In the midst of all the New Year's Eve events happening this Sunday, something special will be going on over at the Rustic Rail in Oildale. The bar, located east of North Chester on Norris Road, looks like a couple of boxcars in danger of getting up, hopping back a few feet and taking off on the tracks behind it.
Its decor is dim and screams of a certain vintage and character that’s both comfortable and intriguing, like the feel of worn leather. The bar has its own unique and unassuming charm: part honky-tonk, part neighborhood staple. Sitting at its bar, whose countertop is made of coins covered in hard resin, you feel like you’re in a Waylon Jennings song come to life. If those walls could talk, they’d have some killer stories to tell. Well, them and the 20-year-old cat that lives there, but it’s not saying a word.
One of the frequent visitors and performers at the Rustic Rail was local legend and Bakersfield Sound architect, singer/songwriter Red Simpson. In fact, I met him there a few years back at a birthday celebration held for him. I’ll never forget two things: his sense of humor, which ran from casual to wicked sharp, and, while standing on the wooden patio of the Rustic Rail, spotting his truck and seeing its seat embroidered with the word “Red.”
Simpson died on Jan. 8, 2016, of complications from a heart attack, at the same time as the release of his album “Soda Pops and Saturdays.” This Sunday sees the release of the companion piece to it and Simpson’s final act: “Home Sweet Honky-Tonk.”
The album is a collaboration between Simpson and his close friend and pianist Mario Carboni. The two had a creative partnership that resulted in two recordings, gigs up and down California, Oregon and Washington (including a sold-out show in Portland on Labor Day in 2015), and a musical mentorship that continued up until Simpson’s death. Their connection belied the relatively short time they actually played together, and even with a 52-year age difference, these two were definitely kindred musical spirits.
“It’s just one of those things,” Carboni said. “Sometimes you can meet people who you feel like you’ve known for your entire life ... and then, other times, it could take you a lifetime to get to know somebody.”
Simpson and his wife, Joyce, would stay at Carboni’s house in Portland, where the two musicians would record in Carboni’s 850-square-foot home studio. Sessions would happen whenever inspiration struck.
“'Bakersfield Buddy’ was one that I wrote about the two of us,” Carboni said, “and some of the other ones were ones that he had written but had never been released.”
“‘Your Muppet’ was a song written for Buck Owens, which Buck never got to record because he passed away. ‘Why Couldn’t Something Like That (Ever Happen To Me)’ was a song that he wrote and, I believe, he either pitched it or came very close to pitching it to George Jones.”
Upon hearing Simpson’s voice again on “Home Sweet Honky-Tonk,” you’re taken aback. It’s like hearing the voice of a departed uncle on a lost voicemail. It’s clear and very much present. For that very reason, completing the release was so difficult for Carboni. It was devastating to hear his best friend’s voice, especially over and over again. He stopped working on the album for a year after Simpson’s passing and worked furiously from February through September of this year to finish it. According to Carboni, he put in more than 1,600 hours into the project. Simpson never got to hear the final product.
“This album is probably the single most important thing, since meeting Red, that I’ve ever done in my life, and it’s one of the hardest, most difficult things for me to let go of. I feel like there’s always something more I could do to fine-tune it, to make it better, because I feel very responsible for him to sound the way he wanted to sound.”
The most poignant moment on the album is on Simpson’s version of Terry Fell’s 1954 hit “Truck Drivin’ Man” where Simpson presciently sings the last verse — omitted from the 1965 Buck Owens version — facing his own mortality. It’s a bit haunting and touching to hear Simpson’s weathered but warm voice sing, “When I get my call up to glory, they gonna take me away from this land. I’ll drive this old truck up to Heaven, ‘cause I’m a truck drivin’ man.”
The weight of those lyrics are offset by Simpson’s own call and response to them that range from witty to prophetic, such as responding to the words “When I get my call up to glory,” with “Hey, Red,” and “they gonna take me away from this land” with “time’s running out.”
“It’s a special version,” Carboni said. “… He’s talking to himself. I think he knew his health was fragile, but I think he felt young again touring. He really enjoyed it.”
There’s a joy and spirit throughout the entire release, even on the ballad, “Reachin’ For The Moon.” At its core, the album’s got a working man’s soul that’s not going out without a fight. Simpson was a man rejuvenated by possibilities. It’s a fitting epitaph by Carboni to their friendship and musical bond: Simpson, The Bard of Bakersfield, and his Portland pal Carboni, the Honky-Tonk Rebel.
“The last time he was at my studio,” Carboni said, “(this album) was about 75 percent done … He was hearing it and he just shook his head and said, ‘Man, I think you got some hits there.’”
“I think that was the most encouraging thing about him was that he was an 81-year-old man that was not afraid to attack the charts again. He took himself seriously. I’ve played with a lot of folks that are his age that would say, ‘I’m not what I used to be I’m giving it up.’ But Red wasn’t like that. He was, ‘Give me another chance. Put me in front of that mic. Put me in the studio. I still have it in me.”
Carboni will be performing Sunday night with Jimmy Phillips (listed as “The Bakersfield Drummer” in the album’s liner notes) on drums and Merle Haggard’s former bandleader, Norm Hamlet, on pedal steel guitar. Copies of the CD will be available, fresh from the manufacturer, at the gig. The cover, by artist Russel Harmon, is a drawing of a younger Simpson standing alongside Carboni, and is a visual representation of how Carboni saw their friendship.
“I hope that, above all things, it continues to keep his name in the spotlight where it belongs,” Carboni said. “I think everybody got a part of Red Simpson; I think he was a best friend to everybody. He was a very special man and I think that this was my little part that I got to do and I loved him.”
“Home Sweet Honky-Tonk” CD release with Mario Carboni, Jimmy Phillips and Norm Hamlet, 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Rustic Rail, 147 E. Norris Road. $5; for ages 21 and over.