Jimmy Simpson : Ramblin’ Blues (reprint of A.J. Nightingale’s article in RSJ 7, 1984)
Many people regard the state of Tennessee as the cradle of Country music and I suppose that it was only appropriate that one of the finest hillbilly singers of the Fifties, JIMMY (J.D.) SIMPSON have been born in the state, at Sullivan Hollow, Ashland City, some twenty odd miles from Nashville on 24th March, 1928. His father, it seems, owned the Simpson Construction Co. « My parents were hard-working, honest, and religious people », Jimmy recalls in his book A Vanishing Breed. « This was the Depression era and we learned early in life to cope with hard times. We didn’t have a radio, but an old wind-up Victrola that played 78 rpm records, and that’s was our entertainment. »
A big man, six feet tall, Jimmy had definite stage presence and a gift of gab that enabled him to enjoy a side-career as a disc-jockey for most of the fifties and early sixties. His records were released on an array of small labels that continue to fascinate collectors – Republic, Hidus, Jiffy, Big State, Caprock, and his own Sourdough – but included a brief run with Starday as well. Along the way he managed to get in appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, and the Big ‘D’ Jamboree, with a wide array of country music characters, musicians, songwriters and disc jockeys : Jim Denny, Jack Rhodes, Harlan Howard, Slim Willet, Hank Harral, Tillman Franks, Willie Nelson, and Don Pierce, to name a few.
However, Jimmy, having graduated from the local Ashland High school enrolled in 1949 at the Medical Surgical School in San Antonio, Texas.
« I’m originally from Tennessee, but…first I was in the Navy during the latter part of WWII – I went in underage – I got my mother to sign the paperwork and I filled the dates. Then I came out and went back with the Paratroopers – 82nd Airborne Division – and while I was in the 82nd, I was down in San Antonio. (…) I met my wife Marcene down there. We got married in August ’49. I decided I could get a job on an oil rig. So I went to work up there, in Snyder. 1950-51. I enjoyed the oil field – but I got my back hurt.
Billboard advert Nov. 28, 1953
It was though in Texas that Jimmy commenced his serious attempts into the music scene with his debut over the airwaves from KERC in Eastland during 1952 and at KTKL further west in San Angelo. Encouraged by the response he was gaining from the listening public, Jimmy decided that the time was ripe for him to try and get on to wax, and returning to Nashville, he obtained a contract with Bill Beasley’s Republic label. He began his recording activities with « Rambling Blues » (7050) , a song set firmly in the Hank Williams mould with walking bass, steel a la Jerry Rivers and Jimmy even uses the Williams high and lonesome semi yodel. A degree of success was coming Jimmy’s way with appearances at such prestigious shows as KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride and the Big D Jamboree from KRLD of Dallas. With his band, the Oilfield Boys, he worked regularly in Northern Texas and back though Arkansas to Tennessee.
Nashville, mid-50s: Billy Byrd, Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Simpson (court. Andrew Brown)
During 1953/54 he had two more releases on Republic of which the Jack Rhodes penned « Sittin’ On The Doorstep » (7080) is very ‘Texas’ in it’s effective use of a ‘rinky dink’ piano. During 1954 Jimmy returned to his home state securing a job at WDBL in Springfield, a town not far from the family home in Ashland City. His contract with Republic being over Jimmy next turned up on the Hidus label, a local Springfield based outfit owned by the Hollman Brothers. All three platters on this label are superb examples of Mid South ‘Honky Tonk’ hillbilly. The mid-paced « I’m Gonna Win Your Love » (2002) has fine steel, swirling fiddles and nice guitar. « Honky Tonk Spree » (2005), which he co-wrote, is a real gem. Jimmy’s vocal is now much more assured as he tells his tale of « Drawing his paycheck, takin’ a shower, giving a lick and a shine to his stepped up shoes, pickin’ up his girl, gettin’ ready for Rockin’ and Jive ». Meanwhile, the backing, which now includes a pianist, provide great support. For his final release on the label, Jimmy covered Webb Pierce’s «I’m A High Toned Papa » (2007), a nice relaxed bopping disc on which the breaks are taken by fiddle/steel and piano, and chugs along splendidly.
It is known that Jimmy made some appearances on the Louisiana Hayride in 1955/56 and it was during this period of time that he recorded for JIFFY and BIG STATE. JIFFY 210 (Monroe, La. label) has « Blues As I Can Be », a solid bopper, with nice guitar, almost rockabilly.
« I lived at Greggton, Texas (in 1956-57), » Jimmy said in an interview. « We were on our way back from Nashville to San Angelo, and we stopped at Greggton…little town just out of Longview. We had everything we owned in the car. I had my work shoes and my hardhat, ‘cause I could always go to work on an oil rig if everything else failed. In a little restaurant there in Greggton, there was a driller in there that was short-handed, and I overheard ‘em talking. I walked over there and said, “You looking for a derrick man?” He said, “Yeah. You got your work shoes and hardhat with you?” I said, “I got it all underneath the trunk of my car.” At the time of this session, Jimmy was appearing at the famed Reo Palm Isle club in Longview. « That’s Bobby and Leo (on the session). I forget who that bass player was. He was from Monroe. I’m on rhythm guitar. I didn’t carry a fiddle at that time, but when I was in San Angelo at the Peacock Club, I had two steels and a fiddle. Everybody else would talk about two fiddles. I didn’t make any money up there myself. I was working on an oil rig. But I thought it would be different… Jiffy (Fowler) was a jukebox operator. I just kind of stumbled into him. It was a disc jockey there in Monroe, Ed Hamilton, who set us up in there and turned us loose…You know why that ‘Blue As I Can Be‘ come by? Johnny Horton’s ‘I’m a Honky-Tonk Man.’ » Two other songs recorded at this session were released on Big State 595 in the Starday custom series.
I am very partial to his « Can I Come Home » on BIG STATE 595. A Starday custom pressed disc, it is the nearest I’ve heard Jimmy get to Rockabilly. His vocal whilst being good is cleverly subtle, and the Luther Perkins type guitar work provide a solid base to assist a lightly touched steel man. As was mentioned briefly at the start of this article, his family was involved in the construction business and this may have been the reason for his departure to Alaska in the late Fifties. He soon got into radio working at both KBYR and KFAD in Anchorage. In 1959 whilst on leave in Nashville he cut two tracks which he sent to Hank Harral’s Caprock setup in West Texas. He did for him his first version of « I’m an Oil Field Boy ». It does seem that this may be how his Sixties discs were all cut as he also appeared on Starday itself with one of his best sellers « The Alcan Run », a nice trucking number, and had at least two releases on their subsidiary Nashville in the early Sixties. He also turns up on Sims in 1965. His last known, to me at last, recordings were two LPs on his own Sourdough label entitled « Sings Alaska », on which Jimmy was involved in composing 11 out of the twelve songs, and « Sings of Iditarod trail », in 2003.
Biography completed by article in American Music magazine # 109 (2006), and a post from Andrew Brown’s www.wired-for-sound.blogspot.com. Thanks for their permission.