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Vince Gill And Paul Franklin: 40 Years Of ‘Sweet Memories’

Paul Franklin and Vince Gill

It sounds strange to say it, but Vince Gill needed a hit. It was 1989, and while many in the business recognized his exorbitant talent, he’d not made much impact at radio over two albums and a bunch of singles for RCA Records. He’d moved to MCA, encouraged by producer Tony Brown. In the studio, they cut a lovely ballad, by Gill and Tim DuBois, called “When I Call Your Name” with a pedal steel solo by Gill’s friend Paul Franklin. It was their first time working together and Franklin was already a top tier session musician, yet Gill asked for a change.

“The steel guitar was not so much in vogue in the late 80s,” says Gill in Episode 256 of The String. “And so Paul played a solo on this song, but it was fairly pedestrian - not to offend, and not to sound like the steel guitar quite so much. And I called him and I said, ‘Hey, this might make you mad. But would you consider coming back and playing that solo again on this waltz? I really want the instrument to do what it was meant to do - what it used to do.’”

Franklin was a bit taken aback, but he took up Gill’s challenge, and the result helped make “When I Call Your Name” a breakout hit and a classic of its time, with the shifting harmonic emotion that only the pedal steel can achieve. The solo sells the lonesome story Gill is telling and brings the track to a climax for the final, soaring chorus. And now almost 35 years later, Franklin says that new, more daring solo, boosted his career too and changed country music.

“I got more sessions from playing like that!” Franklin says in a joint interview at Gill’s home studio. “I did that record, and then I was able to start crying on all these other records. It took Vince's explorative (idea) - like we're gonna do it, whether it's within the parameters or not. And it just shifted the whole town. It's one of those records that comes along that influences everybody.”

It’s hard to say who had more influence on their particular realm of music, Vince or Paul. Mr. Gill became a dominant star of the 1990s, resulting in 14 CMA Awards, 22 Grammy Awards and four halls of fame. Mr. Franklin played on more than 500 country sessions and countless hits, making him one of the most recorded studio musicians of all time. When I think of the era of country radio that set its tractor beam on me, Franklin’s steel and Gill’s voice and guitar were key parts of the allure.

“I feel like it's the instrument that defines country music. It's not a fiddle for me. It's not the guitar. It's no other instrument,” he says. “It's everything I love about country music most, you know?”

We hear that on the new collaboration between Gill and Franklin, entitled Sweet Memories: The Music Of Ray Price And The Cherokee Cowboys. It’s their second duo outing, following up on a Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tribute released exactly ten years ago called Bakersfield. It had been too long, so the old friends made a list of artists they’d love to tap as explicit influences and great song catalogs. Ray got the nod, opening up a box of songs that covered two broad eras - a honky-tonk phase when Price’s distinct groove on “Crazy Arms” and “Heartaches By The Number” led to the coining of the “Ray Price Shuffle” as a subgenre of country. And on to the tuxedo countrypolitan era, when Price led a big band with strings and crossed over with magisterial songs like “For The Good Times” and “Night Life.”

The artists wanted to dig deeper than Price’s big hits for their project though. Gill says part of his research was to call then-WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs during his classic country shows and ask him to play obscure Ray Price songs he figured Vince wouldn’t know. The resulting batch of songs aren’t the hits you’d hear on a random night on Lower Broadway, but the kind of easy going history lesson we’ve come to expect from Vince Gill, an ambassador for the country music story.

“One More Time” opens the album with a proper Ray Price Shuffle - a 1960 top five hit penned by Mel Tillis. “I’d Fight The World” was first cut by its author Hank Cochran in 1962 before Ray Price (and others) covered it. And then, in the album’s first ballad, “You Wouldn’t Know Love,” we should start to get the clue that this isn’t only an album about great songs well sung. There’s more of a dialogue between the electric guitar and the steel guitar than you hear on most commercial country recordings, then or now. It’s no jam album, but the solos are longer and more reactive to each other, as on this gorgeous track with its graceful handoff of one guitar to another.

“Yeah, that one feels timeless,” Gill says. “That is one of the songs on here that to me is a real gem of honoring what's come before us in a new way. It's very well orchestrated.”

Also of note is the title track, which came with a surprise that took Vince and Paul back to their years playing together in the Time Jumpers at both the Station Inn and 3rd & Lindsley. Up until her death from cancer in 2014, Time Jumper Dawn Sears, a longtime harmony vocalist for Gill, would bring the house down with her rendition of “Sweet Memories,” a tear jerker by Mickey Newberry that was cut successfully by Andy Williams and Willie Nelson.

“I didn’t know Ray cut ‘Sweet Memories’,” said Franklin. (Price released a version in 1971.) “I didn’t either,” replied Gill. “And I said we could do this and honor Ray and Dawn with the same song.”

The whole conversation goes this way, with respect and honor flowing upstream and down along a journey Gill and Franklin understand well - taking country music’s best traditions and sometimes forgotten songs and renewing them with expertise and personal passion. They’re planning to keep going with collections inspired by Little Jimmy Dickens and George Jones. And this time it won’t take ten more years.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>