By the latter 1980s Vince Gill had a crazy busy life but somehow, thus far, big time success had eluded him. He was 25 and one of Nashville’s most in-demand session players and singers, he was playing in Emmylou Harris’ band, he had a daughter with Sweethearts of the Rodeo’s Janis Oliver and had released a couple of albums on Buddha Records.
He was charting but nowhere near like contemporaries George Strait, Alabama or The Judds. Among the many projects Gill had been involved with over the years was Rodney Crowell’s country supergroup the Notorious Cherry Bombs and when the band’s keyboard player, Tony Brown, wound up on the production staff at MCA Records years later, he invited Gill over.
His first single on that first MCA album was a co-write with Roseanne Cash which charted in the mid 20s. The second, a duet with Reba McEntire, went top 10. But the third, a ballad called “When I Call Your Name” and featuring Patty Loveless on harmony, blew the roof off and propelled Gill into stratospheric stardom so many had been predicting for so long.
If you don’t know the song or haven’t heard it in a while, go look it up on YouTube. Try your best to ignore the bunny sized mullet. You won’t, but try.
He co-wrote “When I Call Your Name” with Nashville record executive Tim Dubois and, having sung background vocals on so many of Patty Loveless’ hit records through the ’80s, knew they blended well and thought she’d be ideal for the harmonies.
“So she came in and sang the first note,” says Gill, “and everybody just looked at each other and said, “well that totally changes things”. It’s interesting how it just takes a couple of elements to turn something around. Nobody was jumping up and down over that song when we recorded it but we did two things, we put Barry Becket on the intro playing the piano and half the solo with the steel and then we put Patty’s voice on it. And those were the defining things that made that record special. All of a sudden it was, whoa, that’s really upped the ante quite a lot.”
Vince Gill is an Oklahoma boy, his dad was an appellate court judge who introduced his son to both bluegrass banjo and golf. For a while there Vince actually considered a touring pro golf career but his extraordinary prowess playing not just banjo but guitar, dobro and fiddle as well as that killer high tenor voice and songwriting chops kept him in music.
He played bluegrass through high school until joining country rock band Pure Prairie League for a few years. Being subsumed in a band format turned out to be a great way to learn about and ultimately navigate the music business. He moved to Nashville in ’84 where for years his wife’s music career eclipsed his own.
But such was the respect he garnered, just before “When I Call Your Name” hit, Gill was asked by Mark Knopfler to join Dire Straits full time. He was sorely tempted, he could certainly have used the money, but in the end opted to keep following his star.
Since “When I Call Your Name”, Gill has amassed a huge catalogue of hits and a mountain of awards including 20 Grammys. He’s worked with everybody in Nashville over the years and with his open, sunny and laid back personality never left a bad impression. All these years later he still vividly remembers receiving that first Country Music Association single of the year award for “When I Call Your Name”. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.
“I felt so much joy from so many people in this business, in this town,” says Gill. “That they all went, ‘finally, he finally got one. We all knew he had one in him’. It felt like everybody won when that exploded. I remember that award show when it won single of the year, the whole place just blew apart, everybody just stood up. That doesn’t happen all the time. It