VINCE GILL BRINGS ‘BAKERSFIELD’ TO BAKERSFIELD
BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Though he started his tribute by noting that “Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart,” there was real doubt on that day in May, when friends and family laid to rest the greatest country singer of all time, that Vince Gill — his famous tenor voice husky and raw with emotion — would make it through the song at all.
Like the other performers who preceded him to the stage, Gill was there not just to salute George Jones, the legend, but the man himself — a friend fond of pulling pranks and a mentor generous with his encouragement and talent. So with frequent duet partner Patty Loveless, Gill launched into his aching 1995 ballad, “Go Rest High on that Mountain,” written for his late brother.
But by the first chorus, the weight of the moment threatened to undo Gill, his ragged voice breaking into sobs. He did manage to finish the song — the incomparable Loveless offering moral and vocal support — and in doing so brought the thousands who had packed the Grand Ole Opry House to their feet, in solidarity with Gill for the obvious pain he was feeling but also, perhaps, in gratitude that the floodgates had finally been opened.
“I got up there and started singing and it was like the day had felt an awful lot like a performance. I think that when I lost it, it gave the room kind of a big moment to let go, and I could feel it. I could feel it from all the people and I could see it from all the people — where everyone was going, ‘OK, it’s OK to cry.’
“I struggled mightily that day. That’s a big-time hero — George Jones. The state of things in country music — I know a whole lot of that was troubling to George. He really loved that traditional stuff and there wasn’t much more of it and that was heartbreaking for him.”
One guy who knows a thing about tradition is the Grammy Award-winning Gill, who demonstrates unwavering fidelity to the roots of the genre in his own songwriting and musicianship, as a prolific collaborator/producer/whatever-you-need session ace, and as a member of the Time Jumpers, a retro-ish Western Swing outfit that by all accounts is the coolest thing going in Nashville these days. But the project of most significance to local fans is “Bakersfield,” a tribute album to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard that Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin released in July.
The two will perform Friday at Rabobank Theater, a homecoming not for the performers themselves, but for their material, composed by the two greatest stars of the Bakersfield Sound era.
“I hope to play the whole record,” Gill said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Nashville. “It’s very serendipitous that we wound up there. I didn’t make this record with Paul knowing I was going to play in Bakersfield in October; it was just happenstance. We’ll play these songs and people will love hearing them again. I guarantee you that.”
Gill, 56, may be on to something about the sudden appetite for the Bakersfield Sound: the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville has extended its lovingly curated exhibit on the era and its performers (Gill hasn’t seen it yet but was classy enough to be sheepish about it), new books on Haggard and Owens are out now or due soon, and “Bakersfield” entered Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart at No. 4.
“It was the music of my childhood,” said Gill, attempting to explain the music’s hold on him.
“I always liked the space in it. It wasn’t filled up with suff. You talk about ‘Together Again.’ It’s Buck singing, the band keeping time and Tom Brumley playing steel guitar. It’s simple, beautiful and as poetic as it gets.”
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Gill was first exposed to the “diverse” musical tastes of his parents and older brother — Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and everything else on the radio during the musically rich era of his childhood.
“But when I look back, the Bakersfield records are the ones I like the best — the twanging guitar and the things that I was finding myself pointing towards. You look back through time, and it’s very self-evident how great it is because it stood the test of time, and you think about all the music that’s come along afterwards. When every band in every Holiday Inn in the world plays Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs, there’s your answer in a nutshell.”
Beyond getting to know both Haggard and Owens, who died in 2006, Gill soaked up all he could on the era from Bakersfield Sound performers who eventually moved to Nashville, singers like Jean Shepherd and Jan Howard, who was married to the songwriter Harlan Howard when he worked with Owens.
“The one guy that I never got to see that I would have loved to was Tommy Collins. He really was, I think, a great mentor to Buck and Merle, even though Buck and Merle got the lion’s share of the attention.”
Bakersfield ‘felt like home’
As an Okie himself, Gill said his affinity for Bakersfield goes beyond the music to the heritage he shares with many of the city’s residents, descendants of the migrants who came west in droves during a 25-year exodus that started during the Great Depression. When Gill moved to Los Angeles as a young man in the late 1970s, he visited the Central Valley from time to time.
“That region felt like home. Even the people didn’t feel like the people in Southern California. I know a lot of those people came from the same kind of place I came from.”
And they brought with them their music. But it’s too simplistic and reductive, Gill said, to lump these transplanted musicians — from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas — into one category, much less one sound.
“You know, I think there are a lot of places in our country that had those melting pots of great music. Motown would be one and Memphis would be another one. I just recently learned that there was a jazz band in Oklahoma City in the ’20 and early ’30s that a bunch of Count Basie’s band came from — arguably one of the coolest jazz bands ever, and it was right there where I was from.
“I think Bakersfield is a melting pot, just like Nashville has been. Buck and Merle sound nothing alike. There wasn’t just a stamp: This is how Bakersfield sounds, bang. This is how Nashville sounds, bang.”
Yet the Nashville of today has many critics — even within the industry — arguing there is a stamp, and all new artists need it for any chance of radio play or help from their labels. That sound, dubbed “bro country” among other catchy and equally disparaging names, is predominantly male, entirely juvenile and seems to be influenced more by bad rock and hip-hop than anything remotely country. Artists have taken to publicly criticizing one another.
But Gill, who has seen that pop-to-tradition-to-pop pendulum swing before, takes it all in stride.
“You love to be current, you love to be all those things like you were and that doesn’t change. I guarantee you, Merle still wishes he was on the radio. So does Ray Price. So do I. You never get that out of you.
“The funny thing about being creative is that age has nothing to do with it. It’s not like being an athlete — when you’re a ball player and your knees go. But for a musician, someone who sings and writes songs, I’m better today than I was at 26, but I don’t get to be as played and as hot as I was. And that’s a mind-bender.”
Still, the kids who listen to the radio today have a right to deviate from what their grandparents listened to and define for themselves what “country” is, Gill said.
“I think just let those artists be what they want to be. You know, it’s hard to sit and think, I’m going to define creativity. People are going to come up with what they come up with.
“If the old guard had been what that generation before them wanted them to be, nothing would have evolved, nothing would have changed. I would sit and wonder if Buck or Merle or George or that era before me loved everything I ever did. I don’t think so. And that’s OK.”