It's a small miracle that Bakersfield, the collaborative hard country album by Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, was released by a major label. Totally out of fashion and having nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary country, it's a clarion reminder of the music's most creative period. Bakersfield is a collection of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard tunes from the 1960s, cut by an all-star session band. It not only pays tribute to these giants and the era, but also the sound, and the men who created it: guitarists Don Rich and Roy Nichols, pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley, and fiddler Jelly Sanders. No one is more qualified to sing these songs than Gill, who is the greatest living vocalist in country music and a killer guitarist whose catalog reveals that he's has been on a creative tear since 2000. Franklin has played on over 500 records; he's a multi-instrumentalist who migrated from Detroit to Nashville in the late '70s to become a modern pedal steel legend. The two are also members of the country and bluegrass band the Time Jumpers. Bakersfield is not merely an exercise in nostalgia; these cats reveal the timeless appeal of California country's golden age. Owens and Haggard were outsiders, true to the tradition of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. They were harder, edgier, definitely not "countrypolitan." Opener "The Foolin' Around," by Owens and Harlan Howard, establishes Bakersfield's M.O. It's an uptempo honky tonk stepper, with fine fiddle work from Kenny Sears and great breaks from Gill's Telecaster and Franklin's steel. Haggard tunes like "Branded Man," "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," and "Holding Things Together" are common choices, but Gill's vocals -- lead and harmony -- are chilling in their clarity and emotional depth, and the band's commitment to the material is total. On Owens' classic "Together Again," Franklin deftly underscores the romantic ache (and relief at reunion) in Gill's voice. The steel also highlights and empathizes with the protagonist's pain and suffering in Haggard's "I Can’t Be Myself." This devastating vocal performance is among the finest of Gill's career. Owens' barroom-swinging "Nobody's Fool But Yours" offers strutting, chunky Telecaster breaks and Franklin's five-finger picks coloring the verses. The only authorial anomaly here is the stellar honky tonk love song "But I Do," by Tommy Collins. Owens played lead guitar in his band in the early '50s, and recorded the song on 1963's Buck Owens Sings Tommy Collins. Some may find the inclusion of Haggard's anthemic "The Fightin' Side of Me" problematic. Those who dismiss the song as jingoistic patriotism conveniently forget that the words "…I don't mind 'em switchin' sides and standing up for things that they believe in..." are in the lyrics. Gill's faithful interpretation is authentic as a populist exhortation to participate in the democratic process rather than simply complain from the sidelines. The bottom line is Bakersfield smokes from top to bottom; a fitting tribute, it is one of, if not the, best country album of 2013.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek