Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson may be best known for his
string of trucking hits, but Simpson has always had far more going on
than could comfortably fit within the limited confines of that novelty
genre. A master of the ballad--from "You Don't Have Very Far To Go,"
(a hit for Merle Haggard, that Simpson penned when Hag was working
in Red's band) to classics like the Buck Owens-covered "Heart of Glass"
and the penetrating lament "Close Up the Honky Tonks"--Red is a
peerless craftsman, and the arrival of aptly titled set "The Bard of
Bakersfield," his first full length album in decades, re-establishes
him as one of California country music finest practitioners.
The songs have all been shaped by Simpson's own experiences there
and whether he's celebrating a sudsy jam session at a local tavern
("Ethel's Corral,") examining the bittersweet realities of every day
life ("My Hometown Ain't My Hometown Anymore," "Bag Lady of
Bakersfield") or revealing his own fatalistic whimsy ("Do I Need A Hit
To Get Into Hillbilly Heaven?"), Simpson's superb writing and
commanding, soulful vocals capture the essence of the city that
shaped and influenced not only his own life and music, but also that of
colleagues Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. It's an extraordinary
musical portrait spotlighting the personal side of a city that contributed
so much to the development of modern country music, and coming as it
does from one of the town's most powerful forces, "The Bard of Bakersfield"
is both an authoritative artistic statement and a brilliantly
entertaining collection of never before heard songs.
Author, Music critic for the LA Weekly
From Steve Manseau...
Bakersfield's country music scene has produced its share of favorite sons. Some are well-known, guys with names like Buck and Merle and Dwight, stars whose talent and fame loomed so large that the town's hot and dusty environs could no longer contain them. With formidable reputations and bankrolls to match, they and their music became national commodities.
Red Simpson, one of the founding fathers of the Bakersfield music scene, was once a national commodity, too. A prolific songwriter, he penned a whole batch of tunes with Buck Owens, including the 1967 number one hit, "Sam's Place." His "Close Up the Honky Tonks" became a signature song for the Flying Burrito Brothers during the 1970's, and artists like Roseanne Cash ("You Don't Have Very Far To Go"), Merle Haggard ("Lucky Old Colorado") and Wanda Jackson ("Acting Like My Old Self Again") are among the many who have recorded Simpson songs. And then there's the trucker music. Anyone who knows a bit about it will tell you that Red rides in the genre's fast lane with Dave Dudley, Dick Curless and Red Sovine. Songs like " I'm a Truck" and "Highway Patrol" cemented his reputation. Heck, he even had a couple of albums in the top ten on the Billboard country charts.
Nowadays, Red Simpson is a true Bakersfield favorite son, one who never left home. A resident of the town for nearly all of his sixty-plus years, he is firmly ensconced as a regional treasure, a true blue-collar songwriter with Kern County dust under his fingernails and an Oildale ache in his heart. And with "The Bard of Bakersfield," Red's first album in nearly twenty five years, he takes on the role of town poet laureate, providing 14 original songs (and one cover tune) that evoke the city's past and present as only a long-time, guitar pickin' denizen could. Red paints with a broad and egalitarian brush, so on his aural canvas the Mighty Merle Haggards and Buck Owenses find themselves sharing time with the city's barflies, bamboozlers and bag ladies.
Songs like "Bakersfield," "Home in Bakersfield," "Buck's Crystal Palace" and "Bakersfield Awaits Me" (a trucker tune credited to Lee Morris) all play a bit like colorful snippets from the chamber of commerce guide book, shameless samples of boosterism that detail some of the town's particular delights. Even more fun are the tunes that look backwards to a simpler, more congenial time- the days before Bakersfield became a thriving metropolis- when Bill Woods was teaching Red how to play guitar ("Bill Woods") and you could see local hotshot country stars like Fuzzy Owens, Roy Nichols and Johnny Caballero on a local television show ("Cousin Herb's Trading Post").
Other songs express the resignation that comes with change. When Red sings "my home town ain't my home town anymore" ("My Home Town"), it doesn't matter what city he's singing about, we can all feel the sting of trying to return to something that has ceased to exist. "Do I Have to Have a Hit" is a gospel-flavored number that asks if those who haven't made the big time can still get into "hillbilly heaven." Red's plaintive bass delivery, helped along by Cody Bryant's old-timey fiddle bowing, renders the song all the more poignant, especially in light of his career filled with ups and downs.
The bottom line here is that "The Bard of Bakersfield" certainly catches Red on an up note. He's showing no signs of slowing down; his voice is mellowing like a fine workingman's whiskey and he can still turn a good country phrase. He is a keen observer of life, one that bears the weight of this world with equal parts hard-won experience and wry humor.
Red's also surrounded himself with a circle of talented friends on this offering. He's backed up by L.A. music phenom Cody Bryant and his band (for the record that's Bryant on fiddle and guitars, Mike Rhinestone on pedal steel, Jimmy Lee Harris on bass and the Landon McCoy on drums), a quartet that gives the album a nice throwback, honky-tonk feel. Anyone who has seen Red play with these guys on his all too occasional, but supremely memorable gigs at Burbank's Viva Fresh Cantina will not be surprised that Simpson feels right at home with this band.
Despite the specific locality in this album's title, it turns out that "The Bard of Bakersfield" has profoundly universal appeal. Anyone who has strong feelings about a particular place in their life should be able to feel the mixture of resignation, nostalgia and good-natured humor evident in this collection. And if I get a vote, they ought to be reserving a spot in hillbilly heaven for old Red. But they're gonna need to hold that reservation for awhile, because based on the strength of this work, it seems we won't be done with him anytime soon.
Indy country critic
2. Ethel's Corral
3. Bag Lady
4. Buck's Crystal Palace
5. I Might Be Old
6. Home In Bakersfield
7. Momma Just Moved You Out
8. Cousin Herb's Trading Post
9. Do I Have To Have A Hit
10. Bill Woods
11. My Home Town
12. Old Country Songwriter Singer
13. Hey Buck
14. The Mighty Hag
15. Bakersfield Awaits Me