Country Music Pioneer Red Simpson Dead at 81

Country Music Pioneer Red Simpson Dead at 81

By Sterling Whitaker - - January 9, 2016 10:10 AM

Bakersfield's Red Simpson performs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville during the opening in March 2012 of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the museum. Video Produced by The Bakersfield Californian March 2012

Red Simpson, an influential country musician best-known for helping to pioneer the Bakersfield Sound, has passed away at the age of 81.

Simpson had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack on Dec. 18, the Bakersfield Californian reports. He returned home and had been doing better, and family and friends were hopeful that he was on the road to recovery, but on Friday afternoon (Jan. 8), he went into cardiac arrest.

“I was outside,” his son, David Simpson, says, “when I heard him hollering for help from the bedroom.” He called an ambulance and performed CPR, but his father could not be revived. Red Simpson died at a Bakersfield hospital on Friday.

Born on March 6, 1934 in Higley, Ariz., and raised in Bakersfield, Calif., Simpson was the youngest of 13 children from a musical family. His older brother, Buster Simpson, played in Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys, and when he passed away in 1952, Woods started to mentor Red, according to Simpson’s biography. After a stint in the Navy in Korea, he studied sheet metal work at Bakersfield College, but also began playing guitar for Woods at a club in Bakersfield called the Blackboard. He also became the pianist at the Clover Club.

Simpson cut his first record for Tally Records, and had his first song cut by the Farmer Boys. He went on to a long career as a massively influential songwriter, whose songs became synonymous with the Bakersfeld Sound that launched Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, both of whom cut songs he wrote. More than 200 artists have recorded Simpson’s songs, which include “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” “The Highway Patrol,” “Gonna Have Love,” “Kansas City Song” and “Sam’s Place.”

As a solo artist, he released singles on Tally Records, Millie Records and Lute Records before signing with Capitol in 1966, earning a Top 10 album with Roll, Truck, Roll. He recorded eight albums between then and 1973, and earned a Top 5 single with “I’m a Truck.” Simpson was also a pioneer in the country music sub-genre of truck songs.

Simpson stopped touring in 1984 and focused on performing closer to home, becoming a Monday night regular at Trout’s for more than two decades. He traveled to Nashville in 2012 to perform at the opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhibit devoted to the Bakersfield Sound.

“He played a huge part in the Bakersfield sound and was a dear friend of mine for over 50 years,” Haggard shares on Facebook. “One of the original musicians on “Okie from Muskogee.” RIP Red Simpson.”

“In my opinion, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the twin pillars of the Bakersfield Sound. But directly under that is Red Simpson,” music journalist and historian Scott B. Bomar tells the Californian. “He wrote more than 30 songs that Buck recorded. He wrote about eight or so songs that Merle recorded. Red’s fingerprints are on Buck’s and Merle’s songs, as theirs are on his.”

Bakersfield Sound pioneer Red Simpson dies at 81


FRIDAY, JAN 8, 2016 9:03 PM — updated 1 minute ago

He wrote hundreds of songs, many recorded by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and became a star in his own right. But later in life, Red Simpson would also be known for owning Monday nights at Trout’s nightclub in Oildale and for being the kind of guy you could strike up a conversation with or bum some beer money from in a pinch.

Considered one of the last living icons of the music that came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound, Simpson died this afternoon at a hospital in Bakersfield. He was 81.

Simpson had suffered a heart attack Dec. 18 after returning from a concert tour of the Pacific Northwest. Many friends and well-wishers had hoped he was on the mend and might even return to his familiar Monday night gig.

A short video posted on Facebook earlier today showed Red with his son, David, sitting on a sofa, playing some guitar and enjoying life.

“He seemed to be doing better. I was planning to go by and see him tonight,” said longtime family friend Gene Thome.

“I was outside,” said David Simpson, “when I heard him hollering for help from the bedroom.”

An ambulance was called and the son performed CPR on his dad until help arrived. But this time, Red could not be saved.

By Friday evening, word was spreading fast on social media. Haggard said on Facebook that Simpson “played a huge part in the Bakersfield Sound and was a dear friend of mine for over 50 years.” Haggard noted that Simpson was one of the original musicians on Haggard’s huge hit “Okie from Muskogee.”

