Country-music star Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin have teamed up to record a new concept album called Bakersfield. Their idea is to cover hits from the 1960s and ‘70s by two artists who helped define the Bakersfield, Calif., country sound: Merle Haggard and the Strangers and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. But this is no nostalgia-fest — it’s a vital testament to music that retains energy and innovation.
“Foolin’ Around” was a hit for Buck Owens in 1961, and it opens Bakersfield. Originally co-written by Owens and the great country songwriter Harlan Howard, it’s a prime example of the so-called “Bakersfield Sound.” That was a lively, honky-tonk, California-based alternative to the smoother, more orchestrated style that Nashville was developing in the 1960s. Haggard’s eloquently hard-boiled lyrics are showcased well on Vince Gill’s rendition of “Branded Man,” a No. 1 hit for Haggard in 1967.
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin are both members of The Time Jumpers, an on-again, off-again outfit with a shifting line-up; it specializes in Western swing. Gill has been a country star for decades, but behind the scenes, Franklin is just as significant a musician in his own area. His funky yet delicate style on the pedal steel guitar, the lap steel guitar and the Dobro, have made him a highly in-demand musician for hits by country singers such as Randy Travis, Reba McEntire and George Strait, and he’s played on records by artists as far afield as Barbra Streisand and Megadeth.
When Gill and Franklin started plotting this collaboration, they didn’t just listen to the hits. They also unearthed lesser-known songs by Owens and Haggard. Take, for example, “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore,” a 1966 Buck Owens album cut never released as a single, but a gorgeous example of country songwriting. Gill delivers the litany of body parts that ache with longing for a cherished woman in the song’s cleverly worded chorus.
Bakersfieldcould have been just a meticulous labor of love, of appeal primarily to cultists. Instead, the vigor and humor and creativity with which Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have approached this music brings it fully into the 21st century. The smart-aleck energy of Buck Owens and the tough-guy eloquence of Merle Haggard sounds now, through Gill and Franklin, like music that offers constant surprises, fresh thought and real emotion.