Vince Gill & Paul Franklin

Homage to Ray Price
Vince Gill & Paul Franklin
Bob Hartman/Gregg Miner photo courtesy of Stephen Bennett. Franklin and Gill: John Shearer.

Vince Gill and longtime friend, collaborator, and pedal-steel giant Paul Franklin share a love of country music history. Bakersfield, their 2013 collaboration, paid homage to the timeless, twang-heavy music of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

Sweet Memories: The Music of Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys celebrates the late, iconic Texas singer and his Western-swing flavored backup band, considered one of the best of its day. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and guitarist Pete Wade were Cowboys alumni. The pedal-steel work of members Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons further enhanced their already-lofty stature.

Always his own man, Price, who initially emulated the nasal singing of friend and touring partner Hank Williams, Sr., developed a distinctive voice after Hank’s death in 1953. The danceable, Texas-style 4/4 “shuffle” rhythm he created for his ’56 hit “Crazy Arms” became as much a Price/Cowboys trademark as their glitzy rhinestone outfits. He maintained his hard-country sound until his controversial 1966 decision to disband the Cowboys and embrace fully-orchestrated country-pop, which ultimately proved successful.

As with Bakersfield, Gill and Franklin avoided obvious choices. Instead, they sought out worthy lesser-known Price material spanning nearly two decades (1951-’70).

“I love ‘Crazy Arms,’” Gill explains. “I love all those things, but why not do a deeper dive? We tried to find things that would suit what Paul would do. Some things might be good for a Telecaster – not all, but a couple. It makes a nice transition.”

Both, however, discovered Price via “Crazy Arms.”

“I’m from Detroit,” says Franklin, son of respected pedal-steel maker Paul Franklin, Sr. “That’s the first (Price song) I paid attention to. I started playin’ when I was eight, and my dad was informing me about country music. I learned how to play ‘Crazy Arms.’ That’s the song that taught me my first Dominant 7th chord,” he laughs.

“It was so massive,” Gill reflects. “What was so cool is, even though it was 4/4, it felt like 2/4 because of the swagger and the backbeat. It was a shuffle, but a laid-back shuffle, and it swung and danced as hard as any record ever has.”

The tunes range from “Weary Blues,” a 1951 Hank ballad, through “Danny Boy” and “You Wouldn’t Know Love” better-known hits from Price’s later country-pop era.

Gill’s trusty ’54 Tele appears occasionally. “On the handful of shuffles like ‘One More Time’ and ‘Walkin’ Slow,’ a couple of those had Tele solos,” he noted.

His second deep dive involved gear from his massive vintage collection. “I played 335’s, I played archtops.”

He paid subtle tribute to A-Team guitar master Grady Martin, who played on Price sessions for more than two decades. “I played a lot of fills on acoustic that emulate Grady a bit.”

Franklin stuck to his own sound, but occasionally conjured empathetic licks recalling those injected by Day and Emmons.

“I love Emmons and Day,” he says. “I didn’t want to copy the original records, but we didn’t want to depart completely from the emotion.”

Along with his Franklin pedal steel, he used vintage tube amps, adding, “I think you can get a great traditional sound many ways.” Some tracks featured his older Sho-Bud and Emmons instruments. “Both existed in the ’60s, so it stayed within that sound.”

Guitarists Tom Bukovac, Derek Wells, and Steve Gibson (on tic-tac bass) played on the album, which was recorded at Gill’s home studio in an affluent Nashville suburb. “The countriest music in town is being recorded in Belle Meade,” he quips.

Gill knew Price personally and fully understands his vocal approach.

“I did study the phrasing,” he says. “That’s what made him such a great singer. He’s like a jazz singer. Most sing on the beat, but Willie phrases in a way similar to Ray, with the same kind of spirit.

“It was really fun to make all this effort to emulate it just enough so it felt reminiscent, but not verbatim. Like Paul said, it’s no interest to either of us to do a note-for-note thing. ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ would be the closest to the broad-voiced singer doing the big ballads. We stayed in the realm of the beer joint/honky-tonk spirit.

“It was enlightening for me and Paul, finding things we never knew he covered. I never knew he sang ‘Sweet Memories’ and ‘Weary Blues.’ I think it’s gonna be fun for everybody to discover some of the hidden gems he was part of.”

Gill sees a particularly obvious audience for Sweet Memories and its unabashedly old-school approach.

“The generation of me and Paul’s age, and older, it’s a given that they’re gonna like this. They miss it.

“The neat part is that, potentially, it could (attract) a 20- or 30-year-old kid, a young musician who’d go, ‘I never knew this existed! I want to learn more.’ And they take the deep dive, learn the history, and find who they find and who inspired them.

“That’s the way it is for me. I’ve never been an overly cocky guy thinking, ‘I could do this, I could do that.’ I just sing and play as hard as I can.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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