There is sunshine in Vince Gill’s eyes and gray clouds in his voice.
The normally bubbly country superstar is in a surprisingly somber mood on his new record, “Guitar Slinger,” singing about lost horizons, homelessness, alcoholism and death.
Due out next month, Gill’s first album in five years has already scored a hit single, “Threaten Me With Heaven.” His tour comes to the MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Connecticut on Friday.
This is a different side of Vince Gill, although there were hints of what was to come on 2006′s 43-track set “These Days,” which had more than a few thought-provoking moments. While his picking is as good as ever, the focus here is on storytelling.
“Threaten Me With Heaven” – which he co-wrote with his wife, singer Amy Grant, and their friend Will Owsley – is a gorgeous ballad that Gill calls “one of the best songs I’ve ever done.” It has the faith-healing suggestions encountered in 1995′s “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
“It took on much more meaning when Owsley later took his own life,” says Gill. “He was a troubled soul and you feel responsible in some way. You say to yourself you should have noticed that he needed help, that you could have picked up the phone and just talked. I had to convince myself that I did the best that I could and that it wasn’t my fault.”
On “Bread and Water,” Gill sings about a homeless man “who finds a kind face and a place to help soothe his aching soul. I loosely based it on my brother, Bob,” he says. “He hurt his head in a car wreck when he was young and never fully recovered.” Bob died in 1989.
“Billy Paul” is an old-fashioned country song that stays with you. “He was a caddie at my golf club. He had a woman for a time but there were some problems. About a year ago he took her life, and then his own. But even as dark as [the song] is, there is a spiritual side to it.”
Hearing Gill describe the tracks makes it sound as if the CD is too gloomy, too wrenching to listen to. But the way he weaves the stories, the power of his playing and the richness of his voice make this one of the more important of the 12 albums he has made.
There are several tracks that make a listener smile because, when all is said and done, Gill simply can’t help himself. Examples: “If I Die A-Drinkin’,” “Buttermilk John,” an ode to a steel guitarist who loved buttemilk and cornbread, and “The Old Lucky Diamond Motel” – on which you may use your own imagination. There is also a beautiful tribute to Billie Holiday. “I heard one of her songs as a boy and fell in love with her voice,” he says.
The CD’s different hues are intentional, the Country Music Hall of Famer admits. “It is kind of in two halves. That’s more interesting for people to listen to.”
A native of Norman, Okla., the 54-year-old singer is the son of an administrative law judge who played in a country band, in which his mother played harmonica. Gill was in a bluegrass band in high school, and after graduation, he moved to Nashville, eventually becoming lead singer of the country-rock group Pure Prairie League.
He married Janis Oliver of Sweethearts of the Rodeo in 1980. The union produced a daughter, Jennifer, in 1982, but they parted in 1997. Gill married Christian/pop singer Grant in 2000.
Their daughter, Corina, was born in 2001. Grant and both daughters are all on the new CD.
“I love playing guitar for them,” Gill says. “I feel that my playing has taken another step forward. You have to have the passion in order to do that and I’ve always been passionate about the guitar.
“This is as much a guitar record as it is a singing record,” says Gill upon reflection. “But honestly, I think people finally see me as a singer and not just another guitar player.”