[21 August 2013]
For quite some time, it was the custom in country music for artists to record and release semi-regular covers projects. The purpose served was two-fold. First off, because tradition is paramount in country music, such albums worked to establish continuity between the current artist and his or her forebears. Beyond that, a covers record quite simply constituted an easy way for the artist and label to get fresh product on the market.
Today, these endeavors are anomalous. While the newest country hitmakers might pay lip service to the genre’s titans, very few of them would risk their reputations or record sales on such projects. It simply wouldn’t make much sense. What’s called country music today differs so dramatically from the “classic” country of the ‘50s and ‘60s that a covers album would stand not as an expression of continuity, but rather of dissonance.
Vince Gill, being at this point an elder statesman whose reputation is secure (and whose days at the top of the charts are over), can put forth an album like Bakersfield because (a) he’s got the chops and (b) he’s got nothing to lose by doing so. What’s striking about the record isn’t the form itself, but the concept. Gill’s dulcet tone would seem better suited to the balladry of George Jones than to the hardscrabble Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
That being said, Gill handles the material remarkably well. He sticks close to ballads and mid-tempo heart songs, and wisely so. His voice remains essentially the same now as it was when he got his start and his phrasing, always quite good, has only improved with time. When he lays into “Branded Man”, Gill turns Haggard’s wounded slur into an evocative whimper. On “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”, he reimagines Owens’s deep, resonant twang as something at once more restricted and wistful.
Lest we forget, Gill is also a gifted guitarist (a rarity in country music, where singers tend to stand and sing or strum occasionally on an acoustic). His instrumental work on Bakersfield, while it never strays far from the originals, is unfailingly effective. Famed session player Paul Franklin earns his co-billing. His expressive, exquisite steel guitar parts are front and center throughout and they’re a joy to hear. While the steel guitar hasn’t completely disappeared from country radio, it is increasingly used as a token genre signifier. Franklin’s work, by contrast, is integral to the proceedings.
The only serious misstep on Bakersfield is, unfortunately, a pretty big one. To close out the record, Gill tackles Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, which, along with “Okie from Muskogee”, remains one of the more divisive staples of the Haggard songbook. Gill, unable to summon Haggard’s swagger and unwilling to go tongue-in-cheek, turns in a comparatively limp performance. Had the song been sequenced somewhere near the album’s middle, the negative impact might have been softened. Instead, it’s a cloying final note to an otherwise excellent effort.