Vince Gill Takes on Merle Haggard: 'As a Singer… It's Almost Foolish'

On Tuesday, MCA Nashville rolls out "Bakersfield," the new collaboration between Vince Gill and Paul Franklin that pays tribute to the music of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. On Friday, we took a look at the tracks that were originally recorded by Owens. In part two of our look at the album, we examine the influence of the man who actually played in the Buckaroos -- albeit briefly, in 1962 -- Merle Haggard (Fans will also note Haggard gave the band their famous name, as well).

Gill admitted that taking on the music of Haggard -- as well as Owens was a risk. "As a singer, it's a daunting task to have the guts to take on any of these songs. It's almost foolish. You're trying to show and prove how much you love the past, and how much these people meant to you, but the other side of it is that you're going to be judged. So, that's a great deal of pressure. There are some of the iconic records that shouldn't be messed with. I like a good challenge, and I love the way that when I sang Buck's songs or Merle's song, I honored the way that they sang. I phrased like they did a little bit, and with Merle's songs, he had more of a crooner side to his style than Buck did. He's my absolute favorite in all things -- musician, singer, songwriter, and all those things wrapped up in one, I don't think anyone has ever touched Merle Haggard to the degree of his greatness."

Another aspect of Haggard's career that Gill has the ultimate respect for is his songwriting. "It's what inspired me to be what I have tried to become. I didn't want to be an interpreter of songs, I wanted to be a writer of songs. That was just as important as being a guitar player or a singer. That history of the songs he has came up with over the past fifty years is unmatched. And, he's still writing great songs today. This record gave me some opportunities to do some things where I wasn't tied to the melodies of them in my own creativity. I could focus on my own creativity – whether that was James Burton on a guitar solo, Merle and Buck singing, or Don singing harmony." 

For Franklin, he got a chance on the Haggard cuts to cover some licks by longtime Strangers steel player Norm Hamlet. "After Tom Brumley left Buck, and went with Rick Nelson, Norm took over the chair (of the Bakersfield sound). He was kind of the unsung hero. He was equally as great, and it was an honor to get to play anything remotely like he did."

Though chart hits like "Branded Man," "The Bottle Let Me Down," and "The Fightin' Side Of Me" are included from Haggard's pen, the two did manage to come up with a couple "Deep Catalog" cuts – including "Holding Things Together," which Gill says was a no-brainer. "Ever since I left home, and started forging my way into a career that would take me into the honky tonks, I would sit in with bands, and you'd always look for a common ground of songs. I'd ask ‘Do you guys know Haggard's ‘Holding Things Together?' It was just one of those go to songs that somehow I remember singing when I would sit in with a band I didn't know. That and ‘Together Again' were the two staple songs of this record that we believed we had to do, because their history was so deep in our past."

Haggard – who is also represented with his 1970 top ten hit "I Can't Be Myself," wrote the liner notes to Bakersfield. Though Gill has recorded hit after hit, and is a member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry – the fact that Haggard likes what he heard makes him smile.

"It's better than anything I could describe," said Gill. "I just hope he's not pulling my leg. I've always been so influenced by him. It means the absolute world to me that he heard it, and we got a double thumbs up."

Franklin hopes that the music that people hear on Bakersfield inspires another generation of players to learn about the classic sounds of country music. "I hope that it leads players to not just start in the 90s or this decade when they are learning their instruments.. Dig back deep and see how a guy like me – who ends up on a Rascal Flatts record – learned how to play."