By Joe W. Specht
Where the Cotton Grows and the Rich Oil Flows
A musical tour through the Permian oil patch can be a tour through the energy industry’s colorful past as well. Hank Harral and Jimmy Simpson lived the life in fact and in song.
In our first (August issue) installment of this series, we covered the work of Freddie Frank, Slim Willet, and Wayland Seals—pioneers all in the little-noted and vastly underappreciated world of oil patch music. This month we tune in two more troubadors of the petroleum persuasion.
Hank Harral’s “Tank Town Boogie” (Caprock 45-104) further personifies the rambunctious musical energy oozing from the Permian Basin during the 1950s. Harral—radio announcer-disk jockey, singer-songwriter, and record company owner—was born in Albion, Pushmataha County, Oklahoma, in 1913. After his mother’s death, Hank went to stay with a grandmother in Corsicana, Texas, before moving to Amarillo in 1926 to live with an uncle. Two years later, a 15-year-old Hank, who was already proficient on guitar, began a lifelong association with the radio business when he secured his own show as the “Happy Yodeler” on Amarillo radio station KGRS (1410 AM). Harral signed on for his first announcing job in 1933 on KICA (980 AM) across the state line in Clovis, N.M.
In 1947, Harral returned to Texas, joining the staff at KSEL (950 AM) in Lubbock, where he took on responsibilities as program director in addition to his announcing duties. Hank made his initial recordings with his band, The Plains Riders, the same year (all unreleased at the time). He then formed the Palomino Cowhands in 1949, and the group waxed several of Harral’s compositions, six of which were issued in 1950 on John Erickson’s Star Talent Records. He recorded two more self-penned sides for Tanner Records in San Antonio as “Hank Harrall [sic] The Cowhand.”
Harral’s next stop was Big Spring, Texas, and KHEM (1270 AM) in 1957. Here he decided to start a record company with a most appropriate name, Caprock Records (Big Spring lay at the southern end of the Llano Estacado escarpment, often simply called the Caprock). Although Hank had intended for Caprock to be an outlet for his own recordings, he soon began releasing vinyl by other performers: Hoyle Nix and His West Texas Cowboys, Jimmy Simpson and His Oil Field Boys, Jack Tate and the Sandy Land Playboys, Roy New and the Trans-Pecos Melody Boys, and Max Alexander and the Hi-Fi Combo.
Caprock Records was just one of several small independent companies, most short lived, that sprang up in the region during the mid-to-late 1950s. These included Ben Hall’s Gaylo Records, also in Big Spring, as well as Jesse Smith’s Bo-Kay Records in Lamesa and Slim Willet’s Winston Records in Abilene. Each issued a steady stream of 45 rpm discs capturing the grit and flavor of the West Texas music scene.
Of Harral’s four Caprock singles, “Tank Town Boogie” continues to attract the most attention from record collectors and aficionados of the sounds of the Lone Star State. Often labeled as rockabilly, “Tank Town Boogie” is actually a retro up-tempo number more akin to the call-and-response boogies popularized by the Delmore Brothers (“Freight Train Boogie”) and Tennessee Ernie Ford (“Smokey Mountain Boogie”) a decade earlier. Recorded at Ben Hall’s garage studio, High Fidelity House, in the summer of 1958, the woogie-tinged piano of Dale Burkett and the crackerjack electric lead guitar of Weldon Myrick contrast nicely with Hank’s clearly enunciated deadpan vocals.
There’s a little oil town by the side of the way
It’s got oil tanks in it and it’s there to stay
Got one main street and a courthouse square
You’ll know when you’re in it when you get there
Tank town boogie [repeated by vocal chorus]
This is it all right [repeated by vocal chorus]
Honky tonk-tonk in a tank town Saturday night
From the early days of the Spindletop discovery in 1901, when excess crude had to be collected in earthen pits, the proper storage of oil has been a necessity and a top priority of the petroleum industry. Permanent tanks soon appeared constructed of either wood or steel. In the Permian Basin, until pipeline infrastructure could be laid, tanks took on even more importance, and it was not unusual to find isolated sagebrush communities encircled by storage vats, i.e. “tank towns.”
The tank town that Harral depicts with “one main street and a courthouse square” could easily have been one of the less populated county seats south of Big Spring: Big Lake (Reagan County), Rankin (Upton County), or Crane (Crane County), not that Big Spring and Howard County didn’t have their own repositories. In 1929, John Cosden built and opened a 10,000-barrel-a-day refinery just east of town on the Bankhead Highway, and the facility (now Alon USA Refinery) continues to process petroleum products for a variety of West Texas customers. Wherever the location, the town’s future is secure—“It’s got oil tanks in it and it’s there to stay”—further commentary on the positivism permeating the patch.
