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Q&A: Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Get Steely With ‘Bakersfield’ Salute

Our Country

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Paul Franklin and Vince Gill

It’s not always simple to tell who’s honoring who. Bakersfield, the just-released album by Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin, consists of half Merle Haggard covers and half Buck Owens tunes. Haggard loves it enough to have written liner notes for the project. But maybe Hag shouldn’t feel too excessively flattered, because although it’s a tribute album, it’s really an homage to the great players who backed him and Buck back in those Bakersfield days.

What ended up as a putative Buck ‘n’ Merle salute began life as a possible album of instrumentals, due to Gill’s desire to have some seriously fiery interplay with Franklin, the most revered of modern Nashville steel players. It marks the first time Gill has shared billing on an album, and certainly the first time an instrumentalist has enjoyed equal marquee space with a Country Hall of Fame member. That’s the sort of thing that musicians do, but not stars. That Gill manages to count in both categories is just one unique factor — another being that Bakersfield is actually being released by a major label, although it was recorded when Gill was between contracts and expected to release it independently.

Vince and Paul both live in a town east of Bakersfield called Nashville, where we rang them up separately to discuss the new project and the vintage sounds it revives. First, Gill tells us how this unusual project came to be his first back under the Universal Nashville banner… and how covering Haggard did or didn’t bring out his “Fightin’ Side”:

YAHOO!: It sounds like the two of you briefly thought of making an all-instrumental record before coming up with the Bakersfield concept.

GILL: We talked about it. First of all, I didn’t know if he would want to make an instrumental record with me. He’s otherworldly to me when he plays that instrument, and I did not want to presume anything. He said, “No, I love the way you play.” Then I said, “For me personally, I don’t know that an instrumental record would hold my attention for its entirety. It seems like it might be cool, but,” I said, “maybe I could sing the songs.” Paul said, “That’s a great idea! Most instrumental records, you can’t do that because nobody can sing.” (Laughs) While I sing these songs, it’s still very much a guitar record and a steel guitar record—just with some guy singing the songs, too.

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"Bakersfield"

YAHOO!: It seems like, in country music, this record may be historic. I can think of records like the live album Eric Clapton did with Wynton Marsalis, but in country, can’t think of anything where instrumentalist got co-billing. Is it unique in that regard?

GILL: I think so. You know, what’s funny is, I’m an instrumentalist too, but nobody sees me as that. (Laughs) They see me as a singer—which I am. But yeah, I think that’s a really great part of why this is a good idea. It pays some respect. If you look at Paul’s discography, I think it would blow people’s minds, to see the hundreds of artists he’s been a part of helping their careers. He’s probably taken the instrument more places that anybody could have ever perceived it could go, doing everything from being out on tour with Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits and being on Megadeth records. He’s the one guy that embodies the steel guitar’s past and its future the best. I’m a musician, so for the most part I’ve always thought that the musicians were equally as inspiring to listen to—maybe more so, in some cases—in addition to the artists. It’s always equal to me, never “the artist is the most important thing and then whatever’s happening on the record is secondary.” I’ve never looked at any record I’ve ever heard that way. So everything’s been democratic in my mind from day one.

YAHOO!: Did the label ever question why this shouldn’t be billed as just a Vince Gill album, to make it easy for consumers?

GILL: I think they were completely down with it from day one. What’s interesting is, to be honest, I didn’t think they’d want this record. They do what they do, the modern, commercial, big machine, and I just thought, that’s the last thing they’ll want. I was getting ready to make a solo record for MCA, but I said “Hey, I made this record with my friend Paul Franklin. I don’t think it’d be anything you’d be interested in, but I want you to hear what I’m doing.” And I played it for Mike Dungan, who heads up the company, and he said, “I think this could work.” I said “Well, okay—have at it!” To have the opportunity to have a worldwide machine behind a project like this is pretty remarkable.

YAHOO!: I had the opportunity to see the showcases Universal Nashville held at the Ryman during Country Radio Seminar the last two years. In 2012, you came out on stage and announced you were off the label, but you still wanted to play a song or two, and I thought that was magnanimous. And then in 2013, you came out on stage during their showcase again, and I thought, boy, that’s really magnanimous, that he would still be showing up for their events a year after exiting.

GILL: “I was just kidding! I’m back!”

YAHOO!: And of course, you were there to announce your return to the label.

