Track of the Day: 'Roll, Truck, Roll'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, I noted the passing of Red Simpson, country singer of “truck songs.” Rick Jones, a reader, wrote me a note recounting a passing encounter with Simpson not long ago. (For context, the great Don Rich was Buck Owens’ lead guitarist.) Here’s Rick:

About 18 months back, I stopped in Bakersfield for a day on my way to LA. I stayed at the Padre Hotel, visited Don Rich’s grave, drove up to Delano to see 40 Acres (the home of the UFW) and to pray in Cesar Chavez’s church. The Kern County Museum had an exhibit about the attempt to ban The Grapes of Wrath when it was first published, complete with pictures of young school kids dutifully burning copies in empty oil drums under the approving eyes of the town’s big shots. In the back of the museum, there was an exhibit on “The Bakersfield Sound” and I snapped a pic of Red’s satin jacket.

Later that night, I noticed that Red still performed one night a week at Trout’s in Oildale, just across the Kern River. Lucky for me, tonight was the night.

Red was on the bandstand with a partner who played keyboards. There were maybe 15 people in the place, with a small dance floor. I was two months short of my 60th birthday and younger by a good 15 years than anyone else in the place, save the bartender Becky, who turned out to be the cousin of a grape grower I knew.

Red stoically performed my requests of “Roll, Truck, Roll” and “Highway Patrol” and then ducked outside for a smoke break, where he and his crew lit up their Camel straights.

Rick added that he’s got a special love for the San Joaquin Valley—Jim quoted him in an American Futures post on the topic in October. But I couldn’t resist passing along Rick’s ode to the region, its music, and its residents:

Places such as Bakersfield, like truck songs, are often just a punch line for many, but they embody the same impulse for created beauty and freedom that is in all of us. As I watched the octogenarians two step carefully yet confidently around the dance floor, I realized I had the honor to glimpse the last signs of one form of that impulse.

Red Simpson was still playing at 80. Maybe he needed the money, maybe he didn't. Maybe he performed out of an adamant allegiance to his art or maybe he just didn’t know what else to do with himself on a Monday night. Roll, truck, roll, indeed.