VINCE GILL - FINALLY DOING IT HIS WAY
“There was no skin involved. I didn’t drop my pants, but they got the message. I flipped them off and the police all gave me a standing O. It was really surreal. It was like a scene from Spinal Tap.”
by Derek Halsey
Vince Gill has seen the heights of the music business as a contemporary country and pop artist. In fact, most people probably know of Gill from his numerous number one hits that earned him 14 Grammy Awards and 18 CMA awards. Yet, there has always been another side to Gill’s musical career, an ability to play the guitar and mandolin at a very high level. Whether it is smoking rock, slinky blues, old school honky tonk, or pedal-to-the-metal bluegrass music, Vince Gill has become one of the best pickers in Nashville and beyond.
Bluegrass fans have long known of his instrumental prowess, as Vince came up playing the music in the 1970’s with groups such as the Bluegrass Alliance, with Sam Bush, Dan Crary and others, and a short stint with Boone Creek, a band that featured a young Ricky Skaggs. After those two bands morphed into other projects, Gill went out to Los Angeles in the mid-1970’s to play in the band Sundance with noted fiddler Byron Berline. It was there that he met Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and others with whom he would become good friends. In the late 70’s and early 80’s he joined Pure Prairie League for a while and then joined Rodney Crowell’s band, The Cherry Bombs, a group that also backed up singer Rosanne Cash. But it wasn’t until the 1990’s when Gill found his voice as a solo performer and singer and began to put out his many number one hits. That pushed his guitar and mandolin work to the side, as a star singer was born. The next thing you know Gill is making a video with Barbara Streisand and singing with her and hugging on her with no instrument in sight.
Still, along the way, Vince Gill never forgot his roots and continued to be a part of the country music community that he loves. He has served as the president of the Country Music Hall Of Fame, a post he still holds, was the long time host of the CMA Awards, and to this day is a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. Gill knows that his mainstream country hits are what put him on the map, and the lovers of those songs are fans that he truly appreciates. As Gill said jokingly at the recent taping of the “CMT Cross Country” show after singing a duet with Alison Krauss, "I feel pretty confident in my manhood now. It's all right. I live in a pretty nice house because I sing like a woman." Even so, his non-mainstream creativity has always been brewing underneath.
Then in 2004 Vince Gill was invited to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas, Texas. His inspired performance on guitar, with his fine band and Dobro great Jerry Douglas trading licks with him on “Oklahoma Borderline” and “What The Cowgirls Do,” was captured on the subsequent Crossroads Festival DVD and has turned many a head around since. The fact is, he was this good all along. Now, two years later, Gill has just released an amazing four-CD collection of all original songs called “These Days.” On this project he gets to show off his picking skills with some sweet bluegrass music, gets to sing some new contemporary country songs, goes back to his roots with some traditional honky tonk, gets to sing some duets with the best in the business, and even gets to play some jazz and rock along the way.
There are two impressive elements to “These Days,” and that is the long list of musicians that he brought in to collaborate with, and the fact that all 43 songs on this four-CD set were either written or co-written by Gill. The guest musicians helping him out include Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Michael McDonald, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Tricia Yearwood, Amy Grant, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Douglas, steel guitar greats John Hughey and Buddy Emmons, Stuart Duncan, Bekka Bramlett, Sheryl Crow, Gretchen Wilson, Jon Randall, Lee Ann Womack, Jeff White, LeAnn Rimes, Diana Krall, Paul Franklin, Charlie Cushman, Billy Joe Walker Jr., Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, Rebecca Lyn Howard, Mike Bub, Andrea Zonn, daughter Jenny Gill, and many others.
As Gritz Magazine speaks with Vince Gill it is late October and he is in the midst of a nationwide tour. For this tour Gill has put together a 17-piece band that is capable of playing all of the genres represented on “These Days,” as well as playing many of the hit songs that his fans know him for. The phone rings almost to the minute of our appointed time, and it is Vince on the line;
Derek. How are you doing?
Howdy Vince. I’m doing good. How are you doing?
I’m all right. Are you in Cincinnati?
Yes I am.
All right. I thought that 513 area code was in Cincinnati. We’ve been dipping in and out of Cincinnati the last few nights. We were just driving through. We played Columbus and drove through twice and didn’t even get to eat at Montgomery Inn.
Bummer. The best rib sauce in the world. I think the last time I talked to you was at Skeeter Davis’ funeral at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville a couple of years ago. Skeeter actually grew up across the river from Cincinnati in Northern Kentucky.
Oh well, yeah. That was a sad day, wasn’t it? She was a good soul. One of a kind.
Well, my first question is a simple one, considering the music business climate today in Nashville. How in the heck did you talk the record company into releasing four CDs at once?
