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Red Simpson dies at 81; musician's trucker songs helped drive the Bakersfield sound

Red Simpson, Bakersfield musician and Dust Bowl migrant whose 1971 country hit "I'm a Truck" helped propel a national enthusiasm for romantic truck-driving lore, has died.

He died Friday in Bakersfield after suffering complications from a heart attack, said his daughter Mechelle "Missy" Simpson of Pensacola, Fla. He was 81.

Bob Dylan once described Simpson as "the forgotten man of the Bakersfield sound." He never attained the stature of Merle Haggard, with whom he co-wrote songs, or Buck Owens, who sang some of his best, notably "Close Up the Honky Tonks."

But he was their friend and collaborator, and scored his own moderate hits performing "Roll Truck Roll" in 1966 (written by Tommy Collins), followed by "I'm a Truck" (written by Bob Staunton), and several other quasi-novelty trucking songs.

Joseph Simpson was born March 6, 1934, in Higley, Ariz., to John and Lille Simpson, migrant farmworkers born in the South and driven west by the Dust Bowl. He was the youngest of 12 children — enough for a robust chorus. His father played the banjo, his sisters sang harmony. Music was ever-present in the home, Missy Simpson said.

The Simpsons arrived in Bakersfield in 1937. Young Red — nicknamed for his red hair — mowed lawns and shined shoes. He graduated from Bakersfield High.

He trained as a sheet-metal worker but "always played music," his daughter said. He mastered piano, fiddle and guitar. Aboard a Navy hospital ship during the Korean War, he formed a shipboard band.

At Bakersfield's now-legendary Blackboard Club, where Haggard played in a house band, Simpson helped forge a more twangy, edgier alternative to the then-dominant Nashville country sound.

The Bakersfield sound, as it came to be called, channeled the distinct agri-industrial working culture of the Central Valley and incorporated flourishes of rock and Latin music. Simpson epitomized the working-class elements of this classic California music.

In Bakersfield, working-class life revolved around State Route 99. Although Simpson never drove a truck, except for an ice cream truck (he was fired for giving children free ice cream, his daughter said), big rigs were the lifeblood of his highway hometown.

So when Capitol Records invited him to record truck-driving songs in Los Angeles, he jumped at the chance.

For many years after, he lent his songwriting skills and his woody baritone voice to songs of lonesome renegades thundering down endless highways.

When he crooned, "Another 80 miles and I'm sure lonesome," his voice seemed to vibrate with the road; when he rumbled "I'm a truck" it seemed the sort of voice a truck might have.

The truck-driving ballads that flashed through country music in the 1960s and early 1970s eventually fueled a popular-culture craze for trucking, culminating in a brief CB radio fad. Simpson also produced a record based on the lives of police officers.

He performed up until the last weeks of his life, making twice-weekly regular appearances at Bakersfield clubs to appreciative and mostly elderly audiences, his daughter said. "He never met a stranger — the man had a walking heart," his daughter said.

He had just completed a new album to be released this year, "Soda Pops and Saturdays."

Of one of his love songs, Times critic Randy Lewis wrote: "It's the kind that's almost vanished from mainstream country: unflinchingly honest, filled with a soul-deep heartache that doesn't magically vanish in a cheery final chorus."

Simpson was divorced twice. Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Joyce Simpson; a son, David Simpson, of Bakersfield; sister Minnie Robertson of Salem, Ore.; three stepchildren; 14 grandchildren; and 24 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Lori Mitchell of Bakersfield.

jill.leovy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 14, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "RED SIMPSON, 1934 - 2016 - Country singer was Bakersfield sound pioneer" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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