Vince Gill & Paul Franklin
Back to Bakersfield
He may not be the flashiest Nashville star, but nobody commands respect in Music City like Vince Gill. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007 and the recipient of 20 Grammy Awards, Gill is the consummate contemporary country artist: at home both singing a ballad on the Grand Ole Opry stage, or tearing it up in a club on his Telecaster. He shows off more of the latter side on his latest release, Bakersfield, a collaboration with pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, who has played with everyone from Shania Twain to Megadeth. The album pays tribute to the songs of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but also the "Bakersfield Sound" best associated with them. Exclaim! spoke to Vince Gill and Paul Franklin in Nashville.
Vince, you're at a point in your career where you've earned the freedom to try different things, so was the time right for you to do this project?
Gill: I think so. As far as being at a point where I can do whatever I want goes, I think that's always been the case to some degree. I don't recall anyone ever holding a gun to my head and saying, "You have to do this." Obviously, you're led by success and lack of success, and you try to change what you're doing into whatever it needs to be. There's no real pressure, and I don't know if there ever should have been. I've known Paul for over 30 years and I've always adored his playing, so as a musician it's a no-brainer to work with a guy who's probably the deepest well when it comes to that instrument. The fact that he wanted to make a record with me was very flattering, and hopefully a tribute to my musicianship. More than anything, I think this is a guitar record as much as a vocal record. We talked about making an instrumental record, but that idea ended up being pretty boring for both of us. When we'd play with the Time Jumpers here on Monday nights, I'd throw in an old Merle song that I'd been singing all my life and the reaction would be pretty overwhelming, really. So that got us thinking about doing a whole album of those songs. The other thing is that I don't think there's a better era of music in which to showcase the steel guitar and the style I play with my Telecaster.
You can definitely still hear the influence of Buck's band the Buckaroos and Merle's band the Strangers on a lot of musicians today. Was making this album living out a fantasy for you in a way, in terms of recreating that sound?
Gill: Yeah, I think so. The other thing that's so apparent to Paul and I is that when we were impressionable young musicians at eight, nine, ten years old, that was the most inspiring stuff going on. And really, it was life changing for both of us when we look back and assess what brought us to where we are today.
Franklin: My first pedal steel was a Fender 400, and along with that I got a copy of Buck's You're For Me album. That music gets right to the core of who I am. When we both started, we didn't know the difference between Bakersfield and Nashville, but we were both drawn to it as we were learning how to play. Vince was hearing James Burton and Roy Nichols, and I was hearing Ralph Mooney and Tom Brumley. On top of that, the songs were just so melodic and the lyrics were beautiful on their own. The whole Bakersfield thing was just genius.
The other thing about the Bakersfield sound is that it really crossed over with rock and roll audiences as well. The Beatles recorded "Act Naturally" and Merle had a huge influence on what became country-rock.
Franklin: I remember seeing Buck Owens at Cobo Hall in Detroit in front of 20,000 people, and when they opened with "Buckaroo" it looked like the 4th of July with all of the flashbulbs going off. They were playing all electric instruments — they were a rock band, and that was my first rock concert. I think why maybe some of the rock people gravitated toward it was because it was a small band and the sound wasn't as smooth or layered as what was coming out of Nashville. If you couldn't play live, you couldn't make a record, and Merle and Buck lived by that.
What, in your view, made this music from Bakersfield so much different from the music being made in Nashville at that time?
Gill: Well, for me, it came down to the fact that Buck wrote his own songs and Merle wrote his own songs. There weren't tons of guys that wrote their own songs here. There was Hank Williams obviously, and Willie [Nelson] — although his popularity came much later. The majority of artists here had songwriters who wrote for them. I've always felt that, whether it was James Taylor or Roy Orbison, when they wrote their own songs they could make those melodies really suit what they did best. When you think about the way Buck sang and the way Merle sang, those songs were tailor-made. I think therein lies the biggest difference with that collection of songs, and history would bear that out in a big way, especially with Merle's legacy. With Buck, being on Hee Haw and then the death of Don Rich and a few other things sort of slid him on a different path than Merle. But early on, writing his own songs and doing what he did, it was pretty powerful. Unstoppable, really.
Franklin: What I realize now is that country music has been recorded in a lot of different places. I think Jimmie Rodgers cut up in New York, and other people cut records in Philly and Chicago, but it's true that Nashville became the Mecca because they had the songwriters. At any given time you had Willie [Nelson], Bill Anderson, Hank Cochran…
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