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Vince Gill And Paul Franklin Break Down The Bakersfield Sound

Aug 17, 2013
Originally published on August 18, 2013 3:23 pm

Vince Gill has been making records since he was a teenager. Paul Franklin plays pedal-steel guitar like few others have. The two country legends have a new album together titled Bakersfield.

It's a tribute to a particular kind of country music that came out of Bakersfield, Calif., and was created and championed by a couple of guys from that town named Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Gill says the Bakersfield sound grew out of musicians moving west in the hope of scratching out a living.

"They seemed to take that music with them: very honky-tonk driven, very beer-joint driven," Gill says. "It just was unabashed; it wasn't smooth, it wasn't croonish. I think what you have to do is compare it with the country music that was being made primarily in Nashville, which was a lot smoother: string arrangements and kind of cosmopolitan. And along comes Buck and Merle, and they got these twangy Telecasters and Ralph Mooney playing a singing steel guitar. In a way, it's like the Rolling Stones of country music."

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin recently spoke about Bakersfield with NPR's Don Gonyea. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation, and sample the album at Vince Gill's website.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DON GONYEA, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOTTLE LET ME DOWN")

GONYEA: We are about to be joined by a pair of country music legends. Vince Gill has been recording and making records since he was a teenager. He's a gifted multi-instrumentalist and singer and songwriter. His newest work is a joint project with someone you may not know but have certainly heard if you like country music. Paul Franklin plays pedal steel guitar like few others have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOTTLE LET ME DOWN")

GONYEA: Their new recording is called "Bakersfield." It's a tribute to a particular kind of country music that came out of Bakersfield, California, and which was created and championed by a couple of guys from that town named Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Vince Gill, Paul Franklin, thank you for joining us.

: Man, what a treat.

PAUL FRANKLIN: Thank you. Yeah.

GONYEA: OK. So this is one that's always kind of hard to describe for people. What is the Bakersfield sound?

: So many of those musicians migrated west from the Dust Bowl looking for work and a place to scratch a living out of the dirt like they'd been doing, and they seemed to take that music with them: very honky-tonk driven, very beer-joint driven. And it just was unabashed. It wasn't smooth. It wasn't croonish. You know, I think that what you have to do is compare it to what was going on with the country music that was being made primarily in Nashville, which was a lot smoother - string arrangements and kind of cosmopolitan.

And along comes Buck and Merle, and they got these twangy Telecasters and Ralph Mooney playing a singing steel guitar. And in a way, it's like the Rolling Stones of country music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOTTLE LET ME DOWN")

GONYEA: So let's talk about some of the classics on here. You guys knew these songs when they first came out, first go-round - Buck Owens' "Together Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOGETHER AGAIN")

: You got to put that in the top three of all time. Every now and then, you know, a song, a singer and a record production, all those things just fall in line. And you make the most amazing piece of music you could ever hope to make. It's simple, but it's heartfelt. It's got the greatest solo in the world. It's got Buck singing his brains out. And that for me is - that's a top five all time greatest record ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOGETHER AGAIN")

FRANKLIN: Those guys had a knack for writing material that delivered the message with a minimal amount of words. And I think that's why everybody can sing it, and it's a thing that just, you know, touches your soul.

GONYEA: So this disk ends with a Merle Haggard classic "The Fightin' Side of Me." When that song hit in 1969 - you guys were both kids - it landed smack dab in the middle of the culture wars in the United States.

: True.

GONYEA: Vietnam was raging. He takes a shot at protestors, sings: If you don't love it, leave it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FIGHTIN' SIDE OF ME")

GONYEA: Talk about the decision to do that one, aside from the fact that it's a Merle Haggard classic.

: Well, I've always admired someone like Merle Haggard that wasn't afraid to bow up on somebody, you know, and tell the truth and stick up for people. They talked about him being the poet of the common man, and it was really true. You know, you go to somebody like Johnny Cash, who's a great defender of people that were downtrodden or weren't treated fairly or disrespected or whatever, and they just had a sense of fairness about them that was inspiring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FIGHTIN' SIDE OF ME")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FIGHTIN' SIDE OF ME")

GONYEA: I'm speaking with Vince Gill and Paul Franklin about their new album "Bakersfield." So Buck Owens, of course, has passed on, Merle Haggard still very much with us. And...

: Very, very much, yeah.

FRANKLIN: Yes.

GONYEA: ...he wrote the liner notes, and he says, quote...

: He did.

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

GONYEA: ..."I like the whole album." Did you talk to him first?

FRANKLIN: Well, I mentioned to Vince, I said, wouldn't it be great if we could get Haggard, after we've finished everything, to write the liner notes? So we waited for several days on pins and needles because of all the people that would hear this record, he's the one that mattered most, you know? Because if he didn't like it, it's like we're crushed because he's our hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRANDED MAN")

GONYEA: I want each of you to talk briefly about the other for a moment. Paul, let's start with you. What about Vince Gill? Is there something that you hear, you know, something that we civilians might not notice?

FRANKLIN: Oh, God. I mean, I could go on for days. But just to talk about his singing, very few singers get to his level of emotion. He can sing all the (unintelligible) in the world, you know, the technique and all that, but I've never heard him - I can honestly say I've never heard him sing a note that he didn't feel with all his heart.

GONYEA: So, Vince, your turn. What is it about Paul Franklin's pedal steel work that just stops you cold?

: It's got to be his eyes. No, I'm just kidding.

(LAUGHTER)

: You know what? Here's the - to me, the great thing about Paul is, even though he's his own stylist in definitive playing, he's got enough of the history in his heart - that's the most important place - that he knows what Ralph Mooney played like. He knows what Buddy Emmons played like. He knows all these greats that were such a huge part of this history that gives him a vocabulary that's deeper than anybody I've ever known that's played the instrument.

And it's always been my favorite instrument. You know, I even tried to learn to play the steel guitar as a young kid at 18, 19 years old, and we eventually had to sell it. We called it a mercy selling because it was killing people.

(LAUGHTER)

: I think I've always loved the instrument the most because it sounds like a voice to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRANDED MAN")

GONYEA: Have you taken these songs back to Bakersfield for a live performance yet?

: We get to. We're going to - we're touring all the rest of this year, and we're going to play "Bakersfield" on October 25. So we've both got that circled as probably a career highlight.

FRANKLIN: Yeah.

GONYEA: That's going to be some fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOLING AROUND)

GONYEA: That's Vince Gill and Paul Franklin. Their new album of classic country music is called "Bakersfield." Gentlemen, it has been a real pleasure. Thanks.

: Thanks, buddy.

FRANKLIN: Thank you, Don.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOLING AROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.