Review: Vince Gill honors Buck Owens, Merle Haggard in Bakersfield
BAKERSFIELD — Peddling the songs of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the heart of Bakersfield — when you’re neither Owens nor Haggard — could rank on the scale of tough gigs right up there with hauling coals to Newcastle and selling ice to Eskimos.
That was anything but the case, however, when 20-time Grammy Award winner Vince Gill and longtime friend steel guitarist Paul Franklin brought their new tribute album, “Bakersfield,” to its namesake town to celebrate the distinctive West Coast strain of country music and its two most prominent practitioners, who emerged there more than half a century ago.
It was no surprise, ultimately, that Gill and Franklin were accorded heroes’ welcomes for shining the spotlight anew on a richly fertile period and place by nearly 3,000 Bakersfield residents who filed into the Rabobank Arena Theater on Friday night.
None in the audience could have sounded any more enthusiastic about the musical salute than the evening’s host, who unapologetically described the Bakersfield music scene’s heyday in the late 1950s and 1960s as “in my opinion — and I get to have one — the best era in country music history.”
Gill and Franklin make their case on record with 10 songs — five each from Bakersfield’s two most significant artists — and on Friday, for what Gill said was probably the only time on their current tour, they played all 10, to the delight of the local fans.
Rather than simply homing in on a handful of the biggest hits from each of the musicians they chose to honor, they balanced the choices between cornerstone numbers — Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “The Bottle Let Me Down”; Owens’ “Together Again” — with songs from far deeper in each man’s trove of songs. Gill pointed out that in the process of putting the album together, he and Franklin had come across a pair of Owens’ songs — “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” and “But I Do” — that neither of them, as Owens aficionados for most of their lives, had ever heard before.
It made for a meaty segment in the middle of an expansive, 31/2 -hour, career-spanning performance that was as illuminating as it was celebratory. Gill is one of the finest singers of the last 30 years, and he was fully able to reflect signature elements of each artist’s vocal styles while bringing his own interpretive take to the songs.
You could see the straight line from Owens’ “Together Again,” which has been described as “the saddest happy song ever written,” to Gill’s 1991 hit “Look at Us,” which likewise deftly pairs a celebratory lyric with an achingly haunting melody.
Franklin demonstrated time and again the emotionally penetrating possibilities of the steel guitar, which Gill described as the single most important component in the sound of traditional country. Franklin made the steel moan, swell, jump, sing and weep in response to Gill’s heart-on-sleeve vocalizing and impeccable guitar playing.
Gill’s regular seven-member touring band filled out the rest in the tradition of Owens’ Buckaroos and Haggard’s Strangers ensembles, providing the rhythmic snap, tight musical arrangements and scintillating harmonies that created a valid alternative to the smoother, more polite country music that defined the Nashville sound in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
Earlier that day, Gill and Franklin gave something akin to a master class in the defining elements of the Bakersfield sound, in a preview program for a few dozen guests organized by the Grammy Foundation, the Grammy Museum and Gill’s label, MCA Nashville.
That session took place just down the road from the Rabobank at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, the concert club and restaurant that Owens opened in 1996 and played regularly with the Buckaroos until his death in 2006.
The two played a few stripped-down duo versions of the Haggard and Owens songs on the album and talked with the event’s moderator, Scott Goldman, about how the Bakersfield sound had influenced them professionally and personally.
Gill even choked up and shed a tear or two at one point talking about the friendship he developed with Owens, who acted as a mentor as Gill’s career was blossoming, sending the younger musician encouraging complimentary notes about his recordings and offering advice.
“An act of kindness like that,” Gill said haltingly, “is something that stays with you the rest of your life.”
The hourlong session before a few dozen museum donors, reporters and friends of the Crystal Palace was filmed, like those regularly conducted at the museum itself in downtown L.A. near Staples Center, and will soon be made available for viewing by students, visitors, scholars, journalists and others.
Among the anecdotes captured for posterity was Franklin’s memory of getting his first steel guitar at age 81/2 , because it was his father’s favorite instrument. When he started learning to play it, he said, his father handed him a Buck Owens album.
His advice: “Here’s how it’s supposed to sound.”
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