One of your main axes is a ’53 Telecaster. Is it safe to assume that that’s what you played on much of Bakersfield?
“Yeah. There were a few others. I probably played a half a dozen different Telecasters on that record. [The ‘53] is always the one that outdoes them all, that I just like the best. It sounds the most familiar to me. It feels the most forgiving, the most connected. Because it’s mine and I’ve played it for 35 years is why I’m connected to it. It’s miraculous to me that you can pick up 10 of those guitars, built in the same year, and they don’t sound exactly alike and they don’t play exactly alike. You’d think an electric guitar sounds like an electric guitar, but it doesn’t. And that one is really kind of magical.”
The fact that you and Paul Franklin have equal billing on this album, and that you’ve written and recorded a tribute to your longtime steel guitarist, the song Buttermilk John, suggests that you recognize the role sidemen play in defining a sound. When did you first wrap you head around the idea that the players, and not just the star, are essential?
“I’ve gotta tell ya, I think I was always drawn to that side of it, because I was a musician. It took me a long time to get up the courage to sing. I think as much as I loved Buck Owens, I was just as drawn to what Don Rich did and what Tom Brumley did, the lead instruments. I always aspired more to be a sideman and a session guy than I ever did an artist. I wanted to be in bands. I wanted to be the guitar player. I wanted to be the whatever player. In all my earliest jobs, I was a band member. I was the lead guitar player. I was the harmony singer with Rodney [Crowell]. Even with Pure Prairie, I sang lead on the songs, but I was lead guitar player and everything before that.
“As a young 7th grader, 8th grader, I remember just reading the back of records and going, ‘How does this work? How do they all do this?’ And I would notice all those names. And then I found myself buying records of people I’d never heard of, because I’d look on there and see one of my favorite guitar players, like Larry Carlton or somebody I was really crazy about. I said, ‘I’d like to hear what he played on this record.’ I would stumble onto artists that way.
“I did the same thing in an artist career for myself; I kinda stumbled into it. I found myself in between jobs. I started writing songs, and I’d written some songs and was singing. I said, ‘Well, maybe I could be an artist.’ So I tried. And it worked. It wasn’t always my first focus. I wasn’t the kid that sat in the mirror with a hairbrush practicing my Elvis moves.” [Laughs]