TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Country music star Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin have teamed up to record a new concept album called "Bakersfield." Their idea it to cover hits from the '60s and '70s by two artists who helped define the Bakersfield, California country sound: Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Rock critic Ken Tucker says this is no nostalgia fest. It's a vital testament to music that retains energy and innovation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOLIN' AROUND")
VINCE GILL: (Singing) I know that you've been fooling around on me right from the start. So I'll take back my ring, and I'll take back my heart. And when you're tired of fooling 'round with two or three, come on home and fool around with me.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "Foolin' Around," a hit for Buck Owens in 1961, and here sung by Vince Gill, with pedal steel guitar from Paul Franklin. The song, co-written by Owens and the great country songwriter Harland Howard, is a prime example of the so-called Bakersfield sound. That was a lively, honky-tonk, California-based alternative to the smoother, more orchestrated style that Nashville was developing in the 1960s.
The two groups that emerged as the biggest Bakersfield hit-makers in the '60s and '70s were Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and the Strangers. Haggard's eloquently hardboiled lyrics are showcased well on Vince Gill's rendition of "Branded Man," a number one hit for Haggard in 1967.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRANDED MAN")
GILL: (Singing) I'd like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am. But they won't let my secrets go untold. I've paid the debt I owe, but they're still not satisfied. Now I'm a branded man, out in the cold. And they let me...
TUCKER: Vince Gill and Paul Franklin are both members of The Time Jumpers, an on-again, off-again outfit with a shifting line-up that specializes in Western swing. Gill has been a country star for decades, but behind the scenes, Franklin is just as significant a musician in his own area.
His funky, yet delicate style on the pedal steel guitar, the lap steel guitar and the Dobro have made him a highly in-demand musician on hits by country singers such as Randy Travis, Reba McEntire and George Strait, and he's played on records by artists as various as Barbra Streisand and Megadeth. Here's a great example of Franklin's lyrical, yet never syrupy style, a solo in the middle of this new album's cover of Buck Owens' "Together Again."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOGETHER AGAIN")
GILL: (Singing) Together again...
TUCKER: When Gill and Franklin started plotting this collaboration, they didn't just listen to the hits. They also unearthed lesser-known songs by Owens and Haggard. Take, for example, "He Don't Deserve You Anymore," a 1966 Buck Owens album cut never released as a single, but a gorgeous example of country songwriting. Listen to the way Gill delivers the litany of body parts that ache with longing for a cherished woman in this song's cleverly worded chorus.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE DON'T DESERVE YOU ANYMORE")
GILL: (Singing) When I found you, darling, then he saw his big mistake. He saw what he was losing, felt his heart begin to break. Please don't let him talk you back, the way he's done before. He's had a hundred chances. He don't deserve you anymore. Let his eyes do the crying. Let his feet walk the floor. Let his heart to the breaking, like he's let yours break before. Let his lips do the sighing. Let his heartache start to soar. Let his arms do the aching. He don't deserve you anymore.
This album "Bakersfield" could have been just a meticulous labor of love, of appeal primarily to cultists. Instead, the vigorous humor and creativity with which Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have approached this music brings it fully into the 21st century. The smart-aleck energy of Buck Owens and the tough-guy eloquence of Merle Haggard sounds now, through Gill and Franklin, like music that offers constant surprises of fresh thought and emotion.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album "Bakersfield."