The title character on Vince Gill’s latest album, “Guitar Slinger,” is one of those fast-fingered, heavy-drinking cowboys you hear about in a million country songs. But in the middle of writing the song, Gill realized the title rhymed with something impossible for him to resist. So he threw in this lyric in the third verse: “Oh, I knew I was in trouble the first time I seen her / I went and married that contemporary Christian singer.”
The line, of course, is a reference to the contemporary Christian singer — Amy Grant, whom Gill married in 2000. “I thought, ‘If I can get that in there, this’ll be hysterical,’ ” says Gill, 55, by phone from his Nashville home. “Amy all but doubled over. She said, ‘You’ll say anything, won’t you?’ Yeah, pretty much.”
Gill’s approach these days is, in fact, to toss just about every idea he can think of into a song, then put it on a record. The Norman, Okla., country superstar has sold 26 million albums in his solo career, and, for the first time in years, he’s free. After Nashville label MCA Records signed him in 1989, Gill spent the next few years putting out a string of smash albums with a strict 10 songs apiece, including the No. 1 singles “One More Last Chance,” “The Heart Won’t Lie” and “Tryin’ to Get Over You,” and the Grammy-winning “When I Call Your Name.” All this time, he was feeling a bit repressed, so in 2006, he spewed out four discs’ worth of material called “These Days.”
He’s got the music in him
“Guitar Slinger,” which came out late last year, is his final MCA album — and it contains a revolutionary 15 songs. “I’m trying to catch up!” Gill says. “I read something about Merle Haggard — I think he made 31 albums in a period of seven or eight years. I go, ‘Man, that’s prolific!’ What inspired me about that four-CD record, was The Beatles put out three albums in one year. … I got more music in me, I feel like I need to get it out.”
“I think the next 10 years, I’ll wind up doing two or three times more music than I’ve done to this point,” he continues, in a phone interview before he heads to his 10-year-old daughter’s elementary school, where she’s portraying Randy Jackson in an “American Idol” spoof. “I’m realizing I have only so many years left of being nimble-fingered and of sound mind — and that’s debatable, at this point.”
The friendly, soft-spoken Gill has never been one of country music’s more radical stars. Inspired in part by his father, a judge who dabbled in banjo and guitar, he spent his childhood in Norman trying to master a variety of stringed instruments. He and a friend auditioned for country-rock stars Pure Prairie League in 1979, and, to Gill’s surprise, he became the band’s new lead singer.
When country took off as the new pop music in the early ’90s, the smooth-voiced, easy-listening balladeer Gill was right there on the charts with Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt. But he related more to George Strait and Alan Jackson, who made sure nobody forgot where the music came from. “In my day, the traditional side was still very much a part of it,” says Gill, who plays the NYCB Theatre at Westbury May 3. “I’m all for rock and roll — I love it, and it’s not a knock. I just think that the traditional side is pretty well gone. It’s not very appealing to me to hear somebody tell me how country they are and they’re dirt roads and backwoods and all that, but it sounds like a Metallica record. The real deep, deep stuff is what I love. Not much of that around.”
Heavy on the solos
True to its title, and the cover photo of Gill swinging around his blond Telecaster, “Guitar Slinger” is heavy on the solos. And it jumps around stylistically, from the honky-tonking title track to religious hymns to poignant songs about friends who passed away in recent years. “Billy Paul” is about a friend’s murder-suicide, and contains a haunting chorus: “What made you go crazy, Billy Paul?” The closing “Buttermilk John” is a tribute to Gill’s longtime guitarist and father figure, John Hughey, who died in 2007 at 73. “It was different,” Gill says. “It was just the first record I was going to make without John.”
At the heart of the album is the ballad “True Love,” Gill’s first duet with Grant since they met to record “House of Love,” the title track on her 1994 album. Grant wrote most of the song, Gill contributed the bridge and, over time, he talked her into recording it at their home studio. “She was really, really hesitant,” Gill recalls. “I said, ‘Why are you hesitant?’ She said, ‘You record your songs really, really slow. I can’t sing that slow!’ I talked her into it, and it’s one of the real gems on that record for me.”
On the surface, Gill, the country-music traditionalist, and Grant, the Christian pop singer, seem to have music in common above everything else. But they come from different worlds. “There’s a woman who really put the blueprint together of taking gospel lyrics and putting them in a really pop-contemporary treatment. She really did that first,” Gill says. “But no, she didn’t know the whole history . … One night I played the Grand Ole Opry and I said, ‘Listen on the radio.’ I called her on the way home and she said, ‘Man, that was good — but what was up with that one dobro player?’ I said, ‘Honey, he’s 88 years old.’ She said, ‘Oh, my god.’ She’s welcoming of all things.”
WHO Vince Gill
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. May 3, NYCB Theatre
INFO $49.50-$69.50; 800-745-3000, livenation.com
Vince Gill’s top 5 songs
BY STEVE KNOPPER, Special to Newsday
‘WHEN I CALL YOUR NAME’ — Vince Gill would prove no stranger to bland easy-listening hits in his career, but his pretty, regular-guy voice frequently connected with a heartbreak ballad in the saddest possible way. On his MCA debut in 1989, he tells duet partner Patty Loveless that the “lonely sound of my voice calling is driving me insane.”
‘KINDLY KEEP IT COUNTRY’ — “Please play a sad song,” Gill begs in his wisp of a voice. “My heart’s just been stepped on.” It isn’t just the steel guitar that turns this well-written tearjerker into classic country — Buck Owens or Eddy Arnold could have sung it in 1958.
‘I STILL BELIEVE IN YOU’ — Gill’s first No. 1 hit, the title track of his 1992 album, is the love ballad that put him on the country and pop charts for good. It might have sounded schmaltzy in others’ hands, but Gill has a talent for turning cliches into romance.
‘ONE MORE LAST CHANCE’ — Gill’s straight-man voice in this honky-tonker barely covers up one of the best characters in his songs — the long-suffering wife with “a good book in her left hand/And a rollin’ pin in her right,” who hides the tomcat’s glasses so he can’t see to go out.
‘BUTTERMILK JOHN’ — The closing track on Gill’s latest album, “Guitar Slinger,” is a fiddle-heavy tribute to his longtime guitar player, John Hughey, who died in 2007 after a career of backing tons of Nashville stars, from the late Conway Twitty to Gill.
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