Vince Gill and Paul Franklin are two legendary country artists who have made great music for several decades. The talented guitarist with a sweet tenor voice, Gill has won 18 Country Music Association (CMA) & 22 Grammy Awards, has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1991, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. Pedal steel guitarist Franklin has also received many accolades for his playing and technical innovations to the string instrument. He has been nominated for the CMA Award for Musician of the Year 29 times (but has not yet won). Franklin appears on more than 500 albums, including those by artists as talented and diverse as Dire Straits, Sting, George Strait, Faith Hill, Barbra Streisand, Reba McEntire, Etta James, Sheryl Crow, Thomas Rhett, Tim McGraw, and Megadeth.
The last time Gill and Franklin got together to make an album strictly devoted to previous legacy material was 2013’s Bakersfield, a collaborative tribute to the music of Merle Haggard & the Strangers and Buck Owens & the Buckaroos. It was a kick-ass record that received critical acclaim and did somewhat well commercially. However, there was no immediate follow-up.
Gill and Franklin continued their separate careers and finally got together to record a sequel (of sorts). This time they are taking on Ray Price and his band, the Cherokee Cowboys. The duo employs the same strategy as the first one: they don’t cover well-known hits. Price’s most famous songs, such as “Night Life”, “For the Good Times”, and “Crazy Arms”, won’t be found here.
Instead, Gill and Franklin mined the more obscure but no less-worthy sides from Price’s catalog. Price could take songs written by others and make them his own. His distinctive baritone voice and well-paced performance style made his music stand out from the country fare from the post-World War II era. Sweet Memories contains songs penned by such notables as Mickey Newbury, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, Marty Robbins, and Hank Cochran but still display the strong stamp of Price and his band.
Gill’s voice and Franklin’s fingering are always front and center. The music on Sweet Memories is pristinely presented. Each note Gill sings and each string Franklin bends is crystal clear. Other notable players include Stuart Duncan on fiddle, John Jarvis on piano, and Dennis Crouch on upright bass. The high production values honor the original material.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction between many of these barroom ballads and the immaculate recordings. This was true during Price’s day as well. One would hear a pure voice from the jukebox in a place with a sawdust floor and broken windows and appreciate it more than one would at home on a hi-fi. Songs such as “Walkin’ Slow (and Thinking ‘Bout Her”), “Kissing Your Picture (Is So Cold”), and “The Same Two Lips” drip with that high lonesome sentimentality that encourages one to cry in one’s beer. Prince and Franklin wring out every tear.
The Irish folk song “Danny Boy” seems the oddest track, but Price’s version was the most commercially successful of all the songs on Sweet Memories. Gill sings this brightly, not as a funeral theme as it is often heard, but as a hopeful ode to an uncertain future. Franklin lets the notes hang in the air, playing slow and low.
Sweet Memories serves as a first-rate introduction to Price and his band and hence, the country music of an earlier era. There was a particular beauty to the music that allowed listeners to live aurally in another time and place than the one in front of them. It was an escape, to be sure, but don’t we still need one? Gill and Franklin take us there.