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Red Simpson (March 6, 1934 - January 8, 2016)
Bakersfield Sound Pioneer Red Simpson Passes On, But Leaves a Mighty Legacy Behind
by Scott B. Bomar
Red Simpson died in Bakersfield, California on Friday afternoon, January 8th. The singer and songwriter, best known for his trucking-themed Capitol recordings in the 1960s and 70s, had been recuperating at home after a hospitalization due to a heart attack shortly before Christmas. He was 81 years old.
Known as the Bard of Bakersfield, fellow hometown legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard recorded a combined total of more than 40 Simpson originals, including the Top 10 hits “Gonna Have Love,” “Sam’s Place,” and “Kansas City Song.” Additionally, Red penned perennial standards, such as “Close Up the Honky Tonks” and “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go.” Along the way, he racked up an impressive list of performers who recorded his songs, including Johnny Paycheck, Wanda Jackson, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Dave Dudley, Roy Clark, Roseanne Cash, Steve Wariner, Lucinda Williams, Alan Jackson, Candi Staton, Dwight Yoakam, and many more.
As an artist, Red released a total of seven albums for the Capitol label. He logged seven charting singles on Billboard’s country rankings, including the Top 40 hits “Roll Truck Roll” and “The Highway Patrol.” He is perhaps best known, however, for “I’m a Truck,” which hit the Top 5 in 1972.
Red was born Joseph Cecil Simpson on March 6, 1934 in Higley, Arizona, the youngest of 12 children. The family migrated to California in search of farming work, settling in the Arvin Migrant Camp on the outskirts of Bakersfield in 1937. By 1939 they’d moved to a small house in an area known as “Little Okie.” When he was 13, Red bought his first guitar for six dollars that he’d earned picking cotton.
In early 1952 he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed on the USS Repose, a hospital ship serving in Korean waters. During his three year stint in the service he taught himself to play fiddle and mandolin on cheap instruments he picked up in Japan. Forming his first group, the Repose Ramblers, while on the ship, Simpson found himself hooked on the idea of pursing a music career.
When he returned to Bakersfield in 1955, Red began writing songs with Bill Woods, who is today regarded as the original godfather of the city’s country music scene. Occasionally Woods would call on Red to sub in for him at his nightly gig at Bakersfield’s storied Blackboard Café. Soon, the guitarist and singer in Woods’ band, a young upstart named Buck Owens, began doing the same.
Simpson soon landed a steady weeknight gig at a club called the Wagon Wheel in Lamont, outside of Bakersfield. Shortly thereafter, Fuzzy Owen, who would go on to discover Merle Haggard, hired Red to work with his band at the Clover Club. Simpson would continue to work day jobs on and off to support his passion for music.
As Simpson’s friendship with Owens grew, the two began writing songs together. “The next thing I knew,” Red recalled years later, “Buck said, 'The Farmer Boys are cuttin' your song on Capitol.' I said ‘Capitol?’ That's when I threw my cotton sack away for good."
The duo recorded “Someone to Love” in 1957. Red would record his own debut single that same year on Bakersfield’s small Tally label, which would go on to launch Merle Haggard’s career the following decade. Red recorded a couple more singles for small labels in 1962 and 1963 while working as a regular club musician and writing songs. Buck Owens recorded “Close Up the Honky Tonks” in 1964. It was soon covered by Charlie Walker as “Close All the Honky Tonks,” which became Simpson’s first Top 20 single as a songwriter. Buck then took Red’s “Gonna Have Love” to the Top 10 the following year.
Simpson played guitar on most of Buck Owens’ recording dates in 1965, including the sessions that produced the hits “Buckaroo” and “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line.” Owens included a Red Simpson song on almost all of the dates, recording 19 of his compositions in that year alone. One of them, “Sam’s Place,” would eventually go on to hit the #1 spot on the Billboard Country Singles chart. It was during this era that Red blossomed as a topical songwriter, contributing six songs to Owens’ first holiday album, Christmas with Buck, and five songs to the Dust on Mother's Bible gospel release.
