The idea of a “scene” is intrinsic to rock and roll, but for whatever reason it hasn’t had the same cachet in country music. All roads have traditionally led to Nashville, but if there is one place that has always stood apart as country music’s Liverpool or Seattle, it’s Bakersfield, California. For a generation of artists including Vince Gill and pedal steel maestro Paul Franklin, the Bakersfield Sound, epitomized by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, was their primary inspiration, providing a raw and personal counterpoint to what was happening in Music City during the mid-1960s.
Gill and Franklin’s joint collaboration, Bakersfield, pays tribute to the impact that sound had on each of them at the earliest stages of their musical development, with 10 tracks equally split between Merle and Buck classics, including “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again.” The project grew out of Gill and Franklin’s participation in the Time Jumpers, the all-star Nashville crew whose weekly Monday night jams at the 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill have become the stuff of legend. Whenever Gill’s turn came around to lead the band, he often leaned on those Merle and Buck songs he’d learned in his youth, and was always taken aback by the response they received.
“The reaction would be pretty overwhelming, really,” Gill says. “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.”
Franklin agrees, adding that while he and Gill grew up in different parts of the country – Detroit and Norman, Oklahoma, respectively – the Bakersfield sound had already made an indelible impression on each of them by the time they first picked up their instruments. “My first pedal steel was a Fender 400, and along with that I got a copy of Buck’s You’re For Me album,” Franklin says. “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.”
It’s hard to think of a more humble Nashville star than Vince Gill. Although a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee in 2007 and a Grand Ole Opry mainstay for more than two decades, he comes across as a working musician at heart, an artist consistently striving to remain at the top of his game, both as a singer and guitarist. Gill’s close ties with musicians such as Franklin, whose career began backing Barbara Mandrell and Mel Tillis and led to him becoming one of the most versatile and innovative pedal steel players around, is what has predominantly kept that fire burning.
“I’ve known Paul for over 30 years and I’ve always adored his playing,” Gill says. “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.”
Instead, they homed in on the other unique aspect of the Bakersfield sound: the songwriting. What made this California town – which in the 1960s still had a modest population – such a hotbed for country music remains up for debate. The infusion of Dust Bowl refugees over the previous three decades, and more importantly the stories they brought with them, was the biggest factor. But neither Gill nor Franklin can go much further in explaining the plethora of musicians and songwriters besides Merle and Buck, such as Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins and Harlan Howard, who called Bakersfield home.
“For me, it came down to the fact that Buck and Merle wrote their own songs,” Gill says. “There weren’t tons of guys that wrote their own songs here [in Nashville]. 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.”
In reinterpreting that power on Bakersfield, Gill embraced the challenge of pushing his already renowned guitar skills to the level of his heroes, especially on the Hag signature tunes “Branded Man” and “The Fighting Side Of Me,” which earned the author’s endorsement in the album’s liner notes. In recent years Gill has also been invited by Eric Clapton to take part in his annual Crossroads guitar festival, something Gill admits has made a significant impact on his approach.
“Those were so invaluable in helping me feel a sense of validation,” he says. “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.” As genres continue to blur, the irony of Bakersfield may well be that it brings Gill a whole new audience who simply appreciate classic songwriting and top-notch musicianship, whether it comes with a Nashville tag or not. With the city now cool again thanks to the help of Jack White, the Black Keys, Robert Plant and others, Gill seems ready to join the party.
“I think the perception [of Nashville] was always a little bit incorrect, but now everyone’s going, ‘Hey, it really is true; it really is a melting pot,’” Gill says. “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 and 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. 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.”