These days, it’s easy for a guy like Vince Gill to get lost.
He’s one of the best all-arounders in country music: a soulful singer, a dexterous songwriter, a renowned guitar player. But he’s defiantly unflashy in a genre that has increasingly come to prize overstatement. Last October, Gill, 55, released “Guitar Slinger,” which was recorded over the course of a year in his new home studio. It’s a solid, pyrotechnics-free outing with an attention-grabber of a centerpiece track: “Billy Paul” details the murder-suicide of an acquaintance of Gill’s, with backing vocals provided by Corrina Gill, his then-10-year-old daughter with singer Amy Grant.
On the phone from Nashville, Gill talked about the track, discussed his fears of his own professional obsolescence, and took a few polite swipes at his pop-metal-minded country counterparts (he means you, Luke Bryan. We think.):
Q: So your daughter has had no ill effects from singing on “Billy Paul”? You won’t be paying her therapy bills for years to come?
A: No (laughs). She’s a pretty happy kid. I was playing the song on the CD player when I was taking her to school one morning and … by the time it was over, she was singing it. … So I said, “Amy, I’ve got a weird idea. … You know that song, ‘Billy Paul’?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “I think Corrina would sound really neat singing on that.” She said, “Vince, it’s a murder-suicide song.” I said, “I know. I think it could be very eerie cool. Or it could be very horrible.”
Q: You started singing in the second grade. It was probably inevitable that your daughter would get the bug at some point.
A: Yeah. She didn’t have a chance.
Q: You’ve said that your new album feels like two different records. What did you mean?
A: I think the first half of the record is a bit more contemporary slanted, a little more R&B. It rocks a little harder than the second half, which is more story songs, more traditional country. It’s contemporary versus traditional.
Q: It’s hard to imagine you’re in favor of the whole country-music-goes-hard-rock trend, where half (of Nashville) these days sounds like Def Leppard. What do you make of it?
A: It makes me laugh when I hear this Def Leppard-sounding record with a guy singing to me about how country he is. I appreciate them wanting to rock as hard as they want, but it’s humorous to me that, lyrically, they’re screaming about how hot your chick is in your truck.
Q: You’re considered the Eric Clapton of country music, right?
A: Oh, yeah. I did not give myself that title. It’s high praise, but I don’t know that it’s appropriate. … Country doesn’t have a long history of really fine musicians. There are plenty on the rock side of the world, there are guitar gods, but in country music not so much, historically I mean. The majority of the time it’s somebody up there telling a story, not somebody shredding like Eric on guitar.
Q: A lot of people thought your new album was all instrumental, with a name like “Guitar Slinger.”
A: I’ve seen a few complaints. One of the songs is called “Guitar Slinger,” and it just made sense. I play a lot more guitar on this than on records past. I never try too hard to accentuate the guitar side of me on my records, because I was trying to have hits, and to write great songs, and not all songs need to have somebody shredding all over them all the time. I think that on a few of these songs the fade-out’s a couple minutes of me really playing, and that’s what my friends have called me for a while, guitar slinger.
Q: There’s a line in that same song about how you’re slowing down but you can still bring it. Is that something you feel like you need to tell yourself?
A: “I’ve slowed down some but I can still bring ‘er.” It’s partly true. You sometimes feel like you get forgotten about. But it’s like, be careful of that old dog underneath the porch.
Q: You and your label parted ways recently. What’s next?
A: We didn’t part ways, my contract ran out. Contractually, I was done. I may very well make my next record and take it to ‘em. There’s no bad blood. … I’m very excited about the next stretch of my life. I’ve got a studio in my house, and I’ll probably wind up in the next 20 years doing five times the amount of work I’ve done to this point. I watched Willie Nelson do it, and I was inspired by it. I know at some point I’m going to get older and I’m going to have a hard time singing like I can sing today. Hopefully my hands will stay nimble and I can play like I play today. But I want to maximize the time that I have left.