Bakersfield Sound legend Red Simpson died Jan. 8 at age 81 after suffering a heart attack weeks before. Scott B. Bomar, a Grammy-nominated writer and researcher who produced the five-CD box set "Hello, I’m Red Simpson," recalls working with the singer-songwriter on the project that would preserve Simpson's stunning legacy.
Red Simpson was, first and foremost, a songwriter. Fellow hometown legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard recorded a combined total of more than 40 Simpson originals, including the Top 10 hits “Gonna Have Love,” “Sam’s Place,” and “Kansas City Song.” Additionally, Red penned perennial country standards such as “Close Up the Honky Tonks” and “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go.” Along the way, he racked up an impressive list of folks who recorded his music, including Johnny Paycheck, Wanda Jackson, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Dave Dudley, Roy Clark, Roseanne Cash, Steve Wariner, Lucinda Williams, Alan Jackson, Candi Staton, Dwight Yoakam, and many more.
In addition to his role as the “Bard of Bakersfield,” Red was a skilled multi-instrumentalist and an appealing singer whose rich baritone was heard from Bakersfield’s storied Blackboard club to the stage of Carnegie Hall. As an artist, Red released a total of seven albums for the Capitol label. Additionally, he logged seven charting singles on Billboard’s country rankings, including the Top 40 hits “Roll Truck Roll” and “The Highway Patrol.” He is perhaps best known, however, for “I’m a Truck,” which hit the Top 5 in 1972, earned him a “most promising artist of the year” award from Cashbox magazine, and led to an Academy of Country Music nomination for Most Promising Male Vocalist.
Bear Family Records is a reissue label known for its comprehensive CD box sets that include lavishly illustrated books chronicling the careers of classic artists. In 2010 I realized that they’d issued sets covering almost every Bakersfield-related artist who was signed to Capitol Records. Of course they had done Buck and Merle, but also artists such as Bonnie Owens, Jean Shepard and Tommy Collins. I got in touch with them and asked if they’d ever considered giving Red’s career the deluxe Bear Family treatment. I was told, “If you can get him to do it, we’ll put it out.”
How many such projects had I spearheaded previously? Zero! I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I had a passion for the task at hand. So I took them up on the challenge and said I’d do the whole thing for free. That way, if I messed it up, nobody could get upset with me! Over the next two years I subjected Red to a half-dozen lengthy on-the-record interviews and countless informal conversations. I hunted down the most pristine specimens of his early recordings I could find. I even got my hands on some forgotten demo tapes he’d made in the 1960s.
In the end, we were able to collect his complete recordings from 1957 through 1984 in one place. The set includes previously unreleased Capitol masters, 18 unheard demo recordings, Red’s own rare versions of hits he wrote for other artists, and dozens of songs that had never been re-released on CD up to that point. The lengthy accompanying book revealed details about Red’s career that weren’t previously known by those outside his inner circle. The package got great reviews, was named a “Critic’s Pick” by The New York Times, was called one of the “Favorite Box Sets of 2012” by the staff of All Music, and earned a Grammy nomination.
By opening up his home, sharing his memories, letting me dig through his records and photos, and being patient enough to answer my endless questions, Red was an active participant in preserving his legacy for future generations to enjoy. Sometimes he would get really excited when I made some new discovery, and other times I could tell I was getting on his nerves. Sometimes it was hard for me to guess what he was thinking about the whole process.
I’ll never forget the day I drove up to Bakersfield to hand-deliver copies of the final box set to Red. He opened one up, pulled out the hardback book, and thumbed through every page. I sat at the table with him and watched his face. He was smiling. When he finished, he closed the book and looked up at me. There were tears in his eyes. “You did a lot of work on that,” he said, as he nodded approvingly. The comment might have sounded deceptively casual to someone else, but I knew what he meant. That was Red’s way of saying, “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
Red came from the same generation as my grandfather, a hardworking farmer and railroad man from rural Tennessee. They were cut from the same cloth: gruff exterior, but deeply kind and compassionate heart. He wasn’t going to jump up and down and throw his arms around me, but I knew, in that moment, that he appreciated what we’d accomplished together.
A few moments later, he pushed his chair back and shuffled off to his bedroom, soon returning with two crisp $100 bills that he set down on the table in front of me. “That’s for you,” he smiled. I asked him what it was for. “You did a good job on that CD thing,” he replied. “I want you to have it.” It was an incredibly generous offer. Red was a working musician up until the very end and he didn’t have a big pile of extra money sitting around. I refused the payment five times before he finally gave up trying to get me to take it. All I could think was, “You’re trying to pay ME? How can we, as fans, ever repay YOU for such an incredible body of work over the years?” But that’s not how Red thought. He was always generous. He looked out for others before himself.
After the box set was released, Red used to tell everyone that I came over and camped out in his living room for a whole week with his photos spread out all over the place. It was actually only a day, but I think he kind of liked to play it up like it was some big inconvenience. Why? Because Red was cool. He didn’t want anyone to think he thought of himself as a big deal, so he would downplay the attention and accolades. He’d treat it like an inconvenience or a joke. It was an extension of his humility. Red never thought of himself as a star. I gave him quite a few copies of that box set, but he never displayed one at his house or showed it off. He’d just give them away to friends and fans who were interested. Once again, he was always thinking about others.
Red Simpson died in Bakersfield on Friday afternoon, Jan. 8, 2016, at the age of 81. He had been recuperating at home after a hospitalization due to a heart attack shortly before Christmas. Red had just finished a new album called "Soda Pops and Saturdays" because, no matter his health troubles, you couldn’t stop him from making music. Bob Dylan once called Red Simpson “the forgotten man of the Bakersfield Sound.” I disagree. He may be gone, but I won’t ever forget him.
Scott B. Bomar co-hosts a bi-weekly podcast called "Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters," featuring in-depth conversations with writers of all genres. You can hear one of Simpson’s final interviews at www.songcraftshow.com.