GILL: It was funny. I was surprised at the reaction. All I did {in 2012] was say, “My contract ran out. I’m really not an artist here anymore.” But there was no animosity, there was no weirdness. I was just going, “Hey, it’s the first time in 35 years I haven’t had a record deal.” Then Mike came over to head the company. He called me and said, “I want you to make a record for me. I think you should be here.” And I said, “Okay.” My contract just ran out. I didn’t leave the label, they didn’t drop me. It was none of the drama that sometimes that world can have attached to it. It was just a matter of being in-between contractual obligations. Now I’m back in contract! (Laughs) It didn’t last long... Like I said, I was surprised that they wanted this record. It makes me have so much hope for the future still of record companies and artists that have great art to put out there. A lot of people bemoan what’s going on and don’t like what’s going on. This is a testament to saying “Hey, we like this, this is different, maybe we’ll run it up the flagpole.” We’ll see. I just admire their courage.

YAHOO: When it came to choosing the Buck and Merle songs you’d cover, you went for a mixture of classics and lesser-known material. You got to “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” but you also wanted to expose a less familiar song like “I Can’t Be Myself’…

GILL: That’s a song that I think is still as relevant today as it was then, almost 45 or 50 years ago. I can’t believe I finally got the opportunity to make a record where I could put that song on. And then we had to have a prison song — “Branded Man.” It wouldn’t be a good Merle Haggard project if we didn’t have a prison song.

YAHOO!: Merle’s Vietnam-era “Fightin’ Side of Me,” which closes the album, is a song that had a lot of cultural baggage for a long time. Yet everyone seems to love it now. I was at a Bob Dylan concert a few years ago where Haggard opened the show, and the Dylan crowd was singing along with it.

GILL: There you go. That was a real tumultuous and cynical and divisive time in our country’s history when he wrote that song. I found that when I sang it, I had a little bit different reaction to it, because of how many years had gone by since all that. I saw it much more as an honoring-type song rather than a divisive kind of song that would say “Take my side or we’re gonna tango.” It’s just seeing the sacrifice that’s been going on for all these years, by the men and women have served our country and died. I’ve done benefits for ‘em and it’s a big part of my life. I had a totally different reaction to that song and thought it was really beautiful in the way that it was Haggard sticking up for those men and women.

YAHOO!: There’s something about hearing your voice on “Fightin’ Side of Me” that makes it sound less cantankerous or confrontational or…

GILL: Mean? (He laughs for about 20 seconds.) True! That’s what I said. We were gonna record that and I said, “I don’t know if I can pull this off. I’m soft!” Where I sing, it’s a little too high to take me real serious, saying “hoss” — I knew it might sound a little funny. I get a kick out of hearing you say that.

We also spoke with the man who brought out the collaborative side of Gill, Franklin, talking not just about the new album but how the Bakersfield movement of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s changed the way steel guitar was played and perceived.

YAHOO!: What are your recollections of how Vince pitched the project to you?

FRANKLIN: I went out with him on the road a couple of years back and he asked me if I’d ever done an instrumental record. And I told him, “None that I’m proud of.” (Laughs) Then at the beginning of last year, we’re sitting on a back porch at the Station Inn, and he said, “Man, I’d like to do a record with you. Would you like to do a record?” And that just blew my mind. We’ve played on a lot of records together, going back to the Dire Straits piece he sang on, On Every Street, and then I played on his first (solo) thing. So this is a long friendship. But with a guy who’s done so many duets throughout his career, where probably anybody he wanted to do anything with would jump at that opportunity, when he says “Hey, I’d like to do (an entire album) with you”… it blew my mind. That kind of thing doesn’t happen... We view this as much as an instrumental record as we do a vocal record, because there are long solos on everything. Maybe the average music listener doesn’t know this, but in the musician community, Vince is thought of as highly for his guitar playing as his vocals. When he plays guitar, it’s like Knopfler and Clapton. People revere the uniqueness about the way they all play the guitar. And Vince is that guy, too.

YAHOO!: Was it easy to determine how you’d divide up the solos?

FRANKLIN: Obviously it’s a duet record and I don’t sing, so he’s gonna feature me on every song. On “Together Again,” that one song is him singing and me playing. That stayed true to Buck Owens’ original version of that song, so it made sense. But I love the trading off. On “Holding Things Together,” I take the shorter solo in the middle, and then the whole fade is Vince. It’s about a three-minute guitar fade, and then I do a few little answers. It’s a true musical conversation.