(Laughing) I just think that I was fortunate that Luke Lewis is the head of this record company (Universal Music Group Nashville). He’s a little bit of a rebel and doesn’t like to do things the one way that it seems that most people do. He liked the creativity of the whole thing and the challenge of the whole thing, and I think it was a challenge, especially on their end, to make it work, and make the numbers work, and get everyone to think outside the box a little bit. I think he is one person that is finding the record industry somewhat boring these days. He’d like to see it shook up a little bit.
Well, I think that’s a good sign.
Yeah. No question.
How old are these 43 original songs that you have recorded for this new project?
Well, they’re all new. I think only about six have any age on them at all, and even that age is just a couple of years. One song is old. Back in the early 80’s I wrote ‘A River Like You.’ One song, ‘Cold Grey Light Of Dawn,’ is 10 or 12 years old. But the rest of them have all been written for this project except for a couple.
I want to ask you the Richard Rogers question. I saw a PBS show about him, he was the great composer of all of those standards and show tunes as a part of Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein, and he was asked about his songwriting formula. Did the songs come to him out of the blue, as an impromptu inspiration, or did he have to sit down and work at writing the songs? For Rogers, he had to sit down and work at it. How do the songs come for you?
Yeah, well, it’s work. It’s obviously sitting down and hammering on it. I’m not the kind of guy that it just floats around the air and I reach up and grab it. While driving down the road, I never have a pen or paper, or that kind of thing. It’s always about sitting down and working on it. I think that, for me, these records are so different stylistically that it doesn’t appear to me to be 43 songs. I know it is in its entirety, but to me it got to be 10 songs that were pointed, very much, in a real traditional country kind of vein, and then 10 songs that were pointed in an acoustic way. So, with there being four separate projects it didn’t feel like a daunting task of ‘how are you going to write all of this music for all of these records,’ because I was two or three months into the recording process before I thought this was going to happen like that. I had started a record in the summer of last year, in August and September of last year, and was going to record 10 or 12 songs. As I started to look at this wealth of material that I had to draw from, I was like, ‘Well shoot, I got to get to this song. I sure want to try this one.’ With all of the different co-writing that I had done, these songs were all over the map, so I was willing to experiment in the studio and it kind of unfolded in a natural and honest way.
Vince, you probably prefer to go into the studio with more songs than you need anyway. Am I right?
You’ve always got more songs, hopefully, than you need. Generally with a record, you try to pick the best songs that you’ve got, or whatever, but then have balance - a record that has a little bit of everything. This project afforded me to take a group of songs, stylistically, and have them all be pointed in one direction. My records, I think, over the years have always been all over the map. There’d be a contemporary song, there’d be a real traditional country song, and there’d be a rocking song, and it would kind of jerk you around. I found myself finding satellite radio and things like that where I could go and find things that were a little more pointed and set a mood, like in the bedroom put on a blues channel where all the music is blues, or put on a Diana Krall record where its all kind of smoky, sexy and jazzy, that kind of stuff. I felt like that was something that held my interest. So, that is what I hopefully accomplished with the diversity of these records, to set a mood and stay there.
I was wondering about that. After getting the ok for this project, it must have been enjoyable realizing that you could now work on the bluegrass CD, and then the traditional CD, and so on. You must have felt like the kid in the candy store. I’m guessing that it was fun at that point.
It was. It’s kind of freeing to feel like the other side of the coin is on the same page as you, that you are not going against them, that they don’t want this. It was a great freedom to have their support and willingness to think outside the box a little bit. In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to do something like this. I’ve always felt like enough of a chameleon as a musician that I could play bluegrass authentically, I could play blues authentically, and I could sing traditional country music authentically, so none of this stuff feels like a stretch for me. To be allowed to do this and have partners willing to jump on board with it was awesome.
Your career has run the gamut from recording a song and making a video with Barbara Streisand to recording with Del McCoury. Are there sides of your fan base that are not aware of the other sides of your music?
Oh, probably. I think it was always, over the last 15 or 20 years of touring, people coming away from my shows saying, ‘Oh, he plays the guitar to.’ Even my own fans would be surprised at my abilities as a musician. I think that is hard to accomplish in the country music world because you don’t find as many ‘guitar gods’ in country music as you do in rock music all the time. I was wise enough to realize that singing was the best ticket to play, and let the other stuff get discovered as you went along.
And, here you are performing on bluegrass projects such as Lou Reid’s “Time” album and Michael Cleveland’s “Let ‘Er Go, Boys” album.
