Vince Gill was a bit intimidated last weekend when he stood on the stage at the Rabobank Theater in Bakersfield, Calif., the heart of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard country, and sang an evening’s worth of the pair’s songs.
It is one thing to slip an Owens or Haggard cover song into a concert, but to devote a full show to artists held in such high esteem in their backyard took a whole different kind of tenacity.
“It was unbelievable. It was a highlight of a long career,” Gill said a few days later during a break in a string of California dates that lead him to Tucson for the Chasing Rainbows Gala on Sunday. “To play those great songs in that great environment ... killer crowd, just an amazing crowd.”
The show was part of a tour for Gill’s and steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin’s months-old album, “Bakersfield,” a collection of songs by Haggard and Owens that defines the Bakersfield sound they created and perfected.
Gill has long admired the pair, fellow Oklahomans who established the Bakersfield sound in California’s humble central valley region. Their brand of country is twangy and deeply ingrained in honky-tonks. It is raw and unpolished — the opposite of Nashville’s sheen. And below the surface are distinct Dust Bowl accents that beckon to the Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas roots of California country singers in the 1950s and ’60s.
Gill, 56, grew up with that music and followed it to California when he was 19 years old. He took cues from Haggard’s songwriting, which leaned on the darker side compared to Owens’ more fanciful, sometimes lighthearted writing.
He met both men and became friends with Owens. He remembers seeing Haggard for the first time playing an old beer joint in Colorado.
“In a sense I was emulating what those guys do, write songs and making my own records,” he said.
Throughout his 30-plus-year career, Gill would sprinkle an Owens or Haggard song into his live shows, but it never occurred to him to do a project as bold as his album with Franklin.
Among the songs on “Bakersfield” are two fairly obscure Haggard songs — “Bottle Let Me Down” and “I Can’t Be Myself” — that Gill has covered throughout his nearly 35-year music career. Mostly, Gill looked for songs that spotlighted the steel guitar so that Franklin, an in-demand studio musician in Nashville, could jump from background to center stage.
“We tried to pick the ones that really suited the steel guitar best to feature Paul,” Gill said. “That was my main focus in the songs that we would select. ... I like more of the dark, serious side of (Owens) like ‘Together Again.’ I found these two songs — ‘But I Do’ and ‘He Don’t Deserve You Anymore’ — they are so straight-up country and so real, and Paul got to play great on them.”
Saturday’s concert, which benefits the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation, will include some of Gill’s biggest hits. In a career that started with the country-rock band Pure Prairie League, Gill has racked up 40 charted singles including “When I Call Your Name,” “Liza Jane,” “One More Last Chance,” “When Love Finds You,” “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” and “Pretty Little Adriana.”
The show is his first in Tucson since he and his wife, country-Christian-pop singer Amy Grant, played a benefit for the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation in 2002.
“I love Tucson. I used to come there every year to play golf,” said Gill, who was a regular at the Tucson Open pro-Am in the 1990s; for several years, he hosted the event. “I have some really good friends there.”