Simpson had a long run as Capitol Records’ entry into country music’s truck-driving subgenre of the 1960s, recording songs such as “Roll, Truck, Roll” and “(Hello) I’m a Truck.” He never drove a commercial big-rig, however; he was merely playing a role developed by Ken Nelson, Capitol’s legendary coproducer/executive.

Performer and songwriter Buddy Mize met Simpson in the 1950s, when the Bakersfield Sound was being forged in barrooms and dance halls.

“He was part of the gold that people mined out of California,” Mize said from his Nashville home Friday.

Mize, whose older brother is Bakersfield Sound luminary Billy Mize, thought of Simpson as a brother as well. The two reconnected in the last year or so when Simpson was in Nashville to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which put together a stunning tribute to the Bakersfield Sound that concluded its two-year run in 2013.

“We had such great times just laughing when we were in each other’s presence,” Mize said. “Because things were funny when Red was around.”

Music writer and historian Scott B. Bomar worked with Simpson on “Hello, I’m Red Simpson,” a 2012 career-spanning retrospective that featured five CDs and a 108-page hardcover book, the definitive account of the artist’s life and music.

Simpson was not receptive to Bomar’s overtures at first, the writer said Friday, but eventually the singer/songwriter warmed to the idea.

“We spent two years pulling everything together, hunting down tapes nobody had ever heard. I interviewed Red several times, we scanned photos at Red’s house,” Bomar said. “I felt it was important with so much of Red’s music not available on CD that it be remembered. I wanted to see it digitized, the story of his life from his lips.”

Simpson’s songs belong in rarefied company in the history of West Coast country music, said Bomar, a self-described Bakersfiled Sound “geek” who is currently writing a book on the music sub-genre.

“In my opinion, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the twin pillars of the Bakersfield Sound. But directly under that is Red Simpson. He wrote more than 30 songs that Buck recorded. He wrote about eight or so songs that Merle recorded. Red’s fingerprints are on Buck’s and Merle’s songs as theirs are on his.”

As for why Simpson’s career never hit the stratospheric levels of his two peers, Bomar has his theories.

“Red just wasn’t really concerned with money or the business side of music or looking out for himself first, and that’s kind of what it takes to build that star machine. I think that he just had the heart of an artist.”

Born in Higley, Ariz., in 1934, Simpson was just following the path his brother Buster had laid out for him.

Buster Simpson saw music as a way out of Little Okie, the village of shacks and dirt-floor tents off Bakersfield’s Cottonwood Road where cotton- and potato-picking families consoled one another in their mutual poverty.

The family of John and Lillie Simpson, who brought their brood of 11 children out west from Rush Springs, Okla., in 1929, was just such a clan. Joseph “Red” Simpson, the 12th and final hatchling, arrived during the family’s eight-year layover in Arizona. Brother Buster played guitar and stand-up bass in the clubs in and around Bakersfield in the late ’40s and early ’50s, most notably with Bill Woods and Billy Mize in an early incarnation of Woods’s Orange Blossom Playboys. The younger Simpson idolized them.

It wouldn’t be long before he would join them and blaze his own trail in country music.

Buster Simpson, 20 years older, would tell his little brother that once he reached 21 they would start a band together, but that day never came. Buster had gone to Idaho in 1952 to pick up some money doing drywall work, and one day a doctor called the Simpson home to say he was seriously ill. Buster didn’t last much longer. It was Hodgkin’s disease.

His brother’s death crushed Simpson’s heart and, suddenly adrift, he joined the U.S. Navy. He was just 18 when he shipped off to Korea. Aboard the U.S.S. Repose, a hospital ship, he met some fellow sailors who played music. They formed the Repose Ramblers, and every night aboard ship, right before the evening movie, they sang and picked for 30 minutes. The captain, P.J. Williams, liked them so much he bought them western shirts and sent them onshore to perform — at the Officers’ Club at Inchon one day, and a Korean orphans’ home on another.

Simpson mustered out of the Navy in 1955 and, swearing off cotton-picking, went to Bakersfield College on the G.I. Bill to learn sheet-metal work. What he really wanted to do was get on stage and pick guitar in the Bakersfield area’s many nightclubs. But Bakersfield was full of great bands and talented players, and none of the top acts had openings. “I wanted to play at the Blackboard or the Lucky Spot, but all I could get was the Wagon Wheel in Lamont for $5 a night,” he recalled.