Elsewhere in the song, Harral speaks directly to those who are familiar with the ambience of the oil field: “If you ever been a driver or a pusher by heck / Then you know what I mean when I say roughneck.” In this case, a driver being a truck driver and a pusher or tool pusher, the person in charge of the drilling operation. He also harkens back to an era when derricks were assembled on site: “If you even been a rigger on an old oil rig.” By 1958, however, portable mounted rigs had become the standard, which made it easier and more efficient to relocate to a new drilling site. But if the rig builders were gone, a phrase from the past continued to apply: “Well, we stacked the rig just about sundown / Went down on the square just to fool around.” In its original context, stacking a rig literally meant taking the derrick apart; now it simply meant taking the rig out of service to await the next assignment.
And what does the crew find on the town square? Why it’s a “tank town ball” at “the old dancehall.” Our singer spots a tall blonde. “So we dozy-doky-doed around that old dancehall” until around 2 a.m., when a couple of the fellas instigate a brawl. “I’m telling you boys, I was high as a kite / I had two black eyes from a hard-swung right.” To validate the traditional roughneck image as hell-raising man on the go, it’s more than appropriate, then, for the boys to end up chasing women, drinking, dancing, and engaging in fisticuffs in a “honky tonk-tonk in a tank town Saturday night.”
Jimmy Simpson was an out-of-stater who arrived in the years following World War II, a period (1947-1950) when drilling activity in the Permian Basin increased by 50 percent. Simpson, one of eight children of a hardscrabble farming family, was born in 1928 in Sullivan Hollow, Tenn., near Ashland City. He dropped out of school in the 8th grade and hit the road, first to Texas, then on to Mississippi, Louisiana, and back to Tennessee. In 1942, Jimmy took a job on one of the numerous pipeline crews constructing the Big Inch, a 24-inch-in-diameter line designed to transport crude oil from Longview, Texas, and the huge East Texas field to refineries in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.
Simpson also served a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After “the hitch” in the Navy, he “worked pipelines about a year” before re-entering military service in the U.S. Army. While stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, he met Marcene Best. The couple married in 1949. Marcene was from Bronte, Texas, in Coke County, and, with discharge papers in hand, the newlyweds moved to nearby Robert Lee. Here Jimmy signed on to work on his first oil rig.
Coke County in 1950 was a-swarm with drilling activity with the Jameson, Bronte, and Fort Chadbourne fields all in production. Roughneck positions (one of the four roles supervised by the driller on a rotary drilling rig) were readily available in the area, but Simpson had to lie about his job experience—pipelining didn’t count—before he found employment. And his story is illustrative of what it takes for an inexperienced hand to break into the oil patch: gumption and grit combined with a willingness to take on the demanding, dirty, and often dangerous working conditions. The first night on the rig, Jimmy recalled in his autobiography, A Vanishing Breed, “was a 3-ring circus,” and it quickly become obvious to the driller that the new hire was a novice. The next morning the driller told him, “If you hadn’t busted your butt so hard last night, I would have you run off, but I’m going to keep you because I think you’ll make a good hand.”
In the summer of 1950, Simpson, now a full-fledged roughneck, headed north to Snyder, Texas, and Scurry County, where significant amounts of oil deposits had been discovered in 1948 along the Canyon Reef. Prior to the recent resurgence in the Barnett, Eagle Ford, Wolfcamp, Spraberry, and Cline shale formations, Snyder was often labeled the “last big Texas boom.” As Jimmy observed in his autobiography, the boom was definitely on when he arrived: “… you could count 479 rigs out across the landscape if you were standing up in the derrick at night. It was no problem to get a job on an oil rig in Scurry County … all you had to do was help the driller run pipe into the hole, or help him bring it out of the hole, or help him make the round trip, and you’d get 8 hours for it.” In fact, over 2,000 wells were sunk in Scurry County during the height of the drilling frenzy (1948-1951). Unfortunately Simpson hurt his back on the job in 1952, which resulted in another career change: “… during my recuperation I got into music, eventually playing bars, clubs, radio, and TV. I recorded several songs during my travels in music.”
