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Vince Gill and Paul Franklin: Back to the Bakersfield sound
Two pickers pay tribute to Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and a California country legacy

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

If the new album collaboration between Vince Gill and steel guitar legend Paul Franklin is a hit, Gill jokes, "We could become the hottest duo in country music history." But he's already considering the consequences. "We'll have our own [separate] busses and we'll fight," he says over Franklin's hearty laughter. "It'll be real ugly."

In truth, Franklin says, while recording "Bakersfield" — released July 30 — the only thing the two stars squabbled over was where to eat lunch each day.

Encamped in Gill's guitar-lined and beautifully appointed home studio in Nashville, the two men settle in to discuss "Bakersfield," which they co-produced. Barefoot, and wearing a black T-shirt adorned with the nickname George Jones gave him — Sweet Pea — Gill explains that in creating the album, they were "trying to find a way to stick up for a traditional side of our music.

"I think there's an audience out there that feels very disenfranchised about what they're getting that's branded as country music," he says.

The project pays homage to Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the famed Bakersfield sound those country music legends created. It includes five of Owens' songs and five from Haggard, but they're not all the obvious choices and biggest hits. Instead, Gill and Franklin say, they chose songs that served as the best showcases for Franklin's pedal steel and Gill's Fender Telecaster playing.

More on Bing: Buck Owens | Merle Haggard

"For those two instruments ... this kind of music is exactly what they were best at," says Gill, who notes that the project was "an instrumental-minded record at its core," even though it includes his vocals. "This is as much a guitar record for me as it is a singing record."

If there's anything to critique about the album, it's simply that's it's over too soon. At 10 songs and 37 minutes, "Bakersfield," leaves the listener wanting more. But that's less a commentary on the project's brevity as it is on its quality. For country music purists, this will be the album of the year.

But Gill, who is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a 20-time Grammy Award winner, says their intentions were more humble. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We don't think we can make records better than Buck and Merle. We just love what they did, [and] this is our interpretation of what we learned" from them. In planning the project, Gill adds, the two musicians "started realizing how much this era of music was so much a part of our fiber.

"I think it's the best era country music ever had," he adds. "Nashville's probably not going to enjoy hearing that too much, but it's just my preference." All of the songs they chose for the project were originally released between 1961 and 1974.

Photo gallery: Country style (revisited)

Franklin, who has won the Academy of Country Music's Steel Guitar Player of the Year award 13 times, says, "That [Bakersfield sound] era came along at the same time the Beatles were changing America — and pop and rock — in the '60s. Buck and Merle were doing the same thing with country music. It was very aggressive and very real. ... It's hard to find a country band today that doesn't know a Merle Haggard or a Buck Owens song. It was that large of an impact, I think, on America."

The two musicians have been friends for 35 years and perform together weekly in the Grammy-nominated band the Time Jumpers. It was playing a couple of the album's tracks with that band — specifically Owens' "Together Again" and Haggard's "Holding Things Together" — that inspired the album. Says Gill, "people were going crazy for them. We'd do 'Together Again' in the club and the place would blow up.

Among the album’s other well-known re-makes are Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and "The Fightin' Side of Me," and Owens' "Foolin' Around." But the album also includes two Owens songs neither man was previously familiar with, "He Don't Deserve You Anymore" and "But I Do."

Gill is quick to explain that the album is "not a note-for-note knockoff" of his heroes' songs. Far from it. He and Franklin manage to put their own instrumental touches on the tracks, including a solo on "Together Again" that's twice as long as on the original, a two-minute fade on "Holding Things Together" and solos on "The Fightin' Side of Me" that weren't on Haggard's version.

Says Gill, "A lot of those records never had any solos in them. And we got to reinterpret the intros and make them a little bit different. I don't think we pissed anybody off too bad."

While Gill changed up his own vocal style to suit the songs, he avoided any attempts to copy Owens and Haggard.

"I couldn't [sound like them] and wouldn't want to," he says. "That was not the point. The point was to know them enough — how they sang — to emulate it in a way that honored and not copied. There's quite a big difference. ... That's the great fear that all of a sudden you're impersonating [the singer] whose song it is you're doing. That's when it gets cheeky. That's when it gets really sappy and corny and bad. That was my great hope that it never entered into any of those things."

Bing: More on Vince Gill

Haggard wrote the album's liner notes, and said of the project, "I feel highly complimented." He added, "I can only give the entire project a big, old double thumbs-up!"

That endorsement was exactly what Gill and Franklin had been hoping for, and Franklin admits he cried when he read Haggard's words. "The seal of approval from Merle was beyond belief," he says. "It still makes me cry."

For Gill, "That's who I wanted to love this record the most, hands down. I didn't care if anybody else liked it if Hag liked it. If he's going to roll his eyes and go 'What do they think they're doing?' then I would have been crushed."

While recording this album sparked many ideas among the two musicians for similar remake projects they can — and might — do in the future, Gill says, "There's a side of me that's really not a big fan of covers. I have too much artist in me that wants to write my own songs that I don't think this would ever become a predominant part of my life. But it's a great thing to share with Paul, and we're having a ball and looking forward to traveling around a little bit and playing these songs."

They'll embark on a 28-date U.S. and Canadian tour Aug. 8 that naturally includes a stop in Bakersfield, Calif., on Oct. 25.

Beyond honoring his musical heroes, Gill says there was a larger goal for the project.

"I don't think anybody really gets, sometimes, the point of trying to do a record this traditional," he says. "It's really to turn young people on to what is great about country music. Musicians did that to me at 16 years old. [They] inspired me. ... So I really hope what this will do is inspire young people."

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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