The new collaborative album by Vince Gill and instrumentalist Paul Franklin is not a vocal duets record. But for anyone who believes that there’s something about the steel guitar that’s uncannily akin to the moan of the human voice, in spirit if not sound, maybe it’s close enough. Ten years ago, the country star and the preeminent living steel guitarist joined forces for the co-billed album “Bakersfield,” a tribute to the music of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. After a decade’s pause, they’ve teamed up again on record for a much-needed sequel, “Sweet Memories: The Music of Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys.”
Including the name of a long-lost backing band in the subtitle is a tip-off that the record is not just an act of hero worship of Price, who had a five-decade recording career, from the ‘50s through 2000s, before passing away in 2013 at age 87. It’s also a tribute to a style of classic country playing that you would be hard-pressed to hear anywhere near a radio airwave anymore.
As Gill puts it in an interview with Variety: “People say all the time, ‘Country music’s dead.’ I go, ‘No, it’s not. It’s not dead. It’s just not real popular.’ That’s a big difference, you know? … I think the real point of all this is we miss that kind of music. We don’t get to play much of it, and it’s fun for us to go back and not only honor who we revere, but also get the opportunity to play what we first learned to play, and it takes us back to our youth in a great way.”
It may not make a big dent on the charts — although Gill is prone to joking about competing with Morgan Wallen — but for anyone who reveres traditional country sounds, “Sweet Memories,” which came out Friday, counts as an event release. Variety sat down with Franklin and Gill prior to the album’s street date about working on a project that completely conjures the spirit of an era without making any attempt to actually copy the original records.
When you were doing your previous collaboration a decade ago, were you thinking of it then as a possible franchise?
Gill: Yeah, absolutely. From the get-go, when we did Buck and Merle and did “Bakersfield,” we thought we could do several of these. But with the people that we wanted to do, there’s a really deep connection. Paul and I both got to play or sing on Ray Price’s last record; we were friends. And the same with Buck and Merle: I got to sing on some of Merle’s last recordings, and Buck sent me one of them red, white and blue guitars. And we’ve talked about doing maybe George Jones and Conway Twitty and Little Jimmy Dickens. So I think over a period of time, you’ll see more and more of these (tributes to) people that are special to us.
Not all the original Ray Price recordings you’re covering had steel on them, right? Are you introducing steel to some of these songs for the first time?
Franklin: That’s a great question. A lot of them didn’t have steel, and certainly didn’t have the type of steel we put on them. These songs were obscure — I didn’t know a lot of them. And thanks to Eddie Stubbs, we found the best hidden gems.
Gill: Yeah. Eddie Stubbs was a great disc jockey here in Nashville for a long time — and a great bluegrass country fiddle player, who came to town to play with Kitty Wells many, many years ago, and he was always on WSM late at night. I would listen to him all the time and call him up and say, “Man, play me something that you know I’ve never heard.” And he’d break out a Ray Price record and send it my way (over the airwaves)— songs like “One More Time,” “Kissing Your Picture,” some of those things that I’d never even heard.
I’m like most people; I knew the really successful records. And I think Paul and I both didn’t really want to do the songs that most people would assume you would do when you’re trying to do the music of another artist. I think we even did that with “Bakersfield,” too; we didn’t go to the most obvious choices. So it was fun for us, because we got to discover some stuff that we didn’t know as well, and found a way to play it that suited the way we both play and the way way I sing. Neither of these records has had the point of it being about the singer so much, but this was more about both of us being musicians that wanted to be creative together. I could sing the songs, so that worked out pretty good, and away we went.
And all those bands that we loved, whether it was the Strangers that played with Merle, or the Buckaroos that played with Buck, or the Cherokee Cowboys that played with Ray … Before they were the Cherokee Cowboys, they were Hank’s (Williams’) band, the Drifting Cowboys, and a lot of the guys that played with Hank went on after his passing to play with Ray. So all the people we’ve loved have also been very instrumental in having great bands with great players, and we were drawn to the players of some of these great artists as much as the artists themselves.
