Country music has offered its share of memorable opening lines over the years. With “It’s a Bloody Mary morning,” Willie Nelson jolted radio listeners out of bed. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge…,” a “semi” trucking (pardon the pun) song brought Kris Kristofferson fame — and a lot of royalty checks. And truck drivers alone carried Ed Bruce’s “After All” to the top of the charts with a rewrite of the lyrics following the song’s opening line, “There’s a parking lot….”
But when it comes to profound opening lines that offer listeners an indication of what’s to follow, it’s hard to beat Red Simpson’s 1971 hit song’s introduction: “Hello. I’m a truck.”
Joe Cecil “Red” Simpson was born in 1934 in Arizona, but like so many others during the Great Depression, his parents and 11 siblings soon relocated to Bakersfield, California. His family’s passion for music lit a spark in Simpson at an early age when daily gatherings featured his father on the banjo and sisters singing in harmony. Simpson became a master at the piano and on the fiddle and guitar. He wrote his first song at age 14 but earned his “teenage living” shining shoes and mowing yards in the early ’50s prior to graduating from Bakersfield High School.
A sheet-metal worker by trade, Simpson joined the Navy but found himself assigned to a hospital ship during the Korean War. While onboard, he and a few other musicians formed a band.
Upon Simpson’s return to Bakersfield, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were busy pioneering the “Bakersfield Sound.” This hard-driving form of country music, strongly influenced by rock ’n’ roll, featured electric instruments, an element that, to that point, had been left out of most country recordings. With tele chord guitars awaiting his arrival, Simpson entered the fray by the mid-60s, playing early honky-tonks in Southern California.
Simpson never received the notoriety of Haggard or Owens, but then, he was more of a songwriter than a singer. In fact, Simpson wrote or co-wrote several songs for Owens, who between 1963 and 1967 recorded 15 consecutive chart-topping songs. If Simpson was going to ride anyone’s coattails, he couldn’t have found any better to climb aboard than Buck Owens’. Between 1964 and 1970, Simpson wrote 25 songs with fellow Bakersfield performers like Owens, Haggard and Don Rich. Only one of those songs hit the top spot on the charts — Buck Owens “Sam’s Place” in 1967.
Early in his career, Simpson became a leader in the writing and recording of truck-driving songs. Growing up close to Highway 99, he became familiar with the trucks and drivers hauling citrus and other bulk crops, but Simpson never drove a truck, aside from a stint at the wheel of an ice-cream truck. Always the good guy, Simpson gave away lots of ice cream to kids who were living in poverty, and the company soon fired him.
As a musician, Simpson found a niche and became a pioneer of the truck-driving music that bridged the ’60s and ’70s. Unfortunately, even when the public built truck drivers into cultural icons based on songs like the ones Simpson wrote and performed, he saw little success on the country charts. Of the eight albums he released between 1966 and 1973, only two achieved Billboard Top 10 status. Five never even reached the charts. Simpson didn’t fare much better with his single releases, with only eight of 25 singles reaching Billboard’s Top 100. “I’m a Truck” was by far his highest-charting song at No. 4, and none of his other singles ever reached higher than No. 34.
For trucking-music followers, however, Simpson remains a pioneer who recorded more songs targeting drivers than any other performer of note. Even truck-driver favorites like Red Sovine and Dave Dudley couldn’t hold a candle to Red Simpson. At least nine of Simpson’s singles, and several of his albums, specifically refer to trucks in their titles, and a number of others focus on truck-driving themes.
As a singer-songwriter, Simpson will always be remembered for “I’m a Truck.” While the song is found on countless online sites offering opinions of history’s top trucking songs, to most, the song is a novelty. Within the genre, however, its staying power places it a cut above many other recordings.
Simpson performed “I’m a Truck” from the perspective of a truck that has a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with its driver. The truck’s dislike for its driver shows in lyrics like, “When we’re on time, he gets the credit. When we’re late, I take the blame.” The truck also tells of the time it saved the driver by clinging to the shoulder of the road when its driver took a curve on Route 66 too fast, and another time when the driver missed a gear and a “Volkswagen bus full of hippies” passed him.
“I’m a Truck” is humorous throughout, but one of its best lines comes when the driver parks his unappreciated truck next to a cattle hauler. “Why couldn’t he have parked me next to that little pink Mack over there?” the truck asks. “Gosh, she’s got pretty mud flaps.” As the song fades, Simpson gets in a jab at his buddy Owens with the complaint, he’ll “take out that Buck Owens tape and play it again. I don’t know why he doesn’t buy a Merle Haggard tape.”
Despite a career spent largely in the shadows of Owens and Haggard, Simpson made a name for himself on the streets and in the clubs in Southern California, where he was referred to as the “Bard of Bakersfield.” If you’re into truck-driving music, you’ll be pressed to find a discography as full of trucking-themed songs as Simpson’s. Chances are it will take some digging to gather the full compilation, but YouTube is a wonderful source.
Until next time, keep in mind that first impressions live on with people you meet. If you’re at a loss for words, just fall back on, “Hello. I’m a truck.” After all, it served Red Simpson well.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.