Exactly. I’ve got an open mind. I love it all. Like you said, I’ve played with Barbara Streisand, and Larry Carlton and jazz duets like that. Diana Krall. Then you’ve got Del McCoury and Michael Cleveland and all of the bluegrass boys on the other side of the spectrum. I’ve always loved what Count Basie said, ‘There’s only two kinds of music - good and bad.’ I guess that, I didn’t realize it, but it all happened to me as a young kid, being the youngest in my family and always having to listen to what everybody else had in their collection. I wasn’t old enough to buy records yet, so I had my big brother’s records, my big sister’s records, my Mom and Dad’s records, and that was my palette. It was always diverse. So, I liked the Allman Brothers as much as I did Bill Monroe. You name it, I was drawn to it if it was good.
Speaking of which, here is a blast from the past for you that will blow your mind. This past summer I went to a casual dinner party at my friends Lance and Cindy’s house, which was located near the Ohio-Indiana border outside of Cincinnati on the shores of a body of water called Hidden Valley Lake. While there I ran into Ron Barton, the son of Sandra Ferrell, one of the folks that you played bluegrass with while growing up in Oklahoma.
Oh really? (surprised)
Yes. It was an eclectic crowd with good conversation and good hospitality all the way around, but it wasn’t exactly a bluegrass listening bunch. I happened to have an Appalachian Uprising Festival T-shirt on that had many of the bluegrass bands that played at the festival listed on the back of it. Sure enough, Ron noticed that almost immediately, (Vince starts laughing, sensing what I am going to say) and between Ron and my friend Paul, whom I came with, they wanted me to put on every bluegrass CD that I happened to bring with me, which drove a few people crazy. (Vince continues laughing) It was fun to pick Ron’s brain about you and the folks that you played bluegrass music with back in Oklahoma when you were coming up. What did you learn from being introduced to the bluegrass music world back then with folks like Sandra Ferrell and Bobby Clark and the rest?
Well, I don’t think I had any idea what that music would do for me 30 years, 35 years down the road. What got instilled in me as a young musician playing bluegrass was the camaraderie that went on with that music, and the kind of ravenous fan base for it. It was not successful in a massive way commercially, so if you played bluegrass or you went to hear it, you had to love it. And so, every time you went and played music the response was so nurturing and so passionate that I never spent any time in my life or my career playing music where I didn’t feel like people were there just to hear the music. It laid such an amazing foundation for me in the way that I played music with other people. Bluegrass was so community minded. Everybody played; you play a solo, now I’m going to play a solo, now you play a solo. It was so band oriented, and like I said, community oriented that that’s the way I’ve continued to play music. It’s not a big star up on a stage with a bunch of people behind him that don’t matter. Democracy has always been a part of anytime that I play music on the stage with people. It’s all about, ‘I’m just a part of the wheel here. If we all work together this wheel will turn and get us down the road.’ So, I think it was all of that training and wanting to sing harmony with people and gather around a microphone and make it blend and make it work that is important to my music career.
I read an interview not long ago with your band mate back in Oklahoma, Bobby Clark, where he mentioned that you guys opened for the rock group KISS as a bluegrass act. That had to be interesting.
Yeah. (laughs) That was 31 years ago, I guess. It didn’t go over too good. You had a bunch of people out there with their face painted wanting to rock and we just showed up at the last minute. The opening act had canceled that gig, this was in Oklahoma City, and a guy called and said, ‘Hey, can you get a band together and get down here in a short amount of time.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do what we can.’ So, we ran down there, I think I was playing fiddle, and we put this band together and did a bunch of standards. So, we got up there and lasted about three songs, and they started throwing beer bottles at us and stuff, booing and going crazy, and we didn’t last, so I kind of bent over and flipped them off.
You gave them a sweet goodbye apparently.
Yes I did. There was no skin involved. I didn’t drop my pants, but they got the message. I flipped them off and the police all gave me a standing "O." It was really surreal. It was like a scene from Spinal Tap. They had their big giant stacks of all this stuff, and we came out with our fiddles and mandolins and our little bass amp. It was just funny. It was hysterical. They cracked me up when they started booing right off the bat. They were not into it, and the more they booed the more I’d mess with them. It was priceless.
Tell me about getting invited to play at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival a couple of years ago. I like to play that clip of you and your band and Jerry Douglas jamming together on the DVD for folks that don’t realize how good a guitar player you are, and for those not in the know, it sure gets their attention.