I love the idea of you calling in to Eddie Stubbs late at night to request he play songs you didn’t know.
Gill: Eddie would play something cool and then he’d be all fired up and go, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, that steel guitar solo is one of the best… I’m gonna put the needle back about where the solo’s gonna start, so turn your radios up now, we’re gonna play that solo again.” He’d do stuff like that all the time. I was over in Australia touring with the Eagles [listening to Stubbs on WSM, over the web], and he played something I’d never heard of; I think it was a duet between Mac Wiseman and Bobby Osborne, who we sadly just lost. It was so stinking good, I called him from Australia and I said, “What was that you played? I never heard that.” He told me the date and all that stuff, and he came back on the air and he says, “It was great to hear from Vince. He’s over in Australia touring with the big shots, and I’m gonna play that song again for him.”
And he’d play me these songs, and I’d just keep a little journal of songs that I didn’t know, and so we probably had a list of 60 or 70 Ray Price things that we considered for this record. It was fun to discover so many songs I had no idea Ray had done versions of. I never knew he’d done a version of “Sweet Memories,” the great Mickey Newberry song. Paul and I both played and sang with a great singer named Dawn Sears, who had easily one of the most definitive versions of “Sweet Memories” you’ve ever heard in your life. And the Hank Williams song that he wrote, called “Weary Blues From Waitin’,” I never knew that was Ray’s first record he ever had cut. [The song officially carries a Williams songwriting credit, but its authorship has been disputed.] We didn’t do too many of the big, big, big ballads, but we did do “Danny Boy,” one of his showstoppers that he would do. So it’s a lot of obscure stuff, but the whole arc of his career got covered.
It seems like Ray Price kind of straddles worlds a little bit in country history, in that there’s some real honky-tonk stuff, and then we may associate him with the Countrypolitan era a little bit, too. Some of the songs you cover on the album have a real drama to them, like “I’d Fight the World,” and it’s funny because, uh, then that’s followed on the album by “You Wouldn’t Know Love,” which is almost the opposite kind of lyric — one song’s about obsession and the other one is about total apathy, and yet they both kind of have the same groove, almost. [Laughter.] But what does Ray Price represent in the history of country to you guys?
Franklin: Well, to me, all of what you said. He was innovative, and he was followed by a lot of singers. Ray didn’t stand still. You know, he started with the Hank Sr. tribute, and then he got into this thing with the 4/4 shuffle, like “Crazy Arms,” and there’s a whole slew of hits like that. But then, when I moved to town in ‘72, he was, as far as I knew, the only country star that would use strings in every city when he played. It was like seeing the country version of Tony Bennett, when he would do “For the Good Times”… So he represented how country music was evolving, and he was a cornerstone in all of that movement.
Gill: He was a really broad-voiced singer. Very few singers have that kind of range, melodically, to be able to go up the places he went, as high as he would go. It was awesome, man, when he went for those big-money notes on some of those ballads and whatnot. I had to make sure and pick the right key so I didn’t hurt myself, trying to sing up there.
Is there anything akin to what he did that you do, or strive to do? Beyond the high notes, which you have in common.
Gill: Well, here goes a scary possibility of comparing yourself to such an iconic singer. But the thing that was great about him is whatever he did, it was authentic. If he was singing a big ballad with a string section and it was lush and it was beautiful, he had the chops that he could really pull that off. But he could also take you to a beer joint and sound as honky-tonk as Ernest Tubb and anybody else that sang honky-tonk music. So to me, wherever he went, he was somewhat legit.
