To understand why Vince Gill would record his first-ever duo album with a non-singing steel guitarist, you have to understand why the multi-platinum vocalist would join The Time Jumpers, a band whose main gig is every Monday night at the 500-capacity 3rd & Lindsley. The native Oklahoman still wants to have country hits, but he doesn't need to have country hits. His plaque is already hanging in the Country Music Hall of Fame. If he wants to release an album of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens songs with his longtime pal Paul Franklin, that's what he'll do. And if he wants to play Western swing with The Time Jumpers down at a local bar, he'll do that too.
"I joined The Time Jumpers because I liked the way they play," Gill explains. "And I knew it would make me a better guitar player. I may be 56, but I'm not afraid to say I want to get better. I grew up on Western swing in Texas and Oklahoma, and this was the first band in this part of the country that could play that music the right way. Like a great beer-joint band, they put the dance in the music. I'd go see them, then I started getting calls to sub for [guitarists] Ranger Doug or Andy [Reiss]. I'd come home with 30 or 50 dollars in my pocket, and be happy."
Franklin — one of Nashville's busiest session musicians — has added steel guitar to hits by Gill, Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton and many more, but he too plays with The Time Jumpers every chance he gets. When Gill would sing a Haggard or Owens chestnut with the band, Franklin's steel solo would often get the biggest cheer from a crowd peppered with musicians.
"People would go crazy," Gill says. "I told Paul, 'There's something going on here that we should pursue.' "
The result was the MCA album Bakersfield, out Tuesday with Gill and Franklin credited equally. The duo will celebrate with a show at the Grand Ole Opry Saturday, with a North American tour this summer and fall and with Time Jumpers shows whenever possible.
"I tell my people not to book me on Monday nights," Gill says. "I probably have the best attendance record of anyone in the Time Jumpers since I joined. The opportunity to go play with great musicians is one you should never pass up. That's why Chet [Atkins] used to play Caffé Milano every week."
At first Franklin and Gill talked about making an instrumental record. Gill, after all, is such a gifted guitarist that he was Eric Clapton's guest at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in April and will appear in the documentary film about those shows (Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013) opening Aug. 13 in select cities. But Gill and Franklin eventually admitted to each other that they rarely listen to an instrumental album all the way through, so maybe it wasn't fair to ask their fans to do so. Maybe Gill's vocals on these old Bakersfield, Calif., songs would provide a good frame for the steel guitar and Telecaster guitar solos that were the album's true purpose.
Gill and Franklin chose two songs, Owens' "Together Again" and Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down," that had been recorded by Gill's early advocate and employer, Emmylou Harris. They chose several songs that Gill has been singing since he was a teenager, but their research also dug up two of Owens' album cuts that neither Gill nor Franklin had ever heard but immediately fell in love with: "But I Do" and "He Don't Deserve You Anymore." They added an acoustic-guitar number, Haggard's "I Can't Be Myself," so Gill could pay tribute to Grady Martin. They cut the songs simply and quickly with a core band of drummer Greg Morrow, bassist Willie Weeks, rhythm guitarist J.T. Corenflos and pianist John Hobbs, but allowed the solos to go wherever they wanted to go.
"Bakersfield was arguably the greatest period of country music," Franklin says. "I'm from Detroit, and because of all the people who moved from Alabama and Tennessee, there was a bar on every corner and a lot of them had live country bands playing a lot of Merle, Buck, George Jones and Ray Price. Between those four books, they captured what those people were dealing with on a daily basis."
If that Bakersfield sound was so great, why has it faded from the forefront of country radio?
"All forms of music have their day," Franklin responds, "and sooner or later that day ends. Even The Beatles' brand of rock 'n' roll has faded out. But that doesn't stop musicians from playing that music forever."