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Red Simpson keeps on truckin'

By Jon Johnson, September 1999

Thirty-five or forty years ago, Bakersfield, Cal. had more than a dozen nightclubs, and for a while, it seemed like stars were being shot out of every one of them. In addition to the obvious names - Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and Ferlin Husky - there was also a young songwriter named Joe Simpson who caught his first big break while he was still driving an ice cream truck and who, 10 years later, had graduated from that to singing about a much bigger kind of truck.

Nowadays, Bakersfield only has a few nightclubs, but Red Simpson still packs 'em in every Monday night at Trout's where locals and fans from around the world come to hear Simpson sing about big rigs and the big men who drive them.

Though his records have been out of print in the U.S. for years, the fans still bring time-worn copies of Simpson's classic - and very collectible - Capitol albums of the '60's and early '70's for him to autograph.

"A lot of 'em come down from L.A. and different places. They said I was a legend or something," says Simpson as he laughs and pours himself a cup of coffee from his home in Bakersfield. "I don't think I'm a legend, but they said they wanted to come see Red Simpson. Word got around that I was there, and these young musicians started coming in."

Up until recently, it seemed like the only place where one could still hear Simpson's trucker anthems was on the ever-loyal all-night AM radio trucker shows like "The Road Gang" and "The Truckin' Bozo," but the New York-based Razor & Tie label has just released "The Best of Red Simpson: Country Western Truck Drivin' Singer," which compiles 20 of his best Capitol recordings from 1966 to 1973.

Simpson seems genuinely surprised when asked about a very early song of his, "Someone to Love," that was recorded by Capitol recording artists the Farmer Boys in 1957, at a session led by a young guitarist named Alvis "Buck" Owens.

"That was about the first thing (of mine that got recorded). Buck was the reason for that. Me and him wrote the song. I was driving an old ice cream truck and got the idea for that song. Went out to where Buck worked - me and him were friends and still are, sorta. I took it by there one day - he was working at the Blackboard - and he liked it and said, 'Well, let me work on it a little.' Next thing I knew he had it on a record on Capitol, which was a big deal in them days. Still is."

"That got me into writing more, then he started cutting a lot of my stuff."

"A lot" is putting it mildly. Owens - no mean songwriter himself - instantly recognized Simpson's talent and there were few, if any, Owens albums released in the 1960's that didn't feature at least a couple of Simpson compositions.

Even a few Simpson-penned titles are instantly recognizable to fans of Owens' records of that era: "Close Up the Honky Tonks," "Gonna Have Love," "Sam's Place," "Christmas Time's a-Comin'" and "The Kansas City Song."

Haggard - quite probably country music's single finest songwriter of his day - recorded several of Simpson's numbers, including "You Don't Have Very Far to Go" and "Huntsville" (both co-written with Haggard).By 1965, Simpson was leading a very comfortable existence as a songwriter and had even recorded a few singles for some small California labels when Capitol staff producer Ken Nelson approached him with an idea he had first presented to Haggard, who passed: a country singer with a truck driver image.

"I was working (as a musician) around here in town. I was a piano player and a guitar player. I had several songs owned by (Capitol bassist/producer) Cliffie Stone and Cliffie and Ken Nelson were pretty good friends. Ken had an idea to do a truck drivin' album and wanted Merle to do it, and Merle didn't want to do it. Cliffie suggested me, so they called me and asked if I'd be interested and I said, 'Sure, why not?'"

As it turned out, Simpson had already even written some songs about big rigs that hadn't been recorded yet. "Bill Woods was going to do an album (of truck driving songs), which he never got to do, and he wanted me to write him a truck driving song, and I wound up writing him four of 'em. But he never did do the album, and here I had these songs ready. I let (Nelson) hear these songs, and he liked 'em. Then Bill Woods knew that I was going to record, so he brought me a song that Tommy Collins wrote, called 'Roll, Truck, Roll.'"

Though "Roll, Truck, Roll" was a fairly minor hit at the time, reaching #38 in Billboard in April 1966, like much of Simpson's material it resonated with the public and Simpson enjoyed two more hits with Capitol; "The Highway Patrol" (more recently covered by Junior Brown) and 1971's #4 hit "I'm a Truck."

Though Simpson continued to enjoy more modest chart success into the late '70's with other labels, he retired from touring in 1984 and settled down to doing local shows around Bakersfield, though he was coaxed down to Texas four years ago to record two duets with Junior Brown.

"Semi-Crazy," became the title track of Brown's third album and the other song, "Nitro Express," ended up being released on a 1996 Diesel Only collection, "Rig Rock Deluxe."

"Jeremy Tepper (head of Diesel Only Records) called me one time and was telling me about Junior, and I'd never heard of him. Jeremy sent me a copy of Junior's (version of) 'Highway Patrol.' So Junior called me, and I went out to meet him when he came to town, and we've been friends ever since."

When asked about the musicians on his records, Simpson says that the sessions never included the big names of the Bakersfield Sound (Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlett, Don Rich, etc.) "because they were on the road most of the time." Though the musicians could vary from session to session, they usually included Gene Moles on lead guitar, Leo LeBlanc on steel, George French on piano, Tommy Ash on drums, Bob Morse on bass and Bobby Durham or Billy Mize playing rhythm guitar.

Oddly enough, when asked about his current writing activities Simpson - once perhaps the most prolific of Bakersfield songwriters - says that his writing days have all but ended.

"No, I've quit that. Once in awhile, I'll write something, but I've got so many songs here that I couldn't get (recorded) that I just put 'em all in a drawer. Keep 'em there in case anybody ever wants one. I had a thing cut by Merle (Haggard) two or three years ago called 'Lucky Ol' Colorado.' They pulled it out and made it a single but for some reason him and Curb weren't getting along, and they didn't push the record."

When asked if he ever feels nostalgic for the golden era of the Bakersfield Sound, Simpson is quick to answer. "I miss the clubs. Everywhere is kind of dying out. They've got a lot of rock 'n' roll or DJs and karaoke. We used to have anywhere between 12 and 15 clubs running around here back in the fifties and sixties. Trout's is the oldest one here now, and I've had that every Monday for five years. I hope to be around a while longer, too."