And that’s what I’ve always tried to be as a singer. If I’m singing a bluegrass song, I want to sound like Ralph Stanley. If I’m singing a pop song with Gladys Knight, I want to sound like Donny Hathaway. I want to be authentic in whatever it is that I do. And I think you can hear my voice be a much different singer with a song like “Pocketful of Gold” or “When I Call Your Name” than the kind of singer I am with a song like “I Still Believe In You.” There are ways that you use your gifts that make them the most authentic they can be, and that’s what he had that was a cut above most singers. Most singers, they do a thing, and they do that thing very well, but then they maybe don’t have the versatility to go into different places and different styles of music. Ray had the ability to sound as much like Tony Bennett as he did Haggard or Lefty Frizzell or any of those honky-tonk singers, you know?
Plus, I’ve gotta say, the uniqueness of his singing was the way he phrased. If people are not very musical, you don’t understand where a singer starts and stops, and that’s all about the phrasing and how they do the words and when they do the words. A lot of singers just sing on the beat… I emulated a good bit of the way that he phrased, to make it stylistically be reminiscent, but yet not being a note-for-note adaptation of what they did. Because there’s nothing more uninteresting to me than a note-for-note version of somebody else’s record.
Do either of you have a favorite song on the record?
Gill: Boy. Good question. Mine might be a toss up between “Weary Blues From Waitin’” and “You Wouldn’t Know Love.” Just “Weary Blues” because of just how it turned out. It’s nothing like Ray’s version; it’s almost bluegrassy, the way that I sang it. But the way Paul played the intro to that is not unlike how Buck Trent would’ve played the banjo on a Porter Wagoner record: It’s so unique and so cool that it just takes you somewhere right off the bat. And then to me “You Wouldn’t Know Love” is the epitome of what a great arranged country music song from that era sounds like. The way John Jarvis played the piano parts, and the way everybody listens to each other, has their space, has their moment — all of that was as beautifully orchestrated as any record I’ve ever been a part of.
Franklin: That one reminded me of the way Chet Atkins would produce when he was doing the Everly Brothers and artists like that. But for me, “Weary Blues,” I agree with that, and what I love about it is that’s a Vince Gill record. You brought bluegrass up, and that high lonesome sound. That’s one I didn’t know. When he started singing it, the way you hear it on the record, all the musicians just quickly surrounded that with the right things. And then my other favorite is “Sweet Memories,” because of Dawn Sears. It was so cool that we could do something to honor her, and everybody in town will know why.
A decade ago, Vince, we talked about how unusual it was to have this kind of shared billing with instrumentalists. So part of this for you has to be a chance to, whether it’s Paul specifically or steel generally, have this kind of a showcase for steel on a full record. That doesn’t happen, at least in the mainstream. So there’s all kinds of tributes going on here — to Ray, to the musicians that used to play with him, to the songwriters of his era — but the two of you are also paying tribute to each other, maybe a little bit, by doing this.
Gill: Well, I think the mutual respect that we have for each other is where everything comes from. And when we made the “Bakersfield” record … You know, I’ve sung with over a thousand artists on their records in my career. I’ve done a million duets, it seems like, with singers. But at my core, where I really come from — I was a musician first. I was a musician long before I had the courage to open my mouth and sing. And so it made sense to me, if I was ever gonna do a duet record, it would be more fun to make a duet record with a musician rather than a singer.
And, you know, I’m not that big a fan of instrumental records, honestly. I like ’em, but I don’t know that it would hold my interest for 10 or 12 songs. I love to hear songs that tell stories. And so I said, “Man, this would work out great. I’ll play a lot of guitar. You play a lot of steel. I’ll just sing the songs, because somebody’s got to.” [Franklin laughs.] That’s kind of how it really came to fruition. I also wanted to see Paul get the respect that I think he’s always deserved. And the instrument is my favorite instrument. I love the sound of a steel guitar over any other instrument I’ve ever heard. And we’ve been friends for over 40 years. There’s nobody else that it would’ve made any sense to do this with.