While headquartered in San Angelo performing at the West Texas Jamboree, Simpson trekked to Nashville in 1953, where he made his first recordings for Republic Records. The second Republic release, “Oilfield Blues” (Republic 7064), was a yodeling blues number in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers with more than a touch of Hank Williams’ vocal stylings. The lyrics were straight out of the Simpson biography with references to Coke and Scurry counties:
I’ll never forget the day, it was a good while ago
I worked on my first drillin’ rig a little north of San Angelo
From there I went up to Snyder, just thought I would settle down
Where the cotton grows and the rich oil flows, it was just another boomtown
And Jimmy pledged his affection for the Lone Star State with a yodeling refrain, “Texas you’re the land for me, I’ll be comin’ back soon.” The oilfield connection stuck, too. Later recordings for Hidus, Jiffy, Big State, and Caprock were issued as either by “Jimmy Simpson and His Oil Field Boys” or “Jimmy Simpson and the Oilfield Playboys.”
In 1956, Simpson—gimpy lumbar and all—returned to the oil patch, this time in East Texas. Driving from Nashville to San Angelo, Jimmy and Marcene stopped in Greggton, Texas, a small community later annexed by Longview. As he recounted to music historian Andrew Brown, “We had everything we owned in the car. I had my work shoes and hardhat, ’cause I could always go to work on an oil rig if everything else failed.” In a café, he overheard a driller complaining about being shorthanded. Jimmy inquired, “You looking for a derrick man?” For the next year, Simpson roughnecked in the oil fields of Gregg and Cherokee counties. The stopover inspired “I’m an Oilfield Boy,” co-written with his wife. “Marcene and I wrote that song in Alto, Texas. I was working on an oil rig. My back was hurting—man, I’m telling you, it was in a world of hurt.”
Simpson recorded “I’m an Oilfield Boy” and “Breaker of My Heart” in Nashville in 1959 with Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland on lead guitar and Don Helms on steel guitar. At the request of Hank Harral, Jimmy sent the masters for the two songs to Hank for release on Caprock Records (Caprock 45-113). The reviewer in Billboard pronounced “I’m an Oilfield Boy” a “folkish waltz sung neatly by the chanter,” and the lyrics capture a sense of the wanderlust and free spirit mentality that characterized the nomads who moved from one boom to the next poking holes in the earth.
I’ve drilled oil wells when my back ached with pain
Drilled in the snow, the sleet, and the rain
Drove many fine cars, but none were my own
Paid lots of rent, but I ain’t got a home
I’ve made a fortune for the other man
Making my living by sweat and by hand
The danger is doubled, but the money is good
I wouldn’t quit even if I could
I’m an oilfield boy that’s been around
I’ve been in love, but I can’t settle down
I’ll keep looking for one I’ll call wife
Who can live the pace of the oilfield life
In addition to the personal reference to an aching back, “I’m an Oilfield Boy” touches briefly on several general aspects of the oil patch lifestyle. Drilling operations rarely stopped for inclement weather. Certainly by 1950, a roughneck had to have reliable transportation to get to and from the rig site. With housing always in demand, a boomer could only hope to find livable rental property and certainly not a house to purchase. And no matter how much profit the oil company reaped or how hazardous the work, a roughneck could depend on receiving a regular paycheck. Perhaps most importantly is the recognition of the hardships a wife had to endure, if adventurous enough, to accompany a husband on the go where she was expected to provide a livable environment for her family whether it be in a tent, shotgun shack, or trailer house.
In the spring of 1957, the Simpsons prepared to move to Alaska to homestead. There in the 49th State, Jimmy worked as roughneck, radio disc jockey, private contractor, real estate developer, Arctic Cat snow machine dealer, and gold prospector. Each year during the winter, he returned to the Lower 48 to visit family and friends. He also continued to record. A 1965 session in Nashville produced a re-recorded version of “I’m an Oilfield Boy” released simply as “Oilfield Boy” (Sims 233). In 1967, he waxed an album, Jimmy Simpson “The Oilfield Boy” Sings “Alcan Run” and Other Alaska Songs (Sourdough LP 101), which contained two oil patch songs, “I’m an Oilfield Boy” (the Caprock master) and “Pipeliner’s Day.”
Simpson’s gold mining exploits in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon earned him much recognition. He even titled his popular selling autobiography, first published in 1996, A Vanishing Breed: The Gold Miner. But for those familiar with his records from the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Simpson is first and foremost “the oilfield boy.”
Joe W. Specht is at work on Smell That Sweet Perfume: Oil Patch Songs on Record, a project focusing on commercially recorded songs with petroleum-related themes as sung/written by performers with roots in the Gulf-Southwest. If you have a song that fits, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.