Listening to country singer
Vince Gill, you feel as if you know him.
How can you help it? The songs he is famous for – “When I Call Your Name,” “One Last Chance,” so many more – are all so confessional, describing human, often humiliating, problems and situations. Under their videos on YouTube, in the comments section, people are moved to share their own stories.
“I played this song when my father passed on …”
“Boy O Boy do I know this feeling .. tells my story. Brings back memories! Only the strong survive.”
Gill will be performing some of those songs Friday at Chautauqua Institution, and he talked about his fans’ responses in an interview earlier this week.
Grammy Award-winning country singer performs at 8:15 p.m. Friday at Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater; tickets, $40. Call 357-6250 or go to www.ciweb.org.
“I need those people out there,” Gill says. “I need them to respond. What I do is like having a conversation. Countless people come up and say, ‘I can’t think of the words to say to my partner, but if you take this song and play it for them, this is what I mean, right here.’
“You can help people communicate. That’s what you’re doing – having that conversation.”
Gill’s songs often sound as if they were written by long-dead country artists, a comparison he appreciates.
The truth is, though, that he writes them himself. He isn’t insulted that it is not common knowledge.
“You can’t read the back of record jackets the way you used to,” he reasons. He laughs. “For one thing the print is too small!”
Speaking from his home base of Nashville, Tenn., Gill says he is looking forward to visiting Chautauqua. “It’s a neat place. It’s a unique place. I enjoy playing there. It’s a cool old neighborhood. I always forget the history of how that little community started.”
He means Chautauqua’s religious roots, the mass baptisms that would take place over a century ago on the nearby beaches. Gill has been married since 2000 to Christian/pop singer Amy Grant. She is not traveling with him at the moment. She is busy, he explains, with “Women of Faith,” a Christian events organization. But he and she frequently perform together, and when they do, they enjoy a religious vibe.
“Our most famous place to play here in town is the Ryman Auditorium,” Gill says. “It was built in the late 1800s as a tabernacle where preachers would preach.”
Gill has been singing more gospel songs in recent years.
At 55, he is no longer the baby-faced troubadour he once was. He wears glasses, and sometimes on YouTube, you can catch him adjusting them on his nose. His sweet tenor voice has taken on the tone of a man who has lived.
He is comfortable with that.
“I’m lucky. My voice has held together really, really well,” Gill says. “I sing so much better today than I did 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t think I’ve lost a step. I think I’ve gained in knowing how and what to sing.”
He has learned with the years.
Comparing himself to a writer, he says he has learned how to self-edit: “You’re willing to try to say the most with the least. That’s always been the object to me musically – playing guitar and singing. OK, how do I tell this story, playing or singing? How can I be the most succinct with the least amount of information?”
The best musicians are the most natural, and Gill has that quality.
He is an adept guitarist who can hold his own with the best bluegrass legends. Modestly, he chalks up his guitar playing to hard work, citing a theory offered in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.”
“Whether you’re a surgeon, or a baseball player, or a musician, the commonality is 10,000 hours [to become exceptional],” he says. “It’s unique. It’s probably pretty true. You have to put in an average of 10,000 hours into something to do well. It’s a common thread to all kinds of things, whether sports, or music.”
Practice, however, cannot explain Gill’s songwriting skills. His words and his melodies flow naturally, which is why audiences respond to them as they do. “Go Rest High on That Mountain” has an old gospel sound. “When I Call Your Name,” a sorrowing country waltz, tells of a man who comes home to find his wife has left him.
A note on the table that tells me goodbye
Said you’d grown weary of living a lie
Now your love has ended, but mine still remains
But nobody answers when I call your name.
The song was released in 1990 (Gill, in the video, sports a hilarious mullet). Over the years, he says, some of his own music has taken on new meaning for him.
“What’s really interesting is, more often than not, you sing and record a song before you even know it. They’re pretty fresh songs, when you make a record,” he says. “Singing some of those songs that were popular almost 25 years, 22 years ago – that’s when ‘When I Call Your Name’ was recorded – I’ve sung it so many times, and so the little nuances I’ll probably do differently. It would be fun to go back and redo it,” he muses. “At the same time, what makes it beautiful is, it is what it was at the time.”
Nothing gives him more joy than a song that takes on a life of its own.
“ ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain’ has become quite a funeral song,” Gill says. “A friend of mine told me last night that a really good friend of his sang it at a funeral. That really means the world to me. I wrote that song about my brother – back in ’93, he passed away. I wrote it for him, but had no plans to record it.
“But then I did, and boy, I’m glad I did. When people are struggling the most, it’s generally at that time that they use something of yours that is in your heart. It means a lot. It’s deeper than a hit song.”