Franklin: Yeah, I’m like that with instrumentals too. [Laughs.] “No, you don’t want me to play on that, do you? I don’t want to hear me play anymore!” I learned to play listening to the radio, but I always listen for the singer, listen to what they’re doing, and then it’s a call and response. When I first met Vince and I heard him sing, I thought, “I’ve got to work with this guy. I’ve gotta figure this out.” I didn’t figure it out. He figured it out, because he moved to Nashville. Because we met at Knotts Berry Farm in California. And then [to Gill] you left Pure Prairie League and went at a country career, and the rest is history.
But I love backing the singer. If I hear emotion — and you hear tons from every line Vince sings —I just try to emulate my version of that emotion to complement the words or the singer’s phrasing.
Vince, it’s interesting hearing that steel is your favorite instrument, since it’s not one of your instruments. Or maybe you do play it in your off time when nobody is listening.
Gill: I’m a recovering steel player. They have a 12-step program for that. No, when I was 18, I was in a band with Ricky Skaggs, and I bought a steel because I loved it so much and tried to learn how to play it. But it never did land, and I just had the hardest time with it. We called it a mercy selling when I finally got rid of it. But, no, I tried, and I was Ricky’s first steel player, and I tease him about it all the time.
The thing that I couldn’t get my head around was the string spacing. With a steel guitar, the string spacing is very, very narrow. With a guitar, it’s not. With a mandolin, it’s not. With a banjo, it’s not. With a Dobro, it’s not — all the instruments that I play. And I never knew which strings I was gonna get ahold of (with steel). I had it all in my head; I knew what I wanted it to do, but I could never get ahold of the right strings to make it work. [Franklin laughs.] So I am a recovering steel player, but I was nice enough to quit.
It’s cool that Universal Nashville is behind you doing this. When you did the first one 10 years ago, you had recorded it independently before you reupped with Universal. You make it seem like you don’t have this intense desire to compete with the youngsters anymore, so you’re not thinking about, “How will this get in the way of my real solo career?” That’s not the way you think.
Gill: Well, we’ve been teasing that we’re gonna take down Dan + Shay and Brothers Osborne and Maddie & Tae [in the best duo categories]. We’re coming for ‘em… I’m teasing. But, you know, we’ve lived a lot of life, and in a way… This sounds weird to say out loud, but I think we’ve earned it — the ability to kind of go do what we want, follow whatever we want to, scratch what itch we wanna scratch. And it’s a blast.
I think that at the core of all of this is we just miss hearing a lot of this music. You know, people say all the time, “Country music’s dead.” I go, “No, it’s not. It’s not dead. It’s just not real popular.” That’s a big difference, you know? So we’re doing our part, sticking up for it a little bit, and giving it a voice and giving it a place, and giving people that may not know a lot of this music the opportunity to hear some of the stuff that was so powerful in our history. We get to teach young people a little bit about their history and show ’em how some of these records were made and how some of these songs were written, and all those kinds of things I think are nothing but good, you know?
It’s been four years since your last proper solo record, “Okie.” Do you have another solo album in the offing?
Gill: Yeah, absolutely. Paul came and played on it in February or something, when we came in here in the studio for a couple of weeks and cut about 30 songs. So I’m gonna give Morgan Wallen a run for his money. I’m gonna put out more songs than he did. I have to, because I’m old. I’m not gonna get many more chances, so I’m stockpiling.
Paul, is there anything you’ve worked on lately that you’re particularly proud of?
Franklin: Well, the record Vince just mentioned, but I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with various people. Reba’s got a new record coming out, and Ernest… I just did some solos for Lady Antebellum. Or Lady A, I’m sorry.
Gill: Oh, now we’re in trouble. [Laughter.] Paul been playing on the road with Chris Stapleton since 2019. He’s playing to big crowds. Paul’s drawing pretty good these days. He’s got George Strait and Chris Stapleton opening for him.
Franklin: They’re my lead singers, right? That’s what John Hughey, the famous steel guitarist for Conway Twitty, used to tell Conway when he joined the band.
Gill: He’d say, “Don’t get cocky, son. You’re just my lead singer.”