This has been the year Bakersfield returned to America's pop culture map, at least with respect to the music that made the city famous a half-century ago.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville opened an exhibit dedicated to the Bakersfield Sound in 2011 and this year, thanks to the show's favorable reception, extended its 19-month run for another 12 months. At least four books on the Bakersfield Sound or its best-known practitioners have recently or will soon hit bookshelves. And now we have Vince Gill, the purest, sweetest tenor in country music today, devoting his latest collection of songs to the music of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
The record came out last summer. Gill gave Bakersfield three months to digest his warm, engaging take on five of Owens' songs and five of Haggard's and then brought the record, aptly titled "Bakersfield," to local fans, live.
Gill's show Friday night at Rabobank Theater was a nice tribute to the men, the music and the era that set Bakersfield apart from roughly 1961 until the mid-1970s, but it was more than that. A lot more. Gill and his eight-piece band, which included steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin and several other members of the Time Jumpers, played for nearly three and a half hours. That included a short intermission and a funny, occasionally touching 15-minute autobiographical monologue by the star.
Before and mostly after the "Bakersfield" portion of the show, the band knocked out virtually every hit in Gill's ample repertoire, from "Look at Us" to "Young Man's Town" to "What the Cowgirls Do."
But Gill -- fortified by a chicken-fried steak at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace a couple of hours before the show -- was clearly most delighted to be performing the songs of Buck and Merle in the town they made famous. (For the new recording, thankfully, Gill and Franklin mined the Bakersfield singers' discographies for gems that, for the most part, aren't among their most often-played hits.)
Alternating, as he did on the record, between Haggard and Owens, Gill eased from Buck's "Nobody's Fool But Yours" to Merle's "Holding Things Together." He paid tribute to an under-recognized star of the Bakersfield Sound era, singer-songwriter Tommy Collins, with "But I Do," a cut from 1963's "Buck Owens Sings Tommy Collins."
Gill performed all 10 songs from "Bakersfield," the only time on the tour, he told the audience, "where we'll do the whole album" -- Merle's "I Can't Be Myself," Buck's "Foolin' Around," Merle's "Branded Man," Buck's "Together Again," Merle's "The Bottle Let Me Down," Buck's "He Don't Deserve You Anymore," and, finally, Merle's "The Fightin' Side of Me."
The music Buck and Merle made famous was distinct from Nashville's somewhat manufactured, backup singer-fortified sound because it was so comparatively spare and stripped down. Gill honored that contrast in styles with an approach that, whether the song was Buck's or Merle's, hewed close to the Bakersfield model -- trebley and relatively devoid of dominating accompaniment. Gill's primary departures from that approach were good ones: Franklin works his way around the steel guitar like few you'll ever hear, and Gill himself, whose runs and other subtle vocal excursions still, after all these years, set him apart.
Franklin's mastery of the horizontally played steel guitar, Gill pointed out, fits in well with the best traditions of Bakersfield music. Gill reminded the audience of great players of the city's past -- Ralph Mooney, Norm Hamlett and the late Tom Brumley -- and then saluted Brumley's son Todd, who had a pretty good seat in the audience.
Earlier in the day Gill and Franklin stopped in at the Crystal Palace -- too small a venue for Friday's concert, sadly -- for a special, hourlong program organized by the Grammy Foundation, the Grammy Museum and Gill's label, MCA Nashville. The men gave a short performance and sat for a question and answer session hosted by Scott Goldman, vice president of the Grammy Foundation's MusiCares program. The event was filmed and will eventually be available for viewing at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.