This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Bill Mack found his niche as a disc jockey working the overnight shift on country radio, speaking to long haul truckers as they clocked mile after mile on the lonesome road. They anointed him “the midnight cowboy,” coming through on a signal out of Fort Worth that nearly reached Canada. Often the wives of truckers phoned to say that they loved and missed their husbands, and Mr. Mack would put them on the air.
“He called them family,” said his son, Billy, himself a radio host in Stephenville, Texas.
Mr. Mack knew Elvis and Waylon and Willie. He wrote “Blue,” the song that launched LeAnn Rimes’s career and won him (and her) a Grammy Award. And he reinvented himself on satellite radio in the early 2000s, at the dawn of the medium. He earned a spot in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in the disc jockey category in 1999.
“He was one of the first truly national radio personalities,” said Lon Helton, the publisher of Country Aircheck, a radio trade magazine. “You could drive across state after state after state, without changing the station, and he’d talk to you for six hours every night. Bill Mack became the friend of the trucker. He created that.”
Mr. Mack, who retired from radio in 2011, died of the coronavirus on July 31 in Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Irving, Texas, his son said. He was 91.
Bill Mack Smith was born on June 4, 1929, in the panhandle town of Shamrock, Texas, the oldest of two boys of Irene and Ernest Smith. His father worked in real estate; his mother was a homemaker.
As a boy, fascinated by radio, he landed a cleaning job at the little station in Shamrock that led to a spot on the air. Maybe he saw the gig as a means to an end; he was an aspiring songwriter and singer.
In 1963, he offered “Blue,” an aching ballad about unrequited love, to Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash before she could record it. The song sat for more than 30 years until it was recorded by an 11-year-old LeAnn Rimes, creating an identity for Ms. Rimes as a throwback to Cline.
Mr. Mack worked at stations in Wichita Falls, Texas — “he said that was his university,” his son said — and San Antonio before moving to the overnight slot on WBAP-AM in Fort Worth in 1969, earning his nickname from a trucker in Minnesota who called in. Thanks to his clear channel signal — meaning that no other stations used the same frequency — he reached about half the country.
He interviewed performers on the radio and befriended them. When Mr. Mack’s first child was born, Elvis Presley rode with him to the hospital, his son said.
Mr. Mack raised a daughter with his first wife, Jackie; that marriage ended in divorce. He later married Cynthia Ann Bryson. In addition to his son, from his second marriage, he is survived by his wife; two daughters, Sunday Taft and Misty Ramirez, also from his second marriage; and his brother, Clois Smith.
Mr. Mack was a creature of his medium, and he evolved with it, developing an intimate conversational style and traditionalist playlist for his trucker audience, who often resisted musical trends. Even when AM radio became all talk, he maintained his music show. And when he jumped to XM in 2001, he took advantage of the medium’s looser rules to throw some Bruce Springsteen into the mix.
But the truckers stayed with him, his son said. “One time I had flat tire by the side of the road,” Billy Mack said. He phoned his father. “My dad shared it on the radio. About 12 truck drivers in Fort Worth called in and said they were willing to come help me.
“That’s the kind of bond he had with them.”