OILDALE Monday nights at Trout's offer lessons in the Bakersfield Sound and for 78-year-old Red Simpson, the working musician's enduring reward of a steady gig.
A prolific songwriter who wrote for Buck Owens and Merle Haggard before carving out his own niche singing truck-driving songs, Simpson entertains a silver-haired crowd every Monday.
A wry figure in a jaunty cap, Simpson sits behind keyboards and lends a still-sturdy baritone to his own songs and to Bakersfield standards such as Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield" and Haggard's "Silver Wings."
As Simpson and steel guitar player Larry Petree perform, couples glide across the floor as they did half a century earlier, when they came to see Simpson and other Bakersfield Sound musicians perform here in Oildale or out on Edison Highway, in honky-tonks such as the Lucky Spot.
Performing helps keep him young, Simpson said before taking the stage on a recent Monday.
"You gotta smile at them girls," he said, explaining his motivation.
Do they smile back? "Sometimes," he said with a grin. "The ugly ones."
The trademark red hair that earned Joe Simpson his nickname has gone gray or just "gone gone," as he put it but his audience is happy Simpson stayed in town.
"He's the only one that didn't take off," Leatha Wilson, 71, said as she sat alone at a high-top table, listening to Simpson, nursing a light beer and waiting to be asked to dance.
Dubbed "Suitcase Simpson" by the local press because he was rumored to carry a suitcase full of songs, Simpson said he long ago lost count of his compositions. But he once saw a printout from music licenser ASCAP that could have stretched, he said, across the large room at Trout's in which he sits.
Best known for his 18-wheeler songs like "Roll, Truck, Roll," and "Hello, I'm a Truck" popular when CB radios were all the rage Simpson also wrote many hits for Owens. They include the No. 1 hit "Sam's Place," and "Close Up the Honky Tonks," later covered by alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons and by Bakersfield Sound revivalist Dwight Yoakam.
Simpson co-wrote "You Don't Have Very Far To Go" with Haggard. That song has been recorded by Haggard, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and others.
Simpson has a story for that one. You get the sense he has stories for all his roomful of songs.
Simpson and his suitcase are full of it.
"I was three blocks from the Lucky Spot," headed for a gig with a band that included Merle Haggard on bass, Simpson recalled. "And I thought, 'I don't have very far to go.' "
He had partially composed the song by the time he arrived, and played it for Haggard.
"Merle said, 'If I ever get a record deal, I will cut that song,' and I said, 'You don't sing good enough.' "
Subject of a just-released five-CD retrospective "Hello, I'm Red Simpson" ($140 at cduniverse.com) put out by a German label, Simpson will travel to Nashville this week to mark the opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Bakersfield Sound exhibit. Simpson will speak on a panel and headline a concert Saturday.
"I think of Red as an elder statesman of the Bakersfield Sound," said Michael Gray, co-curator of the exhibit.
Simpson last visited Nashville a few years ago, for a big truck show. He lived in Sherman Oaks for a bit when he was with Capitol Records, and led a band while in the Navy during the Korean conflict.
But mostly he has stayed in Bakersfield, where he lives in a mobile home park with his wife, Joyce, and where he grew up in a musical household with farm-worker parents from Louisiana and Georgia.
Simpson took a sheet-metal course but never had to use those skills. He's been able to earn a living as a singer and songwriter.
He shares his good fortune every Monday with music fans who grew up like he did.
The Monday event "really is about keeping the Bakersfield Sound alive," said Trout's president, Thomas Rockwell. "It's about dignity, not only for the artists, but for people who grew up in an era and in a town influenced by writers and singers and performers like Red. They get to come here, and it's not a senior center. There is a blood flow."
Wilson, a retired teacher's aide, has come out to hear live country music in Kern County since shortly after she arrived solo, via Greyhound bus, from Arkansas as a teenager.
"They never once asked for my ID at the Blackboard" when she was underage, Wilson said of Bakersfield's most famous honky- tonk. "Maybe that's because I was pregnant at the time."
She was designated driver for her truck-driver husband, Junior, whom she married in her teens. He died 20 years ago, but Wilson still likes to dance, and gladly accepts when a gentleman approaches her table.
Wilson said she's not much of a fan of modern country music.
"When they sang it, they lived it," she said about Bakersfield Sound musicians like Simpson. "This sounds more like real country."