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Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Red Simpson

Feb 23, 2013

February 23, 2013

Bob Dylan called singer-songwriter Red Simpson “the forgotten man of the Bakersfield Sound.” Apparently not everyone has forgotten him, though, as a packed audience filled the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater to hear Simpson talk about his career and perform a few songs as part of the museum’s quarterly series Poets and Prophets: Legendary Country Songwriters, which honors songwriters who have made an important contribution to country music.

“Without a doubt, Red is one of the most significant songwriters in the development of the Bakersfield Sound and the trucking song sub-genre,” said museum staffer Michael Gray, the program’s host, in introducing Simpson. “Red Simpson is a giant in the field of truck-driving songs. His voice had become a fixture on truckstop jukeboxes and on CB-era trucking compilations.”

As Gray noted, while truck-driving songs help define his public persona, his talent extended much further. His songwriting prowess, especially in supplying songs to Country Music Hall of Fame members Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, led to Simpson becoming known as “the Bard of Bakersfield.”

“He’s really settled into being the elder statesman of the Bakersfield Sound,” Gray said. “He’s a hero in his hometown.”

Indeed, Simpson is considered such an integral part of the story of Bakersfield, a city that served as a major country music hub in the 1950s and 1960s, that he became the first Poet and Prophet honoree to be flown in to Nashville, as the rest all have lived in the region. Simpson’s interview was scheduled so that it coincided with a major museum exhibit, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country.

Simpson performed on the museum’s annual Ford Day, which offers free admission to the public. “We’re really happy to be involved with the Hall of Fame over the years and to be involved as it expands,” said Jim Graham, director of community relations for Ford Motor Company, as the program began. “You’re in a for real treat here.”

Simpson opened the program by performing “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” with guitarist Eugene Moles Jr., a fitting collaboration, as his father, the late Gene Moles, played on many of Simpson’s recordings for Capitol Records. “Close Up the Honky Tonks” was a hit for Buck Owens. Charlie Walker also had a hit with it, under the title “Close All the Honky Tonks.” Others who have recorded it are the Flying Burrito Brothers, Radney Foster, Dwight Yoakam, and many others.

Born in Arizona on March 6, 1934, Joseph “Red” Simpson was three years old when his family moved to Bakersfield, California, to escape the ravages of the Dust Bowl. His father was a farm laborer, and the family lived in a tent in a government camp. The youngest of 12 children—“My mother had a miscarriage right before she had me, so that made me lucky 13,” Simpson said—the determined youngster followed his brother Buster into music. Buster was a guitarist who became part of a band in Bakersfield led by Bill Woods, one of the founding figures in building the city into a force in country music.

Buster introduced his younger brother to Woods, who would help Red learn to play guitar. Later, Red played piano in Woods’s band at the Blackboard Café, the leading Bakersfield honky-tonk at the time

Simpson got his nickname in his youth because of the color of his hair. “Now they call me ‘Whitey,’ or ‘Where Did It Go?’” Simpson said, raising his hat to show the color of his hair cascading around the bald spot on top. It was one of an on-going stream of wisecracks and jokes he offered during the interview, keeping the crowd laughing and the mood light.

Simpson spent time in the U.S. Navy, doing three tours on a medical ship stationed at Incheon, South Korea, at the time known as Inchon. His songwriting career received its first boost when the Farmer Boys recorded “Someone to Love,” a 1957 recording of a song Simpson wrote with Buck Owens. “Went out and bought me a new Cadillac,” Simpson said.

The jovial Simpson became Owens’s traveling companion when Buck rode from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to play guitar on sessions at Capitol Records. Simpson recalled how, on one of his trips to the Capitol studio, he walked down the hallway and happened to hear Tennessee Ernie Ford cutting his signature song, “Sixteen Tons.”

Once Owens became a recording artist, Simpson became a more frequent co-writer. Their formula would be that Simpson would write a song and hand it over to Owens, who would make a few changes to finish the work. “He’s a good song doctor,” Simpson said.

Simpson conceded that some of the songs may have been finished by the time Owens attached his name to it—and took fifty percent of the song publishing royalties. Gray acknowledged that Simpson was grateful to Owens, but also asked if he ever felt bitter for being pressured to give away part of the royalties. “No, I was too dumb,” Simpson said with characteristic self-deprecation.

The first song Owens recorded of Simpson’s was “King of Fools” in 1962. Then came 1964’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” Another big Owens co-write was “Sam’s Place,” which spent three weeks at #1 in 1967. Other Simpson tunes cut by Owens include “The Kansas City Song,” “The Band Keeps Playing On,” “Let the Sad Times Roll On,” “I Want No One but You,” “Someone with No One to Love,” “We Split the Blanket,” and “Heart of Glass.” Simpson also contributed six songs to Owens’s Christmas album, Christmas with Buck Owens, and five to his gospel album, Dust on Mother’s Bible.

Simpson’s other enduring connection as a songwriter was with Merle Haggard, who cut many Simpson songs, including “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” “Lucky Old Colorado,” and “Bill Woods from Bakersfield,” about the man who mentored them both. Haggard also wrote a song about Simpson called “A Bar in Bakersfield.”

Asked to contrast Owens and Haggard about sharing songwriting credits, Simpson said, “Merle is really good to me. Always has been, and still is. Merle was fair, and Buck was Buck. What can you say?”

Simpson repeatedly cracked jokes about Haggard, another way of showing the affection between them. “Merle had a cell number before they had cell phones,” Simpson quipped, a reference to Haggard’s stint in San Quentin prison in California.

Simpson also joked about the day he signed with Capitol Records. Cliffie Stone, a major business figure in the California country scene, called Simpson to say Ken Nelson of Capitol Records wanted to know if Simpson would be interested in cutting trucking songs for the label. Even though L.A. is three-to-four hours from Bakersfield, Simpson responded, “I’ll be there in an hour and half.” Simpson signed with Capitol Records that week and shortly afterward released his first album, Roll Truck Roll, in 1966. “When you get a deal, you got to take it,” he said.

Simpson joined such legendary trucking song figures as Dave Dudley, C.W. McCall, Red Sovine, and Dick Curless as favorites of the genre. His song “I’m a Truck” became a #4 hit on the Billboard country charts and remains a classic of the genre. Other Simpson favorites include “Roll Truck Roll,” “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” “Motivatin’ Man,” “Country Western Truck Drivin’ Singer,” “Awful Lot to Learn About Truck Drivin’,” and “Truck Driver’s Heaven.” He also had a Top 40 hit with “The Highway Patrol,” which Junior Brown revived as a country hit in the 1990s.

These days, Simpson plays a Monday night residency at the Bakersfield club Trout’s Cocktail Lounge; he also performs every Tuesday at a local resident home for senior citizens.

Simpson ended the program by inviting Moles to join him onstage to perform three songs, “The Highway Patrol,” “Lucky Old Colorado,” and “Don’t Ever Tell Me Goodbye,” ending with a standing ovation from the audience.

—Michael McCall

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