VINCE GILL: NO STRANGER TO BAKERSFIELD
By Jim Wright
Vince Gill is no stranger to Bakersfield. In fact, this talented country music singer-songwriter still remembers his first gig here, inside a lounge of a bowling alley. And through the years, Gill has graced the stages at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace and The Fox Theater. OnOct. 25, he’ll perform with buddy and steel guitarist Paul Franklin at Rabobank Theater on their tour for their new album titled “Bakersfield.”
Gill, an Oklahoma boy who moved to Southern California at age 19, soon built a relationship with Buck Owens and his family. A few years later, Gill was introduced to Merle Haggard.
“The fact that I knew them both to the degree I did was even more inspirational to the making of this record for me,” Gill said.
Bakersfield Life had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Gill about partnering with Franklin on this album, what it meant to record historic Buck and Merle songs, and why he’s looking forward to coming back and playing for our city.
Why did you decide to partner with Paul Franklin on this album, and how did the idea for “Bakersfield” come about?
Paul and I play together with a band called the Time Jumpers. It’s a Western swing band that we play with every Monday night in Nashville. We’ve been friends for over 35 years and played a lot of music together. I thought the idea of doing a duet record together might be something unique.
I said, ‘We could do some Buck songs and some Merle songs and really feature the steel guitar and my guitar playing.’ … I was getting ready to make a new record, and I didn’t think they [MCA Records] would have any interest in it. I played it for them and they kind of went nuts and said, ‘I think we can do something with this.’ We were jumping up and down that a big, powerful company like that would want this record. It’s got a lot of neat history behind it, and there is a curiosity about a record like this.
With so many great Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs, how did you narrow your list to record only 10 songs?
We could have picked any Buck song and any Merle song and been fine. … We found a couple of Buck songs that neither one of us knew. The two songs were “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” and “But I Do” … We couldn’t have missed with any songs we chose by those guys. To actually finally record them, play them and sing them was an even better testament to the greatness of those two men.
What did it personally mean to record this album?
I love those guys. They have always been my two favorites, so it made sense that we weren’t just dong something that we thought was a lark. Their music was so ingrained in our childhood because of the age that Paul and I both are. He’s 59, and I’m 56. And at that age, we were 6 or 7 years old. They’re a big part of our history. I think we were just trying to interpret what we learned from them and say ‘thank you’ to them and honor them.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
Gosh, of the Merle stuff, probably “I Can’t Be Myself Without You.” That one has been attached to me the longest. I’ve been singing that one in clubs my whole life. When I discovered that song it was not one of the more famous of Merle’s songs, but I’ve just always loved the lyric of it.
And for Buck, it was “Together Again.” I think that’s got to be in the top 5 all-time greatest country records ever made. It’s one of those things where the best song had the best singer and the best steel solo had the best record.
When you hear the following words, what do you think about?
* Bakersfield Sound: Buck and Merle. Steel guitar. Telecaster.
* Crystal Palace: You have to think of Buck … and maybe the chicken fried steak.
* Buck: I just loved how he sang, how he wrote songs and how his band interpreted his music. That early Buck stuff was country at its core.
* Merle: They talk about him as the “poet of the common man.” That doesn’t even do him justice — he’s far greater than that. … He’s still writing great songs today, 50 years later. I think he epitomizes everything I always tried to be — an incredible singer, an incredible songwriter, and an incredible musician that knew the value of other musicians. And he told the truth. He told the truth better.
* Today’s country music industry: I think time will make this era more inspiring than maybe it is in its current state. Time has made the eras prior probably more appealing … In 40 or 50 years from now, you’ll look back at this era and the really great records will stand up and they’ll show themselves. I think that you see all of it in its entirety and it’s real easy to kind of not speak that great about it. But at the end of the day, whatever that 25-year-old kid is inspired to sing about, play about and be creative about is his or hers. I don’t begrudge any young person from doing what they want to do. Is it my cup of tea? Not always, but every now and then it is. Great is great — it never goes out of style, so I root for them. All I wish for in the current state of country music is that the traditional element of this music not be forgotten.
What are your general thoughts on Bakersfield?
What I like is that it reminds me of home. I’m from Oklahoma, and I know that it sounds crazy to say Bakersfield reminds me of home. I think the real reason I’m drawn to what the West Coast did for music was because those people all migrated from the parts of the country that I lived in — the Dust Bowl people went every which way. A whole bunch of them went West, and it feels like they took the beer joints with them. When they got out there, it was a great place to scratch a living out of the dirt. It was great agriculture there in that part of the state of California, and it might have been like what Oklahoma and Texas looked like — that middle section of the country that digs life out of the dirt.
Why are you looking forward to coming back and performing in October?
We didn’t even plan this. That’s what’s so beautiful. I’d already had this date on the books some time ago. I had a West Coast tour booked six months ago before we even finished this record. … They put this record on the fast track to get released and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get to play Bakersfield with this record.’
It’s going to be a huge deal for Paul and I because of that region. I just wish people knew the impact that era of music had on the world. It was unbelievable, and it’s my favorite of country music’s history.
Do you have a favorite memory of spending time with Buck or Merle?
My favorite memory of being with Buck would be when he gave me a couple of his guitars — that was off the hook. He came on stage and gave them to me in Bakersfield and I loved that. But the first time I ever got to sing [on a show called 'Hot Country Nights'] with him is my favorite memory because I was equally as big of a Don Rich fan as I was a Buck Owens’ fan. I thought the two of them together were like the Everly Brothers. I just can’t think of one without the other. There’s a huge part of Buck that died when Don did. His music was never the same after Don died. Like he’d lost a whole big part of his soul …
The first time I met Merle was my favorite memory because I had played at Red Rocks [Park and Amphitheatre] in Denver. That night I got to sing with Emmylou [Harris] for the first time. My grandfather had just passed away, and I was singing a gospel song for him in this glorious place, and she just unannounced came out and started singing with me. I’ve already had the best night of my life, and then I found out that Merle was playing about 45 minutes away.
He was playing late because he was doing a tour of all honkytonks. So we jumped in a couple of limos and went to see Merle. I got to meet him afterward, and I went on the bus with Emmy and she said, ‘Merle, I want to introduce you to this kid. He’s got a great future and I think you’re going to hear a lot from him. His name is Vince Gill.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I know who he is.’
I had written a song that Leona Williams, his wife at the time had cut. Just the fact that he even knew my name the first time I met him was the greatest of the great.
What are your hopes for this album? What do you want your fans to take from it?
Well, we would love to outsell The Beatles and Taylor Swift combined. It would be awesome to see this record just blow through the walls of everywhere. Anytime you do something like that, you want that to happen — you want people to be as moved by it as you were making it, especially for Paul to have a chance to be on the minds of people instead of in the background. Most people look at music and don’t really pay much attention to what the background is doing or who the background is. He spent his life playing on hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people’s records without much credit. Like I said, I like sticking up for musicians, and that’s about as good as it gets.
Besides the Crystal Palace, do you have a favorite Bakersfield hangout?
I don’t reckon. A good golf course would be hard to beat. I like to golf a lot. We played that little theater across the street from the firehouse a few times (Fox Theater). Those guys are always nice. Even when my wife, Amy, played there … it was a friendly place.