Red Simpson never drove a truck but he sang plenty of songs about big rigs. No less than 27 of the 165 songs on Bear Family's 2012 box Hello, I'm Red Simpson -- a five-disc set containing all of his Capitol recordings, along with his early singles and a wisely curated selection of latter-day recordings stretching into the early '80s plus several unreleased acoustic songwriter demos -- contain the word "truck" in their titles, and that count excludes tunes with "Wheels" or "Road" in the titles, or other truck-driving classics like "Give Me Forty Acres" and "Nitro Express." Simpson certainly didn't spark the truck-driving country phenomenon of the '60s -- in fact, he received his recording contract with Capitol solely because
its president, Ken Nelson, wanted to cash in on the craze, figuring Red Simpson looked the part of a weathered long-distance trucker -- but he wound up defining it, his electrified Bakersfield twang sounding tougher and more road-ready than the steady-rolling rhythms of Dave Dudley or Dick Curless. Simpson's records were designed for the long haul -- they felt like the open road -- but it wasn't just sonics that made Red superior to other truck-driving singers: he was a sharp songwriter, author of such West Coast country classics as "Close Up the Honky Tonks," "Gonna Have Love," "You Don't Have Very Far to Go," and "Sam's Place," a skill that came in handy when he was tasked with cutting collections of songs about truckers or policemen, as he did on his Man Behind the Badge album.
On the surface, all these songs about trucks and patrolmen seem like nothing more than novelties, and while Red certainly had a taste for the silly -- stretching all the way back to his second single "The Big Bank Robbery," a lark written in the style of Dallas Frazier -- Simpson's eye for small, telling details meant he found songs where others couldn't. A great deal of the pleasure of Hello, I'm Red Simpson is hearing these tales of the road, running all the way down to crafting an entertaining truck-driving Christmas album, something only a master craftsman could do. Simpson's sturdy workmanship wasn't limited to his writing; his deceptively casual delivery camouflaged how reliably sturdy his music and singing were, how he managed to hit a sweet spot with ease. Simpson wound up being limited by commercial constraints -- a reason he cut so many songs about trucks is that they were the only thing of his that sold, and when they stopped shifting units, he left Capitol and whiled away the rest of the '70s and early '80s re-recording hits and a few new songs for tiny budget labels. Bear Family chose to include only his newly composed tunes and covers from this period -- but that is no reflection of the quality of his music, which was consistently and thoroughly satisfying. And that's why the five discs of Hello, I'm Red Simpson are by no means overkill: through its seven hours there are no dead spots, the music is always moving forward, always the perfect soundtrack for long treks on the wide-open highway.