He eventually started studying piano, getting tips from Buck Owens, George French, and Lawrence Williams, and in 1956, when Williams left Fuzzy Owen’s band at the Clover Club, Owen offered Simpson the job. After working for next to nothing for so long, Simpson was finally playing for what the boys called “whiskey money.”

Over the next few years, Simpson cut singles on three small labels: Lewis Talley’s Tally Records and Leon Hart’s Millie Records (both based in Bakersfield), and Los Angeles-based Lute Records. Then, in 1966, at the ripe old age of 32, he caught his big break.

Truck-driving songs were all the rage on country music radio, with the likes of Red Sovine, Dick Curless, Dave Dudley, Jerry Reed, and Kay Adams having established themselves as truck-stop staples. Ken Nelson wanted a slice of that pie for Capitol, and he chose Simpson to play the part. It was a good choice: Roll, Truck, Roll proved Simpson indeed had an aptitude for truck-drivin’ songs. He cut three more albums for Capitol in the next two years (Man Behind the Badge, Truck Drivin’ Fool, and A Bakersfield Dozen) and was given the opportunity to tour the country.

In 1966, he opened shows for Owens, including Buck’s March appearance at Carnegie Hall. He appeared on a half-dozen installments of the syndicated TV show “Buck Owens Ranch Show.” Later that year, he toured U.S. military bases in Germany and France, and in 1967 he went on tour as an opener for Haggard. In 1971, he signed with Gene Breeden’s label, Portland Records and recorded “(Hello) I’m a Truck.” “Hello, I’m a what?” Red responded when Breeden first told him the name of the song he wanted Simpson to record. The song reached No. 4 in December 1971 and spent 17 weeks on the country charts and hit No. 1 on radio playlists around the country.

Simpson’s final entry on the charts, “The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver,” on Key Records, sputtered to No. 99 in 1979. He toured for three more years and then quit the road.

Simpson figured he had cut a dozen or more albums, and his work has turned up in another half-dozen compilation albums built around truck-driving themes. Simpson counts two songs recorded by Haggard as among his best: “Lucky Ol’ Colorado” and “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” (co-written with Haggard). “Very Far” is among his most profitable, having been recorded three times by Haggard and by such luminaries as Rosanne Cash, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely, Roy Clark, Billy Mize, and Bonnie Owens. Other Simpson songs have been recorded by Wynn Stewart, Alan Jackson and, of course, Buck Owens.

Simpson continued to stay busy well into the 21st century, playing regular one-man-and-a-keyboard gigs at Trout’s, the Fairfax Grange, and the Rasmussen Senior Center, whose members often follow him from engagement to engagement. Simpson enjoyed a second brush with fame in fall 1995, when Junior Brown — known for his wizardry on the "guit-steel" double neck, hybrid guitar — brought him to Austin, Texas, for a duet recording of “Semi-Crazy,” a Brown composition in the Simpson trucker tradition. During that session, Simpson sang with Brown on “Nitro Express, ”a song Simpson had once covered before on the eponymous 1966 truck drivin’ album.

Simpson was honored in Nashville in March 2012 when he was asked to headline the grand opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s two-year exhibition on the Bakersfield Sound. He returned several times during the exhibit’s two-year run and basked in the warm, loving attention with grace and good humor.

— Portions of this report were excerpted from “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music” by Californian executive editor Robert E. Price.

By J.W. Burch IV

SATURDAY, JAN 9, 2016 7:06 PM — updated 3 minutes ago


David Simpson, son of country music legend Red Simpson, looks over the crowd at the Rustic Rail on East Norris Road Saturday evening seconds before beginning a performance of his father's song "Truck Driving Man." Red Simpson died Friday.

The atmosphere at the Rustic Rail in Oildale was more joyous than mournful as family and friends of Red Simpson gathered to honor the Bakersfield Sound icon Saturday.

“You won’t find a single person who has anything bad to say about Red,” childhood friend Curtis Colbertson said. “He was always funny and always had a joke.”

Simpson died Friday afternoon at a hospital in Bakersfield. He was 81.

A short video posted on Facebook earlier Friday afternoon showed Red with his son, David, sitting on a sofa, playing some guitar and enjoying life.

“Yesterday was a real good day and it turned out to be a bad day,” David said.

David started the evening off by singing “Truck Drivin’ Man,” a song his father recorded in 1975.

