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Country Music Pioneer Red Simpson Dead at 81

red-simpson
Red Simpson

Red Simpson, an influential country musician best-known for helping to pioneer the Bakersfield Sound, has passed away at the age of 81.

Simpson had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack on Dec. 18, the Bakersfield Californian reports. He returned home and had been doing better, and family and friends were hopeful that he was on the road to recovery, but on Friday afternoon (Jan. 8), he went into cardiac arrest.

“I was outside,” his son, David Simpson, says, “when I heard him hollering for help from the bedroom.” He called an ambulance and performed CPR, but his father could not be revived. Red Simpson died at a Bakersfield hospital on Friday.

Born on March 6, 1934 in Higley, Ariz., and raised in Bakersfield, Calif., Simpson was the youngest of 13 children from a musical family. His older brother, Buster Simpson, played in Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys, and when he passed away in 1952, Woods started to mentor Red, according to Simpson’s biography. After a stint in the Navy in Korea, he studied sheet metal work at Bakersfield College, but also began playing guitar for Woods at a club in Bakersfield called the Blackboard. He also became the pianist at the Clover Club.

Simpson cut his first record for Tally Records, and had his first song cut by the Farmer Boys. He went on to a long career as a massively influential songwriter, whose songs became synonymous with the Bakersfeld Sound that launched Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, both of whom cut songs he wrote. More than 200 artists have recorded Simpson’s songs, which include “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” “The Highway Patrol,” “Gonna Have Love,” “Kansas City Song” and “Sam’s Place.”

As a solo artist, he released singles on Tally Records, Millie Records and Lute Records before signing with Capitol in 1966, earning a Top 10 album with Roll, Truck, Roll. He recorded eight albums between then and 1973, and earned a Top 5 single with “I’m a Truck.” Simpson was also a pioneer in the country music sub-genre of truck songs.

Simpson stopped touring in 1984 and focused on performing closer to home, becoming a Monday night regular at Trout’s for more than two decades. He traveled to Nashville in 2012 to perform at the opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhibit devoted to the Bakersfield Sound.

“He played a huge part in the Bakersfield sound and was a dear friend of mine for over 50 years,” Haggard shares on Facebook. “One of the original musicians on “Okie from Muskogee.” RIP Red Simpson.”

“In my opinion, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the twin pillars of the Bakersfield Sound. But directly under that is Red Simpson,” music journalist and historian Scott B. Bomar tells the Californian. “He wrote more than 30 songs that Buck recorded. He wrote about eight or so songs that Merle recorded. Red’s fingerprints are on Buck’s and Merle’s songs, as theirs are on his.”

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