How many words does it take to sum up not just a distinctive sound in country music, but to describe a whole period, one that includes an attitude and a level of singing, songwriting and instrumental expertise that represents one of the pinnacles of the whole genre over the last century?
Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill and his longtime friend, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, need just one: "Bakersfield."
"If you want to define country music to me in its greatest era," Gill, 56, said last week, "it would be Bakersfield — it would be Buck and Merle, those songs and those instruments."
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In a nutshell, that's what led Gill and Franklin to collaborate on "Bakersfield," their new album saluting the sound of country music that emerged from the California oil and farm community in the late 1950s and 1960s, best known through the bevy of hit songs churned out during that time by Texas transplant Buck Owens and Bakersfield native Merle Haggard.
At a time when the Nashville country music establishment was doing its best to refine, sweeten and gentrify the sound of country to carry the music beyond its rural origins into the hearts and homes of urban listeners as well, musicians working in Bakersfield were injecting large doses of electricity and rock 'n' roll attitude into their brand of country.
Owens became the most successful country act of the 1960s, with 19 No. 1 hits including "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," "Together Again" and "Act Naturally," with the last quickly capturing the attention of four lads from Liverpool. Haggard emerged shortly after Owens' reign on the country charts began, establishing himself as one of country's most prolific writers and most skilled singers on records such as "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me."
Gill and Franklin, like countless other musicians, were brought up on those records, and both invoked the term "no-brainer" for wanting to record an album saluting that celebrated period in country history.
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They selected five songs each from Owens and Haggard, covering touchstone songs as well as some lesser-known numbers to keep it from becoming too familiar.
"We found two Buck songs neither of us had ever heard before," Gill said, referring to "He Don't Deserve You Anymore" and "But I Do." "I didn't think that was possible."
"I didn't know the significance of this stuff in country music history," said Franklin, 59, a studio veteran and one of Gill's bandmates in the side project band, the Time Jumpers, which has been performing virtually every Monday night in Nashville for the last 15 years. "I just knew I liked Buck Owens' songs when I started out, and Merle, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart and anything that had that aggressive sound."
Bakersfield musicians were among the earliest players to adopt Leo Fender's then-radical solid-body electric guitars, in particular the Telecaster. They brought them into rowdy nightclubs such as the Blackboard because amplified guitars were able to cut through the din of oil field workers, farmhands and sheep ranchers who came in every night to celebrate the end of another day's work, or try to drink their troubles away.
That gave Bakersfield music a harder, brighter edge that many in Nashville shied away from. It also makes Gill and Franklin's album as much a salute to the instrumentalists as it is to those who wrote and sang these country classics.
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"This is as much of a guitar record for me as it is a singing record," said Gill, one of country's most lauded musicians, with 20 Grammy Awards and dozens more trophies from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music over his nearly four-decade recording career.
The album already has received "a big ole, double thumbs up" from Haggard himself. "It was especially great to hear what they did with Buck's stuff," Haggard writes in the album notes. "Some may not notice, but I for one knew how great Buck really was, first as a musician, then as an artist."
The album represents something of a master class in Bakersfield's golden age of country. As a singer, Gill knows and respects the differences between Owens' more straightforward delivery and Haggard's deft, Lefty Frizzell-influenced note- and phrase-stretching style.
"I think there's a goal every time you record to make something as authentic as possible," said Gill, who will feature many of the songs on "Bakersfield" in a fall tour, with Franklin in his band, that's slated to open Oct. 25 in the city the album is named for.
The luxury Gill and Franklin had in making the album — ironically in Nashville, at Gill's home studio — is one the originators rarely got: time.