Published Jul 30, 2013He 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…
Franklin: Well, the interesting thing about Harlan Howard is that he got his start in Bakersfield. He wrote "Tiger By The Tail." Jan Howard, his wife, was out there. And then you had Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins, along with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. So, to me, having all of those songwriters there was one of the key elements that made Bakersfield a viable music centre. When you combine that with all of the great musicians who were also there and all of those elements line up — it's like what happened with Motown, you get a sound of a specific area. You don't need any outside influence.
Vince, you mentioned Don Rich, and the synergy he and Buck had was just incredible. Was it a challenge for you to capture that when it came to the vocals on the record?
Gill: Well, not for me. Don was one of my childhood heroes. I've spent the last 35, almost 40 years, making records with people, for people, on my own and as a session musician, just trying to do that. So that was kind of the easiest part. Playing that guitar was a lot harder.
It seemed there was a time when your guitar skills were overlooked, but that doesn't seem the case anymore, with you appearing at events like Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival the past couple of years. Has it been important to you to keep people aware of what a great guitar player you are?
Gill: I think I knew early on, 30 years ago, that country music didn't embrace the idea of a guitar god the same way that rock'n'roll did. Guys like Eric and Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix were more famous for playing guitar than anything else, and I knew that it would be my voice and my songs that would be looked at first because Nashville's a town full of great guitar players. The guy who parks your car is probably a great guitar player. So, that was kind of the main reason I wanted to do this with Paul. I mean, I've sung duets with Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Reba, on and on and on, but I'd never made a real duets record with another musician that gets to the core of who I really am. It was a long time before I got up the nerve to sing these songs. And you mention those Clapton Crossroads shows; those were so invaluable in helping me feel a sense of validation. Here's Eric Clapton who, I'm not saying he wasn't paying attention to my career as a country music artist, but he saw the musician in me. So, going back to what I said earlier, I knew that my guitar playing wasn't the be-all-and-end-all of who I was, but that people would just eventually find out, and that was fine with me. I never wanted to ram it down their throats.
Paul, you're known as an innovator when it comes to pedal steel. But on this album were you determined to stick to a traditional approach with your playing?
Franklin: I was determined to be honest in the music. Both Vince and I decided at the start, why bother trying to re-paint a Rembrandt? We're just two guys who grew up being inspired by this music, so our intention was to tell people, this is what we love, this is where we came from, and this is our take on it. I've always believed in trying to put your own stamp on whatever you're playing, and that's another reason why Vince and I connect so well, because he's that kind of guy too. He's never sounded like anyone other than Vince Gill.
I'm curious to hear what you think about the current view of Nashville having one of the coolest scenes around. Have you been aware of that, and maybe energized by it?
Gill: Yeah, I think so. Honestly, I think it's always been like that here, it's just that people didn't know about it like they do now. They noticed when Dylan came here in the '60s, and there were other moments like that since. I think the perception was always a little bit incorrect, but now everyone's going, "Hey it really is true; it really is a melting pot." For the longest time people were afraid that a Nashville tag on something wouldn't give it the cred that it needed. But John Hiatt's lived here for 30 years, and all kinds of other people. Steve Winwood used to live here. So yeah, that perception has really been dismissed quite a bit.
You're going to be touring in Canada this summer. How's your relationship with our country?
Gill: I have a deep well of appreciation for Canada. When I first started in the early '80s, Canada was about the only place that was accepting of me. It took me a long time to really garner much attention here in the States, and especially Nashville, but it seemed that from day one Canada was really receptive. I've never forgotten that, and I'll never quit coming up there.
Your love of hockey doesn't hurt your image up here either. I'd forgotten that you've been a Nashville Predators fan from the beginning.
Gill: Yes sir, I've been a season ticket holder for 14 or 15 years now. I loves me some hockey.