Tribute albums are a tricky proposition. Play it too close and you add nothing of your own; take too many liberties and you lose touch with the object of your affection. Finding a middle ground that honors the original performances, adds something new and echoes both the celebrated and celebrant is one of the most delicate balancing acts in music. To best accomplish this, you need to have absorbed an artist’s music into your roots, so that your own path of discovery carries the DNA of these influences even as you develop your unique variations. Recorded country music has a long history of meaningful tips of a ten gallon hat, and such is the case for this heartfelt tribute to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard from singer-guitarist Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin.
Both Gill and Franklin took to the Bakersfield sound and the songs of Owens and Haggard at very young ages, spurred to dig deeper into music by the revolutionary sounds coming out of Bakersfield in the 1960s. Between Gill and Franklin, they’re able to cover three of the key elements of Owens’ and Haggard’s records: vocals, guitar and steel. Gill’s always had one of the sweetest voices in contemporary country music, but it’s still surprising how easily and equally it lends itself to both singers’ music. He sings his own harmony on the Owens’ tunes, just as Owens had done on his own studio recordings, and adds telecaster sting, including the chicken pickin’ and stuttering leads that bring to mind James Burton and Roy Nichols.
Franklin’s steel provides Gill the perfect partner, adding the twangy instrumental voice that gave Owens’ and Haggard’s music its unapologetic country sound. He pays tribute to Tom Brumley and Ralph Mooney, as does pretty much every player who touches a steel guitar, but with his own twists to signature solos such as Brumley’s masterpiece on “Together Again.” The song list combines several of Owens’ and Haggard’s most familiar hits – “Foolin’ ‘Round,” “Branded Man,” “Together Again,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” – with well selected catalog gems. The latter are highlighted by Owens’ 1966 two-stepping album side “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” and Haggard’s pained 1974 “Holding Things Together.”
Gill has recorded many great records, both as a chart-topping hit maker in the ’90s and as an album auteur in the last decade. Franklin’s been one of Nashville’s most prolific session players, spreading his commercial and artistic successes across hundreds of records. But playing the material that fueled their imaginations as youngsters clearly lights a spark in each of them. Their balance between fidelity and liberty is just right, with the heart of each song filigreed with changes that are often small, but meaningful. Gill and Franklin each bring their own style to the record, but they are styles which grew partly in Bakersfield soil. The album’s only disappointment is the short ten track song list; a number that’s particularly small when drawing from the lengthy catalogs of two country music giants. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]