It's a way of mine to say just what I'm thinkin'
And to do the things I really want to do ...
Those lines open Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself,” written in the waning hours of the 1960s. As Hag’s single was climbing the country charts, Vince Gill was turning 14 in Norman, Oklahoma.
All these years later, with 20 Grammys, a pile of money and enough platinum records to fill a good-sized barn, Gill is still taking his hero’s words to heart. His latest record, Bakersfield, is a loving tribute to Haggard and that other architect of Southern California honky tonk country, Buck Owens.
A collaboration with legendary studio musician Paul Franklin, who plays pedal steel guitar, the record includes hits (Buck’s “Together Again,” Hag’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me”) and lesser-known Bakersfield classics (Hag’s “I Threw Away the Rose,” Buck’s “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”). Gill’s milk-and-honey voice is, of course, omnipresent, but the record is a showcase for Franklin’s moaning, wailing steel and Gill’s own chicken-pickin’ prowess on the Fender Telecaster.
Backed by a full band, the pair will turn the Savannah Music Festival into Bakersfield, Georgia on March 28.
Putting out a classic country album in 2014, Gill knows, isn’t the best way to “compete” with the popcorn youngsters who get on the radio and sell records these days.
He’s 56 now, he’ll be a grandfather come August, and he just don’t care about that sort of stuff. It’s a way of his to say just what he’s thinkin,’ and to do the things he really wants to do ...
Anyway, the Bakersfield concert will also feature a heavy dose of beloved Vince Gill smashes (i.e. “I Still Believe in You,” “One More Last Chance,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” “Pocket Full of Gold,” et cetera).
“I have to do a handful of those things that people are familiar with,” Gill says. “I want to do ‘em. I’m proud of ‘em, and grateful they showed up. They bought my house! So I keep singin’ em.”
CS: Tell me about this 11-piece band you’re in, the Time Jumpers. You play at the Station Inn in Nashville?
Vince Gill: Well, life's about having some fun. These guys are all world-class players. I love the music; I grew up in Oklahoma. So it feels like home. The only difference is, no one dances when we play! We play every Monday night here in town, and it's kind of a hot ticket. We can fit 300, 400 people in that club, and the majority of 'em are there for the first time. You get people from other countries that are coming to visit Tennessee and Nashville, and it kind of becomes the Monday night thing to do.
CS: How did that lead to making a record with Paul?
Vince Gill: There are seven singers in this band, and you never know what tune's gonna get called to play. Everybody mostly knows these old standards. And every now and then I'd get my bellyful of Western swing and I'd call an old country tune. I started doing "Together Again" and I'm telling you what, man, the people just went crazy. Especially when Paul plays pedal steel like he does. In the back of my mind I went "There's something to this."
Paul had played on the road before, and then just decided to not do it any more. So I was kinda trying to secretly find a way to get him back out there! First we talked about making an instrumental record, me playing guitar and him playing steel, but I’ve never been crazy about those kinds of records. I thought “What really suits those two instruments best?” And you look at that West Coast country music sound, of the early ‘60s, and say “That’s really the deal for that.”
CS: When you were playing the guitar solos, were you thinking about the Don Rich/Buckaroos solos, and the Roy Nichols/Strangers solos?
Vince Gill: Paul and I, neither one wanted to do a sound-alike record. Those seem so silly to me, people just doing old records note-for-note. What's interesting is that we were both at a ripe age to be inspired by that stuff when it was current. It's a kind of blueprint for the way we learned to play, especially on those instruments. So it was a way to honor the way they played, and the way we've figured out the way that we play. It's not quite the same, but you can still sense that the spirit of those guys is in those solos, in those little turnarounds and fills. So we're very much so emulating those great musicians.
In those days, you couldn’t have a record over three minutes on the radio. So all the instrumental stuff was primarily just little turnarounds—an intro, maybe a turnaround to get you into the next verse. “Together Again” is really one of the only ones that had a solo. So to make the statements that those musicians did with those little times that they were given to make ‘em, makes it even more impressive, to me. But we got to do whole solos, and split ‘em, because we didn’t care if it was five minutes long.
CS: There’s an instrumental on the expanded version of the album called “Buck ‘n Merle.” Where did that come from?
Vince Gill: Well, it's mine. In a record like this, with players like Paul and me, people are going to say "Well, they never did blaze. They never did cut loose—it's all traditional" and this 'n' that. We didn't really want to, but this was a song that I had written not that long ago as more of a bluegrass guitar instrumental. Then I started playing it on the Telecaster, and I said "You know, this could be very Buck-ish." I don't think Merle did any instrumentals, but Buck did a few. There's little subtle tidbits of tributes all through it.
CS: After your albums These Days, The Notorious Cherry Bombs, Guitar Slinger and now Bakersfield, it seems as if you're pulling back from the "celebrity" thing, if you will. Now it seems like saying "I'm a musician first" is really important to you. Is it?
Vince Gill: Yeah, it is. All those other days I was too, it just didn't get noticed as much, probably. I'm not really current at radio; they don't play my records much any more. I don't think it's any different than it's ever been. I've always just thrown the songs together that have shown up for a record, I write and I play and sing what I got going on in my head. I don't think there's a conscious effort to be something else; all I've ever tried to be is fairly authentic.
I feel like I have a lot left to say, and would love to say, musically, because of my age. I’m going to be 57 in a few weeks ... how many more good years do you have? Hopefully your fingers are nimble and your brain’s semi-conscious. So I’m trying to make as much music as I can.