In late 1965, Capitol’s Country A&R chief, Ken Nelson, decided he wanted to record a theme album of truck driving songs. Nelson maintained for years that Merle Haggard turned the project down, though Haggard has no recollection of it being suggested. Fortunately for him, Red landed the job. The “Roll Truck Roll” single was released in early 1966 with the LP of the same name following shortly after. Simpson opened for Buck Owens at the famed Carnegie Hall concert in March, while his album was making its way up the charts to become a Top 10 success. The liner notes on the back of the LP, credited to Ken Nelson, created a fictional portrait of Simpson, noting, "Ever since he climbed into a trailer cabin and started steering for destinations everywhere, Red has been singing and composing 'songs of the road.'" In reality, Simpaon had never driven a big rig in his life.
Three more albums followed for Capitol, including the law-enforcement-themed Man Behind the Badge, a second trucker album called Truck Drivin’ Fool, and A Bakersfield Dozen. Though the least commercially successful, the latter stands out as Simpson’s finest work beyond the trucker-themed anthems.
In 1968 Red was dropped from the Capitol label. He moved from Bakersfield to the Los Angeles area to concentrate on songwriting. He had titles recorded by Ferlin Husky, Wynn Stewart, and Buck Owens, who made “Kansas City Song” a major hit in 1970. Meanwhile, Red had been opening shows and playing sessions with Merle Haggard, who recorded a couple of Simpson originals on his 1969 album Pride in What I Am. Red also played guitar on Haggard’s classic live LP, Okie From Muskogee.
In 1971 Simpson hooked up with producer Gene Breeden and recorded “I’m a Truck” at Breeden’s studio in Vancouver, Washington. Originally released on his own Portland label, Gene soon leased the recording to Capitol, who re-signed Red to a new deal in the fall of 1972. “I’m a Truck” went to #1 in Record World magazine. Cashbox magazine named him the most promising artist of the year, and the Academy of Country Music nominated him as Most Promising Male Vocalist for that year.
After a couple more releases, including a memorable Christmas-themed trucking album called Truckin’ Trees for Christmas, Red left Capitol again in 1974. He played the Grand Ole Opry a half dozen times between 1972 and 1974, but never considered relocating to Nashville. California was in his blood.
Simpson released several more singles for Portland Records in the mid to late-1970s. One was picked up by Warner Bros., and one was leased to K.E.Y. Records in Nashville. Both hit the singles chart, but Simpson didn’t chart again as an artist after 1979. He did a series of singles for various labels in the early 1980s and also made a handful of mostly forgettable budget albums in that era.
By then, Red was back in Bakersfield. He retired from the road in 1984, but not before writing and recording the fantastic “Lucky Ol’ Colorado,” which was later recorded by Merle Haggard. That same year, he married his third wife, Joyce, with whom he shared the remainder of his life.
Simpson settled into his role as a local legend and elder statesman of the Bakersfield Sound, eventually taking on weekly gigs at Trout’s nightclub and the Rasmussen Senior Center. His life as a local picker was chronicled in Merle Haggard’s 1990 song “A Bar in Bakersfield,” which he wrote about Simpson.
In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in classic trucking songs. In 1993 Curb Records released Junior Brown's Guit With It album, featuring “Highway Patrol.” Brown's recording of the song appeared on the Billboard chart in 1995. A devotee of trucking music and a serious Simpson fan, Brown invited Simpson to Texas where they recorded two duets. “Semi-Crazy” became the title track to Brown's well reviewed 1996 album. Their remake of “Nitro Express” appeared on Rig Rock Deluxe, a newly recorded compilation that helped spark a revival in trucking music by presenting younger admirers like Marty Stuart, Steve Earle, BR5-49, and Son Volt alongside legends such as Red, Kay Adams, Del Reeves, and Buck Owens. Red’s trucking songs continued to appear into the new millennium, including Canadian country superstar Paul Brandt’s 2010 single version of “The Highway Patrol.”
Bob Dylan once called Red Simpson “the forgotten man of the Bakersfield Sound.” That was before Bear Family Records released their definitive 5 CD box set retrospective of Simpson’s career in early 2012, which preserved his recordings and presented the story of his life and career in the accompanying 108 page hardback book. Later that year, Red was at the center of the festivities when Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum launched an elaborate special exhibition, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country. At the time of his death, Simpson had just completed a brand new CD called Soda Pops and Saturdays. Though Red is gone, his contributions to the Bakersfield Sound and country music’s trucking subgenre will not be forgotten. Nor will the “very generous and kind” spirit, as Buck Owens once described it, of the man Merle Haggard lovingly dubbed a “hillbilly hippie.”
Scott B. Bomar January 15, 2016
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