Throughout the evening the approximately 100 people in attendance clapped, shouted and danced as Red’s band played some of his best known songs.

Jimmy Howard, who met Red two and a half years ago and has recorded an album of cover songs, sang “My Baby’s Waiting Up There.”

“This is the first time I’ve played it without him down here,” Howard said. 

Howard left Fortuna early Saturday morning to make sure he was at the celebration.

“I listened to his whole box set driving down, it got me almost the whole way here,” Howard said. 

Simpson had suffered a heart attack Dec. 18 after returning from a concert tour of the Pacific Northwest. Many friends and well-wishers had hoped he was on the mend and might even return to his familiar Monday night gig. 

“I saw that video they posted on Facebook at 1 o’clock,” Howard said. “Then at 5 o’clock I’m eating dinner and I get the phone call.”

The news of Red’s death was a surprise to a lot of people.

“I woke up this morning expecting to wake up for a bad dream,” Colbertson said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Debbie Arvizu, a friend of Red’s, said that the turnout of the event was “an honor.”

“He would be happy,” she said.

Arvizu introduced Red to Mario Carboni, who produced his last album, “Soda Pops and Saturdays.”

“He (Red) always invited everyone up to play with him, it didn’t matter if they were horrible or concert quality,” Arvizu said. “So Mario got on stage with him and they hit it off.”

After playing together, Red took Carboni to his house and their collaboration began.

“He stole my friend,” Arvizu said, laughing. “He was a great guy. He never met a stranger.”

Red Simpson, Pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound, Dies at 81

1/9/2016 by Chuck Dauphin

Breaking News from

Red Simpson, who helped serve as an architect to the Bakersfield Sound, has died. He was 81.

Simpson was on a tour in the Pacific Northwest recently when he suffered a heart attack. After being released, he fell ill again on Friday (Jan. 8) and was rushed to a Bakersfield, Calif., hospital, where he passed.

Born March 6, 1934, in Hailey, Arizona, Simpson was raised in Bakersfield as the youngest of a dozen children. By his teenage years, Simpson was hooked on music, penning his first song. The youngster began playing in many of the local clubs throughout the area, eventually being noticed by Fuzzy Owen at the Wagon Wheel in Lamont.

Owen invited Simpson to begin playing at his Clover Club as a piano player. The exposure he received there would lead to him becoming a regular at the historic Blackboard Club on weekends, where he replaced Buck Owens, who had struck out on his own history making career.

Simpson and the singer developed a strong friendship and working relationship, writing several songs together, including “Gonna Have Love,” which (as a B-side to “Only You (Can Break My Heart),” peaked at No. 10 for Owens in 1965.

By that point, Simpson had earned a place on the Capitol roster alongside such Kern County stalwarts as Owens and Merle Haggard. Label executive and producer Ken Nelson was looking for an artist on the label to record some of the “Truck Driving” songs that were quickly becoming a part of the genre. Simpson stepped up to the plate with his version of Tommy Collins’ “Roll Truck Roll,” which peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Country charts in 1966.

Future singles would include “The Highway Patrol,” “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” and “Mini-Skirt Minnie.” However, it would take until 1971 before Simpson would taste his first big-time success with “I’m A Truck.” Hitting No. 4 on the singles chart, the record remains a popular song on truck-driving shows after four decades. It would prove to be his only release to hit the top 10 on the airplay lists, though Simpson would continue to release singles through the end of the decade.

His final charted single was 1979’s "The Flyin' Saucer Man and the Truck Driver,” which barely dented the charts at No.99.

Simpson would only periodically record from the 1980s forward, collaborating with alt-country artist Junior Brown for a couple of tracks in the mid 1990s -- “Semi-Crazy” and “Nitro Express.” In 1988, Simpson was diagnosed with skin cancer, but would make a full recovery.

Though his chart success was limited, as historians began to document the rich and varied musical history of the Bakersfield area, Simpson’s name was frequently mentioned as one of the pioneers of the high-octane sound, along with Owens and Haggard, the latter of whom noted on his Facebook page that Simpson was one of the musicians on his 1970 classic “Okie From Muskogee.”

Simpson also wrote the Haggard classic “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” which has been recorded by artists like Rosanne Cash. Even into his 80s, Simpson could still be found performing regularly in the area at Trout’s in Oildale. His final to-be recording was “It’s A Bakersfield Thing,” which was issued in 2015.