For a musician who has written enough songs to stuff a suitcase -- which, in his heyday, he famously filled with regularity -- all too little has been written about Red Simpson outside his hometown.
That is about to change for the man who's been called the Bard of Bakersfield.
A new five-disc set from Germany's Bear Family Records hits the streets Tuesday, just in time for Simpson's 78th birthday and two days before the March 8 "Tribute to Red Simpson" concert at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace. Longtime friend and fellow musician Tommy Hays helped arrange the show along with Barbara Cheatwood.
The boxed set, "Hello, I'm Red Simpson," isn't merely a collection of every song Simpson ever recorded for a major label, both in his truck-driving and non-truck-driving professional incarnations, it's also an in-depth biography of the singer-songwriter. The term "liner notes" hardly suffices for the hardbound, 108-page coffee-table-caliber text that accompanies the recordings.
Author Scott Bomar -- who will be on hand for Thursday's show with a stack of the impressive $150 boxed sets -- did much more than write the profile of Simpson. He tracked down a vault of photos and, perhaps most challenging, located thought-to-be-extinct music tracks that even Simpson didn't own. In the case of at least one stubbornly wary collector, substantial negotiating skills were required.
"Don't believe any of that stuff he wrote in there," Simpson warned. "Naw, I'm kidding. He did quite a job. My part was a couple of days but it took him a couple of years, almost. He got it done real good."
The collection reveals a Red Simpson who has been alternatingly impish and tender over the years. The wise-cracking rascal -- on display every Monday night at Trout's, where Simpson has held court for years -- comes out on songs like "Highway Patrol," "(Hello) I'm a Truck," "Bull-Shippers" and the 10 (yes, ten ) truck-drivin' Christmas songs assembled in this set. The tender-hearted balladeer steps out on "Lucky Ole Colorado," "A Little Bit of Her," "I Miss You a Little" and others.
The collection is studded with rare gems, including "Sweet Love" (CD 1, Track 1), Simpson's first recording. The song, on Tally Records, featured backing vocals by Bonnie Owens and lead guitar by Roy Nichols.
Bomar is particularly fond of "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves" (CD 2, Track 9), which features some great guitar work by Gene Moles, and "You Put My World Back Together" (CD 5, Track 20), a full band demo from the '60s that was never released. It's a vintage slice of the Bakersfield Sound.
March is certainly Simpson's month. In two weeks the man once known as Suitcase Simpson for his briefcase full of songs -- a story that's more myth than fact -- will serve as a Bakersfield ambassador at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
The occasion is the debut of a new exhibition, opening March 23: "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country." The 5,000-square-foot exhibition, which runs through December 2013, tells the story of the stars, sidemen and songwriters who created and popularized the music that came out of Bakersfield between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s. Dwight Yoakam narrates the exhibit's audio presentation.
On March 24 Simpson will serve as panelist -- along with Buddy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Rose Lee Maphis, Jean Shepard, and Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose -- in a public presentation about the Bakersfield Sound to be moderated by Bomar. Simpson will perform afterward, backed by Deke Dickerson's band, with other panelists most likely jumping in.
"Deke backed me up in New Orleans at the House of Blues when I played there year before last," Simpson said. "We'll figure something out."
While they're in Nashville, Simpson and his longtime producer, Gene Breeden, are planning to meet up for the first time in many years -- and they're "kinda thinking about" recording some songs together, Simpson said.
Simpson professes to be stunned by all of the attention.
"I couldn't hardly believe it that someone was honoring me like this," he said.
"I was shocked when they said they wanted me to perform. I guess you'd say I'm flabbergasted."
But he'll be ready for it, he said, as long as "Mr. Mish" doesn't come calling first. That Red-ism, in case it flew over your head, is a reference to the Bakersfield mortuary director. Oh, that Red. Essential Red
Red Simpson songs everyone should know:
Merle Haggard: "You Don't Have Very Far to Go"
Buck Owens: "Sam's Place"
Dwight Yoakam: "Close Up the Honky Tonks"
Ferlin Husky: "I'm Not Me Without You Anymore"
Buck Owens: "Kansas City Song"
Wynn Stewart: "I Bought The Shoes That Just Walked Out on Me"
Wanda Jackson: "Acting Like My Old Self Again"
The Farmer Boys: "Someone to Love"
Johnny Paycheck: "My Last Night in Town"
Junior Brown: "Highway Patrol"
Alan Jackson: "Santa's Comin' in a Pickup Truck"
Buck Owens: "Gonna Have Love"
Red Simpson: "(Hello) I'm a Truck"
Red Simpson: "Bill Woods From Bakersfield"
Red Simpson: "Lucky Ole Colorado"
-- Scott Bomar and Robert Price