YAHOO!: In the era of records that you’re covering here, was there anything particular that the Bakersfield folks did that elevated steel guitar or made it special that wasn’t typical in Nashville?

FRANKLIN: Ralph Mooney was on Buck’s first records and Merle Haggard’s first records, and the unique thing that Ralph brought to the instrument was, first of all, he had the high string that we all have now. He added the high G sharp note to an E triad. Basically the top note on a steel guitar up until that point was an E note, and he stuck a G-sharp above it. So there was that bright sound that he could get that not a lot of the Nashville guys were getting. Within a year, they were all there, too, but when it first hit, there was that (unique) element to it. But also a bouncy (quality). I think Ralph Mooney played more like a guitar player than he did a steel guitarist. He didn’t do a lot of sustaining. He didn’t do the “crying” style—even though he could; on “I Threw Away the Rose,” by Merle Haggard, that’s a really crying steel part he has on there. But that was more of a rare thing for him. He’s mostly hitting notes aggressively, like he did with Waylon Jennings in later years. He was more of a rhythmic kind of player, which is unique, because Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day, who were doing most of the Nashville sessions, were more about playing longer notes and sustaining. So it was actually an opposite approach. He played more of an aggressive approach like a rock guitar would. Here’s another element. In Nashville, the guitars were smoother. They were using hollow body guitars. And Bakersfield was near the Fender guitar company, so they were using electric bass instead of acoustic bass, and Fender Telecasters. So you had the twang. And Mooney, if he wanted to cut through them, he couldn’t just sit there and play pretty. Whatever was driving him to create those licks that he did — which are amazing — part of it was probably survival: “I want to be heard. I want to be viable.” (Laughs)

YAHOO!: That Bakersfield scene faded away, obviously, but it’s remarkable how it persists as an influence and as a legend.

FRANKLIN: I just think it’s music that’s always going to be viable. Will that sound come back as hits today? Judging from the climate as it is, I doubt it. But it will always influence musicians of today. Not too long ago, I did a Blake Shelton thing, and they said, “Give me something more animated.” So what I often do is I’ll either go to Pete Drake or I’ll go to Ralph Mooney, and remember how aggressively he hit a string. So I’m going right back to Bakersfield. Even though nobody in the session but maybe me knows where it comes from, I’m still drawing on and inserting that. And I hear guitar players; they might have distortion on it, but they’ll play something and I go “Oh yeah, that kind of attitude was on one of Buck’s records.” I’m hearing it; it creeps in. but as a total musical form, a lot would have to change for that kind of music to make the airwaves.

YAHOO!: How much would you say steel is a part of today’s country records? Nowadays you tend to hear a lot of steel on a lot of records, but it’s more subliminal. Sometimes I think they’re including it just so no one can accuse it of being a pop record, even though it kind of is. But at least it’s still in there. Do you have a sense of how much people do or don’t want to feature the instrument?

FRANKLIN: As a studio player that gets these calls, I do agree. If you’re signed as a country artist, then you’re looking to get more masses of rock and pop people into your camp, so on those kind of artists, you’re gonna have the steel guitar in there, but it’s not gonna be dominant. Because if there’s one instrument that says country music, it’s the steel guitar, to me. I don’t mean that because I play it, but the steels and fiddles have always dictated. Even when we did Shania’s records, and Mutt (Lange) was producing, if you listen to that, there’s steel. On the Up record, you listen to any given track, and there’s sometimes two or three passes of steel parts, including a rhythm part on there that most people probably don’t notice.

I just had the good fortune of playing on John Mayer’s new record. In the middle of the overdubs, he said, “Now I’m hearing this more like Buddy Emmons.” And I had to stop him and say, “Wait, how do you know Buddy Emmons?” Because I just didn’t expect that comment to come out of his mouth! I thought, he’s a Hendrix-driven guy, from the way he plays the blues. He proceeded to tell me how “Night Life” [the Ray Price classic] was one of the greatest solos played on any instrument. So when I get with rock people, who are maybe looking to draw in some country audience, they tend to want more steel guitar in modern times. And then when you get the country artists headed towards trying to grab some pop audiences, they tend to downplay it!

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