Bad news, class of 2016. Beloved famous people are starting to die. I mean, sure, they always die. Lots of great famous people are already dead. But what’s starting to happen is that the ones we didn’t render up to antiquity are dying too. This isn’t Jimmy Stewart in 1997. This is the beginning of the die-off. People who were perpetually middle-aged, people born in 1950, when America went modern, are suddenly old.
That means the news cycle will be overrun soon by the death of people who, come on, couldn’t have been older than 50. Wait. Oh no. They’re sixteen years older than 50. Someone born in 2000 is driving now. Boomers are rolling over toward 70 and 70 is when the plug can get pulled any day for any reason. We’ll be exhausted by all the death. And we’ll miss people. Keith Richards or somebody will die and we won’t hear about four fascinating people who only would have gotten news traction before the die-off. Their wikipedias will update to the past tense and that’ll be the end of that.
You’ve never heard of Red Simpson, probably. He sang country songs about trucks, most of them landing on the charts in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Novelty songs, to a point. They had titles like “Roll, Truck, Roll” and “Runaway Truck” and “I’m A Truck” and “Awful Lot To Learn About Trucking.” If I started walking down the street and asked people if they’d heard of Red Simpson, I could die on the road without finding anybody. That’s why I’m comfortable saying you’ve never heard of Red Simpson, probably.
He was never going to set the world on fire with his music or change the way we approached the guitar or some crazy thing like that. He was just a guy from Bakersfield, Dust Bowl boy, one of a small army of siblings, he knew a thing or two about manual labor, and he sang a bunch of songs about trucks. Getting poetic about his music or why it’s evocative or why it’s effective kind of defeats the point. If you bought a Red Simpson record back in the day, it’s because you heard he was a good singer and Merle and Buck recorded some of his songs. Maybe you were a trucker or had truckers in the family like I did.
The thing that fascinates me about the guy is the contrast between how I knew his music and how other people would know his music. I knew his music because I lived in Bakersfield and my grandpa owned all records made there. That doesn’t apply to most people. So over the years I’ve tried to imagine how your path might have crossed with his.
Where would you even find a Red Simpson record if you don’t live in a big urban area with big record stores that host concerts? Let’s ignore the obvious idea of falling down a Wikipedia-in-one-tab-and-YouTube-in-the-other rabbit hole, because if you do that he’ll just be another novelty musician and his context would all be abstract words on a screen. You’ll never know he looked like a pothole come to life and smoked like it wouldn’t kill him, which it didn’t.
The answer, then, is the outskirts of town. Thrift stores, estate sales with lots of snap shirts on a rack, antique malls, sad wistful browning places. You find a Red Simpson album there, you’re already a bit lonely. There’s death swirling around that acquisition. Hold the album up and you’ll feel like this guy died a thousand years ago, like this is the last sad trace of something long gone and indecipherable. Who does a whole album of songs about trucks? What am I even looking at? What planet made this? There’s a private story here, it’s a piece of some puzzle it’s not my obligation to solve.
Of course he didn’t die a thousand years ago. I knew that. I heard his name all the time. But I still had that feeling like he was long gone. And I had to deny that feeling when I heard his name. I had to deny all my instincts and accept the fact that he was alive and played senior nights in Oildale. Reconciling my gut and my ears filled me with grief. A town lost, maybe. A place gone. If I’m holding on to Red Simpson it’s because I lost so many other things.
It goes back to childhood, I guess.
Preface: Red Simpson did a whole album of songs about the Highway Patrol.
Memory: When I was about 8, I used to call up one of Red Simpson’s friends and ask for help on my own song about the Highway Patrol, which was also called Highway Patrol, and I stole one of Red’s melodies pretty much wholesale. I called this friend of Red’s “grandpa” once, by mistake, and got so embarrassed that I terminated our songwriting partnership. At least that’s what I’m told. I’m also told I used to lip-sync to Red’s songs and pretend I was playing the lead guitar parts. I’m also told I used to draw replicas of his LP covers, back included, with all the song titles and everything. So the grief is probably that I’ve lost a bone-deep part of my childhood, something so basic I’d never even think about it or scrutinize it on paper. Thinking about Red Simpson is like thinking about the fizz at the top of a freshly poured glass of Dr. Pepper. It’s too basic to think about. It predates language. You’re born and your eyes open and there are so many things you don’t remember that shape you in ways you can’t identify, things that come back to active consciousness when it’s too late to do anything about them, the way doors open, what you see from three feet above the ground, foolish little songs about trucks you heard when you were still learning how to walk, these things, they flash in to your active mind for just a second, and you can’t even move, you become this embryonic mass for just a second, a pulse like all the other pulses, and time doesn’t mean anything at all. Anyway, I asked Red Simpson to autograph an album for me and he never replied so I decided he was an asshole. He lived like four blocks away, I could have supplied an album and a pen and a stamp, come on. What the hell’s your problem? Got too many cigarettes to smoke? Got too much dust to sweep away from your trailer? It all comes back anyway, so put it off for once. I was your youngest fan by probably 40 years.
Enough on childhood. Point is, other people don’t know Red Simpson’s music quite like that.
I didn’t know then what I know now about Red Simpson, and if I did know it, I took it for granted. I didn’t know he was called Suitcase Simpson and carried his songs up and down Edison Highway in this suitcase, and I didn’t know how ironic it was that he got hits largely off other peoples’ songs. That must have pissed him off.
I didn’t know the names of the places he would have played, like the Pumpkin Center Barn Dance or the Clover Club. All the old places are gone. All those smoky rooms on two lane roads. They’re not boarded up, they’re not burned frames in a field, they’re not under new management playing new music, they’re just gone. They don’t exist. The Bakersfield of Suitcase Simpson no longer exists. Edison Highway is junkyards and one hundred and ten degrees of hell on earth. Merle Haggard’s boxcar isn’t even where it used to be. The neighborhood went to shit. They moved it. Buck Owens is dead and Merle Haggard lives in Shasta County now.
What you have to understand about Bakersfield when you talk about Bakersfield music and mythologize it, which is tempting to do because we made the toughest country music on earth, is how much the town changed. Bakersfield’s biggest cultural legacy now is joke after joke about how everything is ruined. Fair jokes, too. It’s filthy. Dirt clings to you everywhere. It’s the dirtiest air in the country, maybe the worst police force in the country. It smells bad and looks like hell, but we made great music once.
Red Simpson wasn’t some unsung genius of Bakersfield country. He just sang these nice truck songs and hung around forever. He was plain and tough and made plain and tough songs. He had his niche and he stuck to it, he had himself a trailer, and he was a living reminder of the past we burned. Without Red Simpson around, it gets a little harder to remember Bakersfield, home of America’s finest country music, and gets a little easier to realize what is now, which is something decidedly less. And once you realize that, you’re left with just one question. When Merle Haggard dies, will there be anything left?
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