From the honky tonks of Oildale to concert halls across the world, the hard driving, guitar driven country music that came out of Kern County – known as the "Bakersfield Sound" - has captured millions of fans across the world. Superstars like the late Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, not to mention hundreds of other musicians made Bakersfield, at least for a few decades, a true rival of Nashville’s famed music row. Now a new album by Vince Gill and pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin seeks to honor that music – it’s called simply Bakersfield.
Vince joined us on Valley Edition to talk about his new record, his upcoming tour which includes stops at the Rabobank Theatre in Bakersfield this Friday night, then on Saturday up Highway 99 in Turlock at the Turlock Community Theatre, and finally in Visalia at the historic Fox Theatre on Friday November 1st.
Q: It has to be exciting to do an album like this and to take your music on tour to the city that inspired it. What’s that like?
A: This was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done in my career. I mean I've always written my own songs and I've always tried to emulate what guys like Buck and Merle did by being singer-songwriters and to be able to take the great songs of their and be able to put my stamp on it, along with Paul’s, was arguably one of the greatest things I've ever gotten to try to do.
I adored this music as a young boy. When I was young this was the music that was about as hot as it could get in our world. So it was very much ingrained in me. Even all the years I played and made records that never did anything like this, I was always borrowing from those guys and always using the influences that I had from them in just about everything I'd done, so it seemed only right that I should do some of their songs.
Q: People talk a lot about the Bakersfield sound today – but do you think it’s is it hard to appreciate just how revolutionary that music was back, say in 1963 when Act Naturally came out, especially compared to what Nashville was producing at the time?
A: I think that obviously in the least fifty plus years, I think that has made that music even more reverent and more traditional. But in its day, in comparison to what was going on here [in Nashville] it was much different. It was much more hard-drivin' it was much simpler, it was a little more roadhouse, a lot more beer-jointy, and not as lush and cosmopolitan. And so in a sense to me, it sounded like it was rockin' more. They always had it very beer-joint minded, honky-tonk minded, it was stripped down, it was a four or five piece band, with one guy singing harmony with Don Rich, and just simple. But yet because of its space, that music left a lot of space, and that's what I think I like about it, how raw it felt.
Q: You mentioned Don Rich. When people talk about the Bakersfield sound, of course they think of Buck and Merle but there’s so many other musicians who made all of that possible. Don’s Fender Telecaster was such a signature part of the Bakersfield Sound. Of course he died far too young at age 33 in a motorcycle crash. What comes to mind when you think of Don Rich?
A: He was probably as big of a mentor to me as Buck or Merle or Ralph Mooney or Tom Brumley, or any of those guys because he was not only the musician that he was, but he was the harmony singer too. He was kind of the heart and soul, he was Buck's right arm, his right hand. And just the two of them together were so seamless. It was not unlike the Louvin Brothers or the Everly Brothers or that kind of thing. I just adored Don Rich, and learned to play Buckaroo as a kid. You know Buck played a lot of guitar too. Buck was a much better guitar player than he ever gets credit for. He played a lot of guitar stuff on those earliest records before Don became a part of Buck's sound. And Buck sang his own harmonies too for a lot of those early records.
But you talk about this record I made with Paul Franklin, and I think one of the real common bonds for both of those guys, Buck and Merle was Ralph Mooney. He played on both of their records, before Tom Brumley came along and started playing with Buck. He was a great part of the definition of that sound too. Once again you compare the steel guitar stylings of Ralph Mooney versus maybe what was going on here with Buddy Emmons or some of the guys like that, they would have played a lot prettier and lot smoother, but Ralph played a lot more hard-drivin' and a little more intense. Once again, that was as much a part of the sound, it just was a combination of all those things. It was just meant to be.
Q: Speaking of great combinations, your co-leader on this record is Paul Franklin. And while he’s might not be a household name, is musical titan of the pedal steel. Tell our listeners a little about Paul , and your relationship and how far that goes back.
A: Paul and I have been friends for about 35 years and we've played music together off and on all those years, in the studios and things like that. And he was the one who played on my first hit record, When I Call Your Name. He played the steel guitar solo on that.
I've always been probably the biggest fan of the steel guitar of anybody on earth, and always loved the sound of it. I got to travel for many years with the great John Huey. John was a great steel guitar player who played on all the Conway Twitty records, and was arguably one of the greatest steel guitar players ever. And I always was drawn to wanting those kinds of musicians to be my right hand, like I said earlier, like Don Rich was for Buck Owens. And I think you could make the same case for either Roy Nichols or Norm Hamlet, that they were the real glue behind a lot of Merle's records, and you could throw James Burton in there too, who played a lot of Merle's early records along with Roy. And I don't know my history well enough to know who exactly played on what.
But just once again to be around musicians like Paul has been my favorite thing. I've recorded with probably, I don't know, 600 or 700 artists over the years, on their records and duets and things. And I just decided if I was going to make a duet record, I should make one with a musician. That's what I've always been. I was always a musician first, a singer second, songwriter third. And so I wasted to honor my history too, as much as I wanted to play music with Paul. I just think he's brilliant.
Q: And your version of Together Again on this new cd is just that, it’s a duet, an incredible piece. Tell me about recording this. Paul has a great solo on this one.
