Vince Gill knows a thing or two about music from flat, dusty places.
The Oklahoma native who has sold more than 26 million albums, won 20 Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame celebrates California’s vast Central Valley with his new release, “Bakersfield.” The album, a duet with steel guitarist Paul Franklin, came out in July and features songs by Bakersfield Sound architects Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Gill spoke with The Bee by phone from his studio in Nashville, Tenn.. His “Bakersfield” tour brings him to the album’s eponymous hometown the night before it rolls into Turlock Community Theatre on Saturday.
Q: Your new album, “Bakersfield,” literally hits close to home, as the city is our neighbor to the south down Highway 99. Where did your interest in the West Coast Bakersfield Sound come from as a kid from Oklahoma?
A: When I was born in 1957, (the Bakersfield Sound) was in its infancy then. By the time I was 6 and 7, Buck and Merle were both ripping pretty good. I didn’t know about those folks then, but sure knew the music coming out of there. Buck filmed a TV show in Oklahoma City, one of those ranch shows. I watched those all the time and never realized they were filmed in Oklahoma City or I’d be down there stalking him. I knew about that music when I was most impressionable, as a kid.
At the time, I don’t think I could have thought about where (the music) came from and why it was different. I just think when you listen to those records and at the same time you listen to what else was going on in country music at that time it was drastically different. It was a hard-edged, honky-tonk sound. Nashville was lush and cosmopolitan in comparison. They had real crooners and real pretty stuff. But those (Bakersfield) guys were really down in the honky-tonks.
Q: How do you think a region, like Bakersfield and the Central Valley, can influence the music that comes out of it?
A: You have to really look at where a lot of those people came from. A lot migrated out West because of the Dust Bowl and depression. Buck and Merle were born around where I was, that central part of the United States. That part that makes its living out of the dirt and the ground. That central section of California is not that different than Oklahoma and Texas. When I was older and started working, I felt a kinship to (the Central Valley) once I got out of the cement of Los Angeles and saw all the farmland.
Q: Why did you want to work with steel guitarist Paul Franklin on this?
A: He is one of my oldest friends. We’ve been friends since about 1980, he’s played on a lot of my records over the years. He played on “When I Call Your Name,” my first hit song. And we play together on The Time Jumpers (an ensemble western swing band). Every now and then when we were playing, I’d call a country song, usually by Buck or Merle, and the crowd would go nuts about it. People love and miss this music. I’ve recorded with a little bit of everyone over the years. So we decided to do a really full-fledged duet, but instead of with another singer, it’s with a steel guitar player.
Q: As a country music veteran, how do you think the genre has changed over the years – both musically and in public perception? The genre seems to have mainstreamed with country stars on popular reality shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol.”
A: I think at the end of the day, great songs find their way through at any point and any time. I’ve watched it change since the Opry got started with fiddle tunes and jug bands. Now it’s pretty cosmopolitan, maybe a little soulful at times. It’s always kind of evolved. It always runs away from its traditional base, but it always manages to circle back. The era I grew up in was one of the most successful stretches of people selling records. There was still a lot of traditional music in the ’90s being made. As the years have gone on, there has been less and less and less of the traditional base in country music. Like I said, historically it happens numerous times, and I think it will again.
From a radio perspective, it’s the most popular music going, but the lines are really blurry these days. (“American Idol” judge) Keith Urban – I don’t think he’d mind me saying – he’s not a very country artist. He’s a great singer, songwriter and he makes great records. (“The Voice” judge) Blake Shelton comes from a more traditional place than Keith. They’re both great at what they do and a pretty great face for country music for people who might not ordinarily be interested in country music.
Q: I understand your live shows can be epic experiences; what can people expect out on this tour? Will it be largely songs off “Bakersfield,” or a mix?
A: Paul is out touring with me and we’ll do songs off “Bakersfield.” It runs the gamut of a whole lot of things from my career. It’s not just only the hits you’ve heard on the radio. It’s just great to still be upright and singing and playing and touring the country.