Wednesday, Jul 24 2013 05:29 PM

Gill bows down to Buck, Merle

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    By Photo courtesy of Alison Auerbac

    Vince Gill handled vocals and lead guitar, while Paul Franklin played steel on "Bakersfield."

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    By Photo courtesy of Alison Auerbac

    The cover of Vince Gill's new CD, "Bakersfield," which pays homage to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

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BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

Bakersfield doesn't see much of Vince Gill in the flesh, but his spirit took up permanent residence in the city the first time he heard a Buck Owens song.

Later that musical kinship would extend to Merle Haggard, who, like Owens, was a star practitioner of the Bakersfield Sound, the take-no-prisoners brand of country that is widely admired though rarely emulated by today's pop-oriented chart- climbers.

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But then Gill, one of the most respected vocalists and musicians working today, is not a Nashville creation; he's an artist, and tradition means something to him. He proves the point on "Bakersfield," a collaboration with steel-guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin that hits stores Tuesday. The 10-song homage to Owens and Haggard -- Gill diplomatically includes five selections from each -- is a musical valentine to his heroes and the city that shaped them.

Still, did anyone suspect Gill was this passionate about Bakersfield?

"I didn't know that the love ran that deep," said Toni-Marie, a KUZZ disc jockey who recently interviewed Gill and Franklin about the album, which the radio station will play in its entirety at 8 p.m. Friday, with an encore presentation at noon Sunday.

"I know that a lot of the artists from the Vince Gill era are influenced by the Bakersfield Sound, but he wasn't at the top of my mind to do a tribute album to that sound."

As it turns out, the Bakersfield duo wasn't just an inspiration but the seminal influence for Gill during his formative years as a young guitar slinger in Oklahoma City.

"My history with Buck Owens is so deep and so long and so much a part of being grounded in my childhood," Gill said in a statement released by his record label, MCA Nashville. "As for Merle, his songs are so compelling and truthful; for me he's the greatest living country singer and songwriter ever."

But covering the material of one's heroes is a high-wire act; veer too much this way and fall into imitation, too much that way and the song is unrecognizable.

"The album is very much borrowed from and inspired by the originals," said Gill, who calls "Bakersfield" as much a guitar record as a showcase for his vocals. "But it's done in our own way -- the way we chose to play and sing it. There was no point in doing a note-for-note."

Gill and Franklin, who've known each other for 30 years, were shrewd to include several lesser-known cuts -- especially by Owens -- thereby toning down the comparisons. And though it would be impossible to improve on classics like Haggard's "Fightin' Side of Me" -- they don't -- the re-appraisal finds shades and nuances in the songs that should be a revelation for fans.

Nowhere is the alchemy of reverence and orignality better deployed than on Owens' "Together Again," which Gill correctly observes is one of the greatest records of all time. The haunting 1964 chart topper is the saddest reconcilation song you'll ever hear, a deceptive gem whose words of hope belie its mood of melancholy, evoked by the potent combination of the mournful Owens/Don Rich harmonies and the keening steel guitar of Buckaroo Tom Brumley. Gill goes it alone vocally, dispensing with the harmonies -- a shame -- but perfectly captures the bittersweet emotion, making his take the second-best version there is.

Kicking off the album is "Foolin' Around," an up-tempo number by Owens and Harlan Howard that went to No. 2 in 1961. Chosen because, according to Franklin, "it epitomizes Buck's first style," the song also afforded Gill the chance to cut loose on lead guitar, an opportunity the nimble-fingered musician jumps at more than once. "I got to play what came into my head," he said.

The other three Owens songs -- "He Don't Deserve You Anymore," "Nobody's Fool But Yours" and "But I Do" (written by Bakersfield Sound great Tommy Collins) -- are rare enough that even Gill wasn't familiar with them.

The pair find even greater success with Haggard's lesser-known gems, the inclusion of which Gill cited as a precondition for making the album.

"I Can't Be Myself," Haggard's 1973 surrender to defeat and disillusionment, finds Gill singing in a lower register than he's accustomed to. But that celebrated voice -- as supple and expressive as ever -- dips and soars, finding the emotional center of the song, actually improving on Haggard's masterpiece. The same can be said for the poignant "Holding Things Together," a mainstay of Gill's live shows for decades.

Rounding out the Haggard material are three hits, exemplars of themes that have long fascinated the finest songwriter in country music history: the alienation of 1967's "Branded Man"; the barroom bluster of "The Bottle Let Me Down"; and the flag-waving chest-thumping of 1970's "The Fightin' Side of Me," which, at first glance, seems an odd choice for Gill, a soft-spoken soul who's more take-it-easy then take-it-or-leave-it.

But KUZZ's Toni-Marie said Gill told her the song has come to mean something else to him over the years.

"During our interview, he talks about how, when it first came out, he didn't quite understand it. Now that he's lived his life and years and seen how the world has changed, the song is really about standing up for what you believe in."

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