Bakersfield country singer-songwriter Red Simpson, 78, has enjoyed a long, distinguished career. A key architect of Bakersfield’s crackling, regional musical style, he’s had his songs recorded by the biggest names in the business — Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, even Annette Funicello. Heck, Buck Owens alone cut more than 25 of them during his legendary mid-1960’s peak.
And Simpson even made the country chart Top Five with his slightly cracked 1971 hit, “Hello, I’m a Truck.”
Simpson, who will appear at Burbank’s Viva Cantina on Saturday, has been taking it fairly easy for the last several years, working a few local dance jobs around Bakersfield and enjoying life with his longtime spouse, Joyce. But all that changed earlier this spring, when a triple-threat dose of Simpson-mania broke out in California, Tennessee, even Germany.
Simpson was recently invited to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, headlining a special concert in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s Bakersfield Country exhibition, where he also participated in a panel discussion that re-united him with such notable colleagues as singer Rose Lee Maphis and fiddler Don Maddox. The German record label Bear Family just issued a boxed, five-compact-disc retrospective set, “Hello, I’m Red Simpson,” and in Bakersfield, March was officially designated “Red Simpson Month” with a tribute concert and two nights opening for Merle Haggard.
“Well, how about that?” Simpson said, with typical dry understatement.
“No, it’s been great, man, we spent a week in Nashville, they flew us down there, put us up in that big hotel, I got to do the show for ‘em and even got paid. So, it’s been going to parties and receptions — oh, it was something else. And I got five standing ovations at that show!”
No surprise there. Simpson remains an arresting performer, one whose rich trove of classic hard-country songs long ago earned him the title, “Bard of Bakersfield.” He’ll sing a daft novelty number like the recent, instant-classic “Ethel’s Coral,” launch into sudsy honky-tonk rave-ups “Mini-Skirt Minnie” and “Sam’s Place,” then turn around and croon “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” the mesmerizing, bruised lament he co-wrote with Haggard when Merle was working as Simpson’s bass player some 50 years ago.
Simpson is still writing powerful new numbers. Last time he was in town, he performed a brand new composition, “Soda Pop & Saturdays,” an altogether stunning, elegiac reminiscence on childhood and his relationship with his father.
Simpson’s mixture of simplicity and sensitivity as a writer is unrivaled, yet he’s also a drastically expressive vocalist, a superb, high-impact guitarist and a first-rate honky-tonk showman. Fortunately for local country music fans, Simpson makes a point to travel to Burbank for at least one show a year, but if you can’t make this one, he does an on-going, weekly “sit-down” gig at Oildale honky-tonk Trout’s, just across the Kern River from downtown Bakersfield.
“I’ve been playing every Monday night there since 1991,” Simpson said. “I used to go by there as a kid, when I was too young to get in — now I’m too old stay out. I really don’t mind though,” he went on, then paused. “It’s fun!”
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”
What: Red Simpson, Deke Dickerson, Cody Bryant, Jinx Jones, more.
Where: VivaCantina and Mexican Restaurant, 900 Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: Saturday, June 2, 7 p.m.
Info: (818) 845-2425, www.vivacantina.com.