It wasn't so long ago, of course, that John Schneider was the epitome of country macho, hightailing in and out the window of a 1969 Dodge Charger, outrunning dimwitted lawmen as good ol' cousin Bo Duke on TV's The Dukes of Hazzard series. Dukes, bumped from the CBS lineup after last season, was the kind of comedy show that made Three's Company sound like Chekhov. Nevertheless it was a prime-time favorite for seven seasons and eventually earned Schneider more than $1 million a year.
When the series succumbed, Schneider took the path of least resistance—from TV star to country music wanna-be-a-star. Sporting a buckskin coat and a new beard, he has spent the summer on the corn-dog circuit—country fairs, festivals and rodeos. The comforts of his 14-room Studio City home have been replaced by an endless stream of hotel rooms and airport restaurants, and life on the road with his six-man band has left him "just about breaking even" on the concert trail.
Still, Schneider's move to music looks like a shrewd one. He has scored two No. 1 country hits and now has another (I'm Gonna Leave You Tomorrow) racing up the charts. And he has won over a jury of his peers, the tightly knit Nashville music establishment. "John doesn't sound like an actor trying to sing," says Waylon Jennings, the Dukes' balladeer who wrote and sang the show's theme song. "He's got country soul. I think he's going to be a major force because he's got all the right ingredients: enthusiasm, love for what he's doing and talent." Says Dottie West, who invited John to sing on a recent LP: "He's one of us." Indeed, Schneider was among the five nominees for the Country Music Association Horizon Award for the performer who has made the biggest impact in country music this year.
The down-home flavor of Dukes has no doubt helped. With the show still running daily in most regions, his concerts have been a big draw. And maybe Schneider's always been shrewder than folks realized. Born in Mount Kisco, N.Y. and transplanted to Atlanta when he was 14, he graduated from high school a year early. In 1977 the precocious 17-year-old heard that The Dukes of Hazzard producers were casting for authentic country characters, so "I played it to the hilt." For his Dukes audition he "borrowed a dilapidated pickup truck, put on a big ol' country accent and funky hat. I hadn't shaved and went in toting a beer. I don't know whether they believed it or not, but they liked it."
So did everyone else. Dukes was among TV's Top 10 from 1979 through 1982 and spawned the manufacture of millions of dollars worth of Dukes merchandise—"more than Barbie and Ken," Schneider says proudly. In fact, in June 1982, a tangle of legal suits with the producers over the distribution of merchandising royalties sent Schneider and co-star Tom Wopat stalking off the show for most of a season. They returned to their roles in February 1983, only after their claims were satisfied.
By then Schneider had already made a real stab at singing. "I didn't want my career to begin and end with the show, so I began doing TV movies and got a record contract." He chalked up a Top 5 country hit with Elvis' It's Now or Never—and followed with four albums that went nowhere. On the Dukes set he began getting chummy with guest stars like Waylon, Dottie and Loretta Lynn, all of whom encouraged him to move closer to traditional country and away from the slicked-up productions he'd been turning out. Schneider scrapped the strained tenor voice he used on his early LPs and dropped down to his naturally rich baritone. His next single, I've Been Around Enough To Know, went No. 1 in fewer than 15 weeks.
With his Dukes residuals still rolling in, Schneider has launched his own production company and arranged a development contract with Warner Bros, for two scripts he has written. One is a Western called Seven Ways From Sunday, which he will star in and direct this fall in Argentina. He also owns 850 acres of Utah forest land that he hopes to subdivide soon and sell "to conservation-minded people."
The only dark spot on his horizon seems to be at home: His two-year marriage to Tawny Little, Miss America of 1976, has ground to a halt. Little has abandoned her $200,000-a-year TV anchor job in L.A. in favor of acting, and recently guest starred on NBC's new series Misfits of Science. "I think our timing was just off. There's been lots of things going on in both our careers, but there's also been tremendous financial burdens to get over," says Schneider, alluding to some back tax problems with the IRS. "I had a manager who filed but never paid."
Not to worry. With a new LP due this fall and his starring role in the Roger Corman drug flick, Fine White Line, scheduled to hit the screen in November, Schneider's career seems to be popping. His mother, now divorced, runs a fan club for her son that draws 1,200 letters each month. Though the former hunk o' bumpkin hopes one day to divide his time between movies and singing, his chief goal now is finding a permanent niche in country music. "This is the part of my career that I look at for the long haul," he says, inspired, perhaps, by the Dukes' demise. "My producer says the average career of a male country singer is 30 years. That appeals to me."
Fast getaways are a John Schneider trademark, though today's escape from Knoxville promises to be anything but. The TV-star-turned-country-singer has just finished performing at the Tennessee Valley Fair and at the moment is barricaded in his dressing room. Blocking the two exit doors are several hundred fans—mostly teenage girls—clamoring for a kiss, a touch, an autograph, anything. Schneider knows what to do. Politely shouldering his way through the smaller of the two crowds, he ducks a sea of grasping hands and finally makes his way into a waiting limo. As the gray Caddy starts inching toward safety, he spots a pint-size redhead, about 12, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. "Okay, stop the car," says Schneider firmly, hitting the down button on his power window. Some fans pound the vehicle's hood, others slip notes under the windshield wipers, still more rush for the open window. But Schneider singles out the teary kid, asks her name and quickly signs her autograph book before resuming his flight. "It gets hairier when they're 18 to 25," he says, a good guy trying to pass as a tough guy.