 2 million copies, and Fries went on tour.
By 1977, he’d bought a vacation home here, but he didn’t move to Ouray permanently until the early 1980s.
He later incorporated the emotions he felt about moving here into a show the family produced at the Wright Opera House, “San Juan Odyssey.” He shared the awe of Ouray during the show’s 17-year run.
“We stood here shivering in the early morning chill and not saying a word to each other, but then we didn’t have to, the sight that filled our eyes said it all… A thousand miles to the east, another year of our lives had gone by, but now it was a September morning, high above Ouray and the San Juans of Colorado, and we were…home…”
Fries’ love of the San Juans was a theme of his music, with titles locals would recognize, including “Black Bear Road,” “The Galloping Goose,” “Wolf Creek Pass,” and “The Silverton.”
Many of his songs were also inspired by family stories, including “Classified,” a song about his son buying an old pick up truck. Sure, he took some creative license with the details, but the gist of the lyrics had genuine roots.
“Most of (the songs) were leaning toward truth,” said Sue Fries, his daughter-in-law who lives in Ouray.
After moving to the San Juans permanently, it wasn’t long before Fries decided it was time to give back to the town, to use his influence for good.
He became the town’s biggest cheerleader, organizing fundraisers for various projects, including the renovation of the City Hall facade that was damaged by a fire.
And then he ran for mayor in 1986 and ended up serving three terms.
It wasn’t always easy. Ouray had money problems back then. The pool house burned down during his tenure. The city’s water treatment system needed attention and the city didn’t have funds for infrastructure.
When Fries was sworn in to his position, he lamented that Ouray was unknown by many Coloradans and needed more tourism.
He said he thought most visitors discovered Ouray “by accident, on their way to Disneyland,” the way he did.
At the time, he also raised the question of Ouray needing to determine its identity – whether it was still a mining town despite a lack of mining, and if it should focus on attracting visitors in a particular season. He lamented the city’s financial situation, which didn’t have a clear economic driver at the time besides the defunct mines, and the city’s coffers were dwindling by the end of each year. To help raise funds for city projects, he orchestrated variety shows and parodies, using his creativity to entertain. In one, he convinced the police chief to play the tin man from The Wizard of Oz.
Fries managed to handle his mayoral tenure with a sense of humor and unique perspective.
One time, a constituent complained to the city council about deer in his yard, eating his flowers.
“Bill listened to this for about 15 minutes and eventually he said, ‘Do you want deer in your yard or do you want drive-by shootings?'” longtime Ouray resident Glynn Williams remembers.
Williams also recalls fans of C.W. McCall making pilgrimages here and stopping in the Ouray V&S Variety Store the Williamses ran at the time to inquire about him.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that came in the store and said, ‘Where does C.W. live?’ Of course, no one would tell them,” he said.
The family’s log home, perched high above town on a mountainside, wasn’t exactly accessible. In fact, in 2018, two loose boulders the size of Volkswagens came crashing down the mountain and demolished the Fries’ RV and damaged part of the tram they used to access the house.
Glynn’s wife, Dee, served on the city council with Fries and remembers him fondly.
“The nice thing about Bill was he was super down to Earth,” she said. “Not only that, he was funny. That was such a plus in a mayor.”
She also credits Fries and his family for helping to keep the Wright Opera House going at a time when it could have fallen into further disrepair. It hosted a popular show that even locals went to a few times a year.
The Fries family created a multimedia show called “San Juan Odyssey,” narrated by C.W. McCall’s rich voice, choreographed to music from the London Symphony Orchestra. The show blended photos and video across five screens to give the audience an immersive, panoramic experience, and shared Fries’ love of the area.
“He created an IMAX before it existed,” said his grandson, Eric, who helped run the show with his parents, Mark and Sue, and his brother Ethan into the 1990s.
The boys gave out change for tickets in the box office and helped in the theater. It was a family affair. And Ethan and Eric had a cameo in the show – sitting on logs in mountain scenes.
His grandchildren remember family times at the Fries home, holidays together, watching the Fourth of July water fights from the porch with telescopes so they wouldn’t have any chance of getting wet. They remember the tradition of playing Trivial Pursuit after holiday dinners, when Fries would always answer obscure questions.
“I think he would study the cards,” Ethan said, chuckling. “You’d find a stack of cards in the bathroom.” To the rest of the world, Fries was C.W. McCall, who used the trucker handle “Rubber Duck” from “Convoy.” But to his family, he was the grandpa who had a scale model railroad in the attic, who delighted in having his great-grandkids show him how to use an iPad.
After finishing his third term as mayor and deciding not to run again, McCall largely left public life, preferring to spend time in his cherished mountain community. But he never forgot his fans.
Until the week before his death, his daughter-in-law, Sue, was still bringing fan mail up to the house. Rena read some of it aloud to him at his bedside. He still got a kick out of hearing from teenagers who had discovered his songs by going through their parents and grandparents’ records. He signed a baseball for a child with leukemia and mailed it back.
He valued his fans but also appreciated being able to be a regular guy here in Ouray.
“He knew he was loved here and he could just be him,” Sue said. “He didn’t have to be C.W. McCall.”
In the end, Fries was able to be himself, in his majestic mountains, until he died. Perhaps he said it best himself in the last line of his narration of “San Juan Odyssey.”
“And this is home, too, for one old timer…who said this prayer before he passed on…Lord… On that great day of resurrection… Please let me see Mount Abram, just one more time…
Somehow we know the old man’s prayer will be answered…And long after all of us are gone, our great mountains will still be here pointing their snow-capped spires at the stars…”
“When you see Mt. Abram, that’s his headstone,” said Sue.
A private family celebration of life will be held at a later date.