Tuesday, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin release their highly anticipated album "Bakersfield" on MCA Nashville. The set is a tribute to the music made famous by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard – with five songs selected from the catalog of both.
The album also pays homage to the musicians that made those artists' recordings so legendary – names like Don Rich, Tom Brumley, Roy Nichols, Ralph Mooney, and James Burton. But, as Gill told Billboard in part one of a two-part look at the album, though Owens and Haggard are known as legendary singers – both men had a flair for being musicians, as well.
"The beauty of it all is that Buck and Merle were such great musicians," Gill reflected in an exclusive interview at his home. "I think people lose sight of that a little bit because their songs were so great and they sang them so great. At their core, they were both musicians. Buck played guitar on Tommy Collins' records, and also on his own records. So did Merle. He also loved playing fiddle, and I think it's a testament to two musicians surrounding themselves with even better musicians."
Gill said that while he was aware of Owens's talents as a guitarist, he assumed that Don Rich was always the lead player and harmony singer on Buck's recordings. While that was true from the mid-60s on, the early records were a different story.
"The truth be told, and it was news to me, but a lot of the early records that Buck did, he did a lot of the guitar work, and his own harmony. I was fooled because I grew up watching the TV shows, and all those early songs did Buck did, he sang them with Don. I just assumed that Don sang on those records," Gill admitted. Rich – who died in a 1974 motorcycle accident near Morro Bay – was one of Gill's biggest influences. "I think I wanted to be Don Rich maybe even more than I wanted to be Buck Owens," he admitted.
For steel legend Franklin, covering the Owens classics gave him a chance to tip the hat to such great players as Ralph Mooney – who played with both men before settling into a long run with Waylon Jennings.
"I started playing pedal steel, and my dad bought me a Fender 400," he said. "The first album he bought me to hear how the instrument should be played was Buck's You're For Me. So, my first introduction to the music was through Ralph Mooney's playing. Anytime I managed to hit one of the licks that I heard, I was so excited. I just couldn't get enough of it. To get to do this again takes me back to the core of why I became a musician."
In selecting the Owens cuts, Gill says that they picked a few of the hits, such as "Foolin' Round" and 'Together Again," but they also tried to find a few lesser known jewels from Owens. "We picked two that we hadn't been aware of," he said. "I had never heard 'He Don't Deserve You Anymore' and 'But I Do,' which had been a Tommy Collins song. The fact they were both shuffles were really key as to why I thought they would be great to do. He had so many shuffles that were big hits, so to find a couple of things that were a little more obscure was important to me. It meant you went a little deeper into the catalog than just the most popular stuff."
However, it was an Owens classic – 1964's "Together Again," that Franklin took a special amount of pride in. The original 1964 record featured a legendary solo by Tom Brumley that has often been imitated yet never duplicated. Franklin wanted to add his own special sound to the cut. "What a thrill. I never thought there would come a day where I got to play this solo. We didn't want to do a sound-a-like record, so I kept on searching for a way to emulate the emotion he had, but still make it my own. We play this song every Monday night with the Time Jumpers at 3rd and Lindsey, and I kept working with it. I hit on this thing, and Vince leans over and says 'We've got to put that on the record."
(Monday, in part two of our look at Bakersfield, Gill and Franklin reflect upon the legacy of the man who wrote the liner notes for the album – Merle Haggard.)