That was fun. I was kind of the only hillbilly guitar player that got invited to the big stage. Getting that call from Eric was kind of life-changing for me. He called up and said, (in the best English accent that Vince can muster) ‘Vince, it’s Eric Clapton.’ And, I’m saying ‘Sure. Whose got an English accent and is messing with me?’ He said, ‘No, really, it’s Eric.’ So, I said, ‘Yes. Whatever you want, yes!’ He laughed and said, ‘I’m having a guitar festival in Dallas and I’m only inviting guitar players that I admire.’ It felt so great to have a musician of his caliber realize that I was a musician and not some country star. So, it meant the world to me that he included me and I went down and got to play. To be a part of that whole deal turned my vision around, so to speak. I just felt like, ‘You know what? Quit worrying about what it is, or what you think it is, and just go play. Just play what feels natural and what feels like the right thing to do, no matter what it is.’ If it’s jazz, play jazz. If it’s rockin’, turn it up. And, it kind of translated into this record. I felt no restrictions, and I felt that everything could go authentically where it should go and not have to water it down and make it less rock because it has to fit into a country format, or make it more country. It was a great freedom. And, that friendship turned into him recording one of my songs on his last record and I got to go play on it. Once again, at nearly 50 years old, the little things that happen like that are beyond inspiring.
Vince, tell me about this band that you are touring with. There are a lot of folks onstage, from what I am hearing. And, I am huge fan of Charlie Cushman, who is as under-rated a musician as there is out there right now. He is awesome.
Well, it’s a massive band. There are 17 of us. With all of these four records that I’ve put out, they are all different stylistically. So, with that many musicians we are able to form any of those bands for any of those genres and cover them in an authentic way. We have enough for a really good bluegrass band. Deannie Richardson is playing fiddle. Charlie is playing banjo. I play mandolin, and Jeff White plays guitar, and Michael Rhodes plays upright. It’s a pretty solid little bluegrass band that gets to cover that bluegrass stuff pretty well. And with the horns, we get to rock like we’re Elvis up there. A big horn section, and I never got to do anything like that. So, that is kind of new and fun and really inspiring for me.
Tell me about Bekka Bramlett. When did you meet her, when did you notice her talent?
I’ve known Bekka for a pretty good while, about 10 or 12 years, maybe a little longer than that. I did a song on a soundtrack for a movie, I can’t even remember what movie it was, and I got Little Feat to be the band and she came and sang, and Michael McDonald came and sang and boy, what a fun day. That’s where I first met her. Then I made a record after that and invited her to come and sing on it and really got to hear her go. She possesses arguably one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. And, the most unique. Her mother and dad are Delaney and Bonnie, I think most people know that, and her pedigree is pretty serious. It’s been a treat to get her out to sing on this tour. She sang a bunch on the record. Also, Big Al Anderson is out with us, of NRBQ fame, and arguably one of the best guitar players ever and a tremendous songwriter. We wrote a whole lot of these songs on this record. So, they have been added into the regular band, and we’re having so much fun. It’s really musical.
You have collaborated with Guy Clark as well on this record. He is a heck of a songwriting legend.
Oh boy. It doesn’t get any better than Guy Clark. And, he has the greatest, most engaging-sounding voice in the world. On equal with Johnny Cash. I always felt like if God had a voice he would sound like Guy Clark and Johnny Cash. I met him back 30 years ago in LA when I first moved out there. We opened a show for him, and I met Rodney (Crowell) and Emmy (Emmylou Harris) and all of those folks and became fast friends. I have done a lot of recording and writing with Guy, and Rodney and all of them, and Emmy, too, for the last 30 years. I wanted all of those people to be a part of this project. I have a lot of new relationships on this record, but I wanted the old ones to help me mark these first 30-plus years of doing this.
One last question, Vince, and this is a goofy one. I happened to be driving around after dark a couple of winters ago up here in Ohio, and on a cold, dark night you can get WSM 650 AM out of Nashville clear as a bell on the car radio. I was listening to the live broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry on the night when all hell broke loose on you. As I am sure you remember, a wall of feedback hit you and your band onstage and was so loud that you literally had to stop the song before it was finished. I felt sorry for you, because I know how that can go, but at the same time I was laughing my tail off. I couldn’t believe what I just heard live on the radio. I have never heard a meltdown like that. Willie Nelson came out and had to follow you after it happened, (Vince starts laughing) knowing he had to sing with the same sound system that just went nuts.
Wasn’t it Willie and Porter (Wagoner)?
Yes it was. Willie came out and said, “I’ve heard train wrecks before in my life, but man.” “(laughing) That was priceless. They had some computer malfunction that blew up the PA. For some reason something happened and flipped everything to ‘on full’ on the whole board. Every speaker. And, I’m going to tell you, you could have 15 jets flying over your head and it wasn’t as loud as what this thing was on that stage. I’d never heard anything like it in my life. It was beyond deafening. It was funny, is what it was. It was like the whole thing just blew up and everything went on 11. (laughing) You had to stop. It was like 50 fire alarms in the building all went off at the same time. And Willie followed it, and they got it back together when him and Porter came out. It just was not a great night.