They say that Vince Gill says yes to everything, and no doubt he didn’t think twice about headlining last week’s Third Annual Johnny Cash Music Festival at Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center.
He also didn’t mind sitting with a reporter for a few minutes after participating in a press conference and just before the concert began.
Gill was specifically asked to expand a bit upon his new album Bakersfield, which he calls his first “duet album.” Released last month, the disc is a tribute to "Bakersfield Sound" heroes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and is jointly credited to Gill and pedal steel great Paul Franklin—with whom Gill plays in his band as well as Nashville’s spectacular Western swing band the Time Jumpers, which plays Monday nights at 3rd & Lindsley Bar and Grill.
“I have such a great time palying music with Paul every Monday night and then coming out and traveling on the road,” Gill said. “I just adore playing with him: It’s reminiscent of when [late Pedal Steel Guitar Hall of Famer] John Hughey was with me—a worldclass steel, definitive-type player, and I always wanted that.”
Bakersfield, then, was Gill’s means of solidifying the relationship.
“We talked about doing an instrumental record, but neither one of us really had the desire to do one. I like them to a point, but I still need to hear somebody sing and tell me a story. So we landed on the idea of half Buck and half Merle songs. Obviously the style would have to be Bakersfield.”
Ironically, Gill says that even though he was singing the songs, “it feels a lot like an instrumental record. Those Buck and Merle records had to be two-and-a-half minute songs: You couldn’t have solos and stretch out, but we had the ability to do that since we weren’t trying to copy them. I’m not a fan of note-for-note tribute records or copy records, but we’re very connected to the roots of Buck and Merle—though we’re surely not improving anything by cutting their songs!”
Some observers have expressed surprise that, having left longtime label MCA Nashville only to be brought back in time for Bakersfield, that a major label would agree to release such a pure country record at a time when neither the sound nor the artist is particularly in favor at commercial country radio.
“To be honest, I was stunned that they wanted it,” Gill admitted. “I was preparing to make a record on my own—which I have, incidentally, just last week—and my manager said I should play [Bakersfield material] for the head of the label, not thinking he’d be interested. But he was really drawn to it and asked the staff to listen—and they all felt it was something they’d all like to get behind.”
Gill jokingly instructed them to “do anything that’s opposite of what you’d normally do to promote this record,” and laughed heartily as he related the story.
“But the real blessing is to have their weight and power behind it,” he said, “and the real gift is to see an old friend like Paul get some notoriety and the attention and respect he deseeves. I love sticking up for musicians, so it’s appropriate that for my first real duet record in my career, it’s with another musician.”
Gill was then asked if he might amplify the deferential remarks on Cash that he had expressed during the press conference.
“The greatest of the greats are always authentic to the core,” he said, then noticeably startled the reprorter with what he said next.
“I think our country music, for a long time for some, it’s almost like we’re embarrassed for what we are. We try to be more pop and smooth, instead of point toward what it was that put us on the map to begin with.”
The reporter excitedly explained that some 35 years ago, maybe, Johnny Cash had said almost the exact same thing to him, upon first meeting him over breakfast.
Cash had said, when asked about the then proliferation of “country crossover” artists of the mid- to late-1970s, “I think country music needs to find itself.”
“Me and Paul went to this thing, the Grammy Camp, where they teach kids about music as a profession,” Gill continued.
“All these young kids, 15, 16, 17, who were into hip-hop and who knows what. I told them, ‘I don’t expect you guys to get this. Just have open minds,’ and their comments were so telling: ‘Melody,’ ‘emotion’—they used all these words and Paul and I just sat there and said, ‘Man, what a great lesson for us!’”
“Kids can recognize good music if you give it to them” Gill concluded.
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