Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Singer-songwriter Red Simpson has become, more by choice than anything else, an almost shadowy figure in California country music. A brazen, gleeful bandstand powerhouse with a reticent offstage attitude, he’s had an occasionally glorious but more often rough career that has bred in him an odd tendency to downplay his own strengths. Even after Junior Brown’s cover of his “Highway Patrol” and a subsequent duet recording, Red remains an underground presence. This is a real paradox, as his contemporary performances and guitar work are nothing short of dazzling. For all the effusive rhapsodizing accorded Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and considering their much-vaunted ownership of the style associated with their home region, neither man can really lay claim to the title that belongs to 67-year-old Red Simpson: He is the sole embodiment of genuine Bakersfield country.

A scruffy, regular, sit-down-gig cat whose songs have been covered numerous times by that aforementioned illustrious pair (Owens recorded 35 Red-penned tunes), the Arizona-born Simpson, a potent songwriter, a sublime entertainer and one wild-ass guitar player, now seems ready to break out of the Oildale joint Trouts and dominate American jukeboxes much as he did with his 1971 novelty “I’m a Truck.” Red’s latest single, “Hey Bin Laden,” is a formidable earful that represents established country music in high style, both as an extension of the historic troubadour commentary tradition and as a shrewdly timed response to the national mood. It plays neither as gratuitous flag-waving nor as mere revenge-lust, but as a stoic yet whimsical morsel of genuine Americana, as close to legitimate honky-tonk folk as anything else currently being proposed in country music. In typical freewheeling manner, he says, “I wrote it in about five minutes.”

The Simpson family blew into Bakersfield in 1937, not a happy time for that proud California city to welcome any more financially infirm newcomers. Settling across the Kern River in Little Okie, a squatter camp just outside Haggard’s hometown of Oildale that made Hag’s converted boxcar seem positively deluxe by comparison, Red’s father lucked into a steady farm job and eventually bought a home. Simpson’s immersion in Bakersfield country is virtually lifelong — as a kid he idolized Tennessee Ernie Ford and Hank Thompson, and he wrote, and pitched, his first song at age 11, when Kern country godfather Bill Woods dropped by the house to visit with Red’s older brother Buster, a guitarist in Woods’ band. After a stint in the Navy, Red was taken on by Fuzzy Owen to work at the Clover Club as the Woods band’s pianist, and from there began turning up on local bandstands whenever an opportunity arose. If Buck Owens couldn’t make a show, he’d call Red, and the friendship quickly ripened. Owens signed to Capitol and got very hot just as Simpson’s own writing style really began to take off.

“I took him one song and he liked it, then I did a couple more, and I began writing more and took ’em to Buck,” Simpson says. “We wrote together; we wrote songs in New Mexico, Arizona, here in Bakersfield. I used to go on the road, just traveling with ’em, wasn’t even playing anything, just writin’. Traveling with the Buckaroos, writin’ — I’d write a song with Don Rich or Buck or whoever wanted to. I used to go down and play rhythm 12-string guitar on Buck’s sessions, whatever they needed — they usually had enough that they could handle it without me. He recorded 35 of my songs. I never had really led my own band; I’d go in and play guitar with the house band, that was about it. I was doing pretty good then on songwriter royalties.”

He was much more than just Owens’ hit-making muse. Simpson’s not inconsiderable stash of original songs, gorgeous ballads like “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” “Heart of Glass,” the dark-toned classic “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” and dozens of numbers loaded with his own wry barroom philosophy, from the hard-bitten morality of 1966’s “Party Girl” to the brilliant unreleased tonk cartoon number “Ethel’s Corral,” rate as an extraordinarily crafted collection that’s consistently been held to an almost impossibly high personal standard. Simpson is one of the most prolific and frequently recorded songwriters California has produced: Haggard not only recorded six of his tunes, he also wrote one about Red (“A Bar in Bakersfield”); Wynn Stewart, Ferlin Husky, Annette Funicello, Roy Clark, Connie Smith, Stoney Edwards, Del Reeves, Charlie Walker, Jeannie Sealy, Dave Dudley, and Homer & Jethro have also cut Red’s songs. There was always a considerable give-and-take between Bakersfield’s bards, and Red scored his first hit with a version of the late Tommy Collins’ “Roll Truck Roll.” As a lyricist, Red was second only to Collins (of whom he says, “Tommy and I got to be pretty good friends, and he kinda helped out, tellin’ me a few clues here and there”), and it all paid off on a major scale; not long after Simpson hit the charts, he was a top draw, appearing at the Grand Ole Opry, the Hollywood Bowl and an SRO Carnegie Hall date.

Simpson recorded four albums for Capitol, got dropped, then was wooed back after the independent-release single “I’m a Truck” started breaking out. He put out another four albums, but by 1975 it had all soured on him. “They had me on a long list of releases by Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Freddie Hart — I go on down this long list and I’m at the bottom. I said the heck with this and told them to terminate my contract.” An incident with Owens may have hastened his retreat. “Just a little misunderstanding in New York,” Simpson says. “I had a little too much to drink one night, voiced my opinion and Buck didn’t like it. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s all smoothed over now. I’ve never worked at [Owens’ showplace] the Crystal Palace, but every time I go there, he gets me up to sing.”

While the potential for “Hey Bin Laden,” recorded with Los Angeles country cat Cody Bryant, to become a bona fide hit seems a safe bet, in a way it’s almost a shame, simply because Red Simpson, the artist and lyricist, is capable of such subtle, affecting grace that the last thing a fan wants to see is another “I’m a Truck” novelty twist to spiral the point of focus away from his real artistic strengths. But Simpson could surely use the approval; he still doesn’t seem to hold any trust in his talent. In 1992, when he was making his first appearance at the North Hollywood shrine the Palomino since his “I’m a Truck” heyday, when the promoter stepped backstage with his cue call, Simpson’s eyes oozed high-velocity stress as he grimly inhaled an entire can of beer in about five seconds flat. He seemed more like a timorous young comer preparing for an Opry debut than a 40-year veteran returning to familiar territory. But then again, that’s Red Simpson — a genuine, guileless poet incapable of pretense.

“I figured I was just used up, that everybody was tired of me. I was workin’ this one club here, and this gal came in, said she’d just mentioned to a guy that she was coming to see me, and he said, ‘Aw, hell, he’s just an old has-been. You don’t want to go see him.’ I just feel it’s so hard now to get anything recorded, and down in Nashville it ain’t what it used to be. Everybody I knew is dead or out of the business. I didn’t even want to get back into writin’ and recordin’ until Cody [Bryant] kept after me. I was just gonna work here, ’cause I enjoy it. But Cody, he came into Trouts one night, introduced himself, got up to play, we became friends, and he got me back into this whole mess.”

Red Simpson appears at Viva Cantina, Friday, December 7.

The Best of Red Simpson is available on BMG/Razor & Tie records.

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