The steel guitar has held a special place in country music ever since unplugged Hawaiian guitars arrived on the mainland and evolved into an electrified honky-tonk staple.
Several projects are stoking a renewed appreciation of the instrument: Steelism, a buzzy instrumental duo that landed its own sets at both the Newport Folk Festival and the Americana Music Festival, an all-star tribute titled The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons and a collaboration from Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill and Steel Guitar Hall of Famer Paul Franklin.
"I've been a lifelong lover of the instrument," Gill says. "I think that it emulates the human voice better than any other instrument. And maybe that's why I'm drawn to it so much. The sound of 'em -- it cries and it weeps and it has the emotion that a voice does."
Not only do Franklin and Gill take a stroll down Western swing memory lane each and every week during their standing gig with Nashville's Time Jumpers, they also share a lifelong love of hard-twanging, guitar-driven country that originated in Bakersfield, Calif.
We have them to thank for a new batch of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard covers with Franklin's molten licks and Gill's Telecaster note-bending and country-soul singing all over it. It's an inspired, back-to-the-sources album with a bread-and-butter title: Bakersfield.
CMT Edge: Vince, you've sung so many duets, yet never made a duet album. Why make your first-ever duet album with a steel player instead of a singer?
Gill: What I wanted to accomplish more than anything else was to be true to what I was first -- and that was a musician.
Paul and I talked about making this record instrumentally. I said, "Does this hold any interest to you? I don't know that it does to me." And he said, "I don't really wanna make an instrumental record."
And I said, "Well, I could sing the songs."
"What songs would we do?"
I said, "Well, there couldn't be anything better to feature a steel guitar and a Telecaster than Buck and Merle. So that kinda came with the idea.
You'd performed a couple of these songs with the Time Jumpers. Did you strike up a conversation about recording them after a Time Jumpers show?
Franklin: Actually, I went out on the road with Vince a couple of years back. The first time, I remember him mentioning an instrumental record. It wasn't for us to do one, but he asked me if I had ever done one.
And you have.
Franklin: Like I told Vince, none that I'm proud of. (laughs) So we got through the year, then we went back to doing the Time Jumpers thing. Then Vince said, "I've got this idea."
We both realized we grew up on [the same music]. My first album that I got with my pedal steel was You're for Me by Buck Owens. So that was my first country record. It just made sense to go back to what we learned. Vince learned trying to imitate [Owen's harmony-singing guitarist] Don Rich and [Haggard's session guitarist] James Burton. So it made sense to go to the core of what we're about.
Gill: I guess where the idea started was playing down there on Monday nights with the Time Jumpers as a predominately a Western swing band. We play probably 80, 85 percent swing music, and every now and then, I throw in an old country song. Swing's great but not every song, every song, every song.
Out of the blue I said, "Hey, let's do 'Together Again.' And I'm telling you what, the place came unglued. I filed that in my head, and I said, "There's a world out there that really wants this music."
You talked about the sounds coming out of Bakersfield grabbing you in your youth. Now that you're seasoned players, what's satisfying about this material? What do you get out of playing it?
Franklin: The same thing I got when I first fell in love with it. If you love something, it should never leave you. You should never abandon it.
Gill: I think young people will respond to this if they have the opportunity to hear it. We sure did. You know, we were musical kids, and it spoke to us. I look back at my life at different times of how I was inspired, and it hasn't changed.
If you really want to define country music, I would define it by someone singing a song and a steel guitar. I think what has held the longest interest in the music are those two elements -- a great song and the sound of the steel guitar.
Merle Haggard wrote some very complimentary things in the liner notes for this album. He definitely understands the worth of revisiting influences, considering he made a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album way back. Was there any apprehension about sending those tracks to him?
Gill: To do 'em in the first place, there was apprehension. To send them to him, there was apprehension. Of course. I just think that there are some things that should be left alone.
At the same time, it's OK for them to be different. That's the most important thing because there's nothing more uninteresting than a sound-alike record. Then that becomes karaoke.
How long were you waiting on a response?
Gill: A pretty good while.
Franklin: Yeah. (laughs) And we would still be waiting on him to sign off.
Since you've both been listening to Buck Owens for so long, I was surprised to read that you found, and recorded, a couple of Owens songs you weren't familiar with. Were there other discoveries?
Gill: I think most people that aren't steeped in a whole lot of country music, they think it's simple. They think it's easy to play.
Franklin: I think this music is like studying jazz. You can study this for the rest of your life and not learn it all.
As different kinds of guitar sounds have come into play -- especially more aggressive, modern rock-influenced sounds -- do you feel like the role of steel has changed?
Franklin: Oh, most certainly it has changed. You've got to think like a guitarist or a keyboardist. The steel guitar, because you've got 10 strings, when you camouflage it into sounds that are much like a [regular] guitar, then it does things that you can't quite get [otherwise]. ... I think the steel guitar has to find those kinds of roles in modern music.
I just hope it doesn't lose sight [of the past] because you really have to learn how to play the instrument to play this music. ... You can learn sounds and be an ethereal [player], and it doesn't take years and years. But if you want to play like Buddy Emmons or John Hughey, you're gonna have to devote your life to it.