Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill and renowned pedal steel player Paul Franklin go deep inside the California Country vault on Bakersfield, paying tribute to the city’s legendary sons Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Pulling five songs from each artist, and all from 1961 -1974, Bakersfield twangs hard with a classic sound as reliable as the many pairs of boots that walked those dusty SoCal roads.
Co-produced by Vince and Paul and recorded over two days at Vince’s home studio, Bakersfield, due in stores July 30, is a dynamic recording that reveals striking similarities and differences between Buck and Merle. Tracks alternate between the two songwriters, and this setup draws quick attention to their distinct styles. While the Bakersfield Sound drew heavily on jangling guitars and winding pedal steel, lyrical contrast is on full display throughout the project. Songs like Buck’s 1961 classic “Foolin’ Around” sings of a heartbroken man who wants back that ring. Set to an uptempo and shuffling rhythm section, it’s delivered with a barroom swing meant to pack dance floors. “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” follows suit with a big walking bass line and Paul’s winding Honky Tonk pedal steel intro. Like most places on the album, Vince’s timing is impeccable as he moves through the chorus, singing, Let his heart do the breaking / Like he’s let yours break before. Buck’s songs here are full of lovesick blues and stirring vulnerability, but they also oftentimes let listeners tap their foot to the beat.
Merle’s songs were meant for a barroom as well, but dance music would be a stretch. The iconic “The Bottle Let Me Down” is so lonely that even alcohol, the song’s one true friend, ultimately fails to drive her off his mind. “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” is a defiant statement of purpose and songs like the darkened tunnel, “Branded Man,” which was a No. 1 hit for The Hag in 1967, speak to the alienation of an outcast with a troubled past. It’s half cowboy, half rambler, and all outlaw.
Though the album remains faithful to the feel of the original cuts, the fresh musical interaction between Vince and Paul is captivating. Playing together in the critically-acclaimed Western Swing group The Time Jumpers, the pair exhibits a palpable chemistry that breathes new life into each one of the album’s songs. The standout cut “Holding Things Together,” which yields some of the project’s most heart wrenching moments, features a nearly two-minute instrumental coda wherein Vince’s round guitar outlines the vocal melody while Paul’s pedal steel cries in the background. Vince shows off the upper reaches of his range on “I Can’t Be Myself,” offering the follow-up line, and do what pleases you, with a poignant jab before Paul pours out his soul in a powerful, cascading pedal solo. This artistic give and take, set inside classic and well-known songs, makes the album feel alive and new.
Vince and Paul surround themselves with top-notch players, several of which are fellow Time Jumpers. Fiddlers Kenny Sears, Larry Franklin and Joe Spivey (who are most pronounced on the Buck track “But I Do”) accompany while Dawn Sears adds harmony vocals. However, there’s no doubt that this is the Vince and Paul show as the two drive an expert set all the way to Bakersfield, California’s Country Music Capital made famous by Buck and Merle.
Key Tracks – “Branded Man,” “Foolin’ Around,” “Holding Things Together,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”