A: I think if you go back to Buck's original record, you'd be hard pressed to not find a more definitive, more compelling solo than Tom Brumley played on Together Again. And I think it's probably the most famous steel guitar solo in history. And even when I bought a steel when I was about 18 or 19 and tried to learn to play, the one solo I tried to learn to play was Together Again by Tom Brumley and Buck. And Paul obviously tried to have some semblance of what Tom had done.
But we neither one felt compared to make a copy minded record. We wanted this to be the way we play. And as much as we were influenced by all those guys we still had to find a way to play like we do. To me there's never been anything that compelling about a note-for-note record. I think that you should have your own creativity and spin on things. And Paul certainly does and he takes that steel guitar solo to the most beautiful place.
Q: Picking out the songs for this record must have been a challenge. Buck had so many hits, and Merle is a prolific songwriter to this day. How did you narrow it down to just 10 songs?
A: I think more than anything, once again, as much as this became a singing record, the point was to pick songs that really suited the way I play the Telecaster and the way Paul plays the steel guitar. We didn't want to do a song unless it could have a great opportunity for a steel solo or a guitar solo. So that was kind of a prerequisite.
There were a couple songs that we felt like were deal breakers. Together Again would be one of them. That's one of the greatest songs ever. But yet we wanted to try to find some things that weren't just the biggest hits that both of them had. In Buck's case we found two songs I didn't even know. And I didn't think you could stump me on Buck trivia! We found But I Do, a Tommy Collins song that Buck recorded early in his career, and also another song called He Don't Deserve You Anymore. And once again, songs that I didn't know, but suited themselves very very well to what Paul would play on them. So, those were two choices.
With Merle there was one song that I knew I had to do, and that was I Can't Be Myself, that's always been probably my favorite Merle song. And we had to have one prison song so Branded Man, and then just a little edge with Fightin' Side of Me, and what else did we do? The Bottle Let Me Down, the greatest drinkin' song ever written, and then Holding Things Together. Holding Things Together and I Can't Be Myself are the two staple Merle songs that I've sung my whole life.
Whatever bar I go into and somebody says "hey will you get up and sing one," about 100 percent of the time it will be one of those two songs. So some of the selections were, kind of like I said they were deal breakers, songs that we both knew we wanted to do. And then some were trying to find a handful that weren't quite so popular and this and that, showcase what Paul can do, and hopefully what I can do with a guitar.
It's as much an instrumental record as a singing record. I think that's probably hard to explain to people because they put on the record and they hear me sing and that's probably where they're really going to point their focus to for most people. But a lot of the music-type folks who really like the intricacies and all the moving parts, they're going to get that it's as much an instrumental record for Paul and I as it is a singing record.
Q: And it’s been well received by all quarters, including Merle Haggard himself who wrote the liner notes to the cd. How did that come about?
A: Yeah that was Paul's idea. I was so grateful Paul thought of that. I don't have enough words to describe how much I revere Merle Haggard. That was, you know, talk about the litmus test of wanting to really pass - that was the one. Paul and I both said, if he really likes it, then job well done, that's all that really matters. And he really genuinely seemed to enjoy this record. I think because he knew we didn't, like I said earlier, a sound-alike record really doesn't serve much purpose. We kind of tried to put our own stamp on things. I tried to play the intro to the Fightin' Side of Me similar to the way the record was, but I bent the strings in a totally different way and I think I found a really neat new way to play that, and you know exactly after three notes what song that is, but it's not played anything like the original and same goes for Paul and just about everything he played on that.
Q: Earlier this year, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened a new exhibit about the Bakersfield Sound and it proved so popular that they extended its run. A couple of years ago President Obama honored Merle Haggard at the Kennedy Center Honors and you and Brad Paisley performed Workin Man Blues that night. Now your new album is out. Do you think that there’s a new appreciation for the legacy of Buck and Merle and the legacy of the Bakersfield Sound beyond just here in California? Because sometimes there that rivalry between Nashville and Bakersfield.
I obviously was not here in the early 60's when all that transpired. But I've never felt that. I’ve never felt that from anybody here. I don't think there's anything but the most, uh, I don't even know how to describe it. There's so much respect for Buck and Merle here, that I can't fathom that anybody didn't think it was the greatest thing they ever heard when it came here, when they did it originally. I think they've always had that rock star status from Nashville especially. And I don't know that I believe that that rift really existed. It might have from a business sense and things like that, but from musical people, no, I think they always, and the whole world knew how great they were. And you know, at the same time the whole world knew how great other people from here were.
I hear the same thing about Austin and Nashville now, "Austin's much cooler [place]," and I go ahhh, you know? Musical people are just musical people. I think Bakersfield wound up being a place that so many people migrated to during the Depression and the Dust Bowl. They took the honky-tonks with them and took the music with them. The same thing happened here. People migrated here and made this a melting pot of musical people. And I've never seen any honest kind of rift that you speak of. And to tell you the truth, when I was six years old I didn't know where in the hell any of it came from. I just liked it. I didn't know where it was recorded. I didn't know where Merle Haggard made his records as a kid. And I think most people wouldn't know when they listen to the radio if a record was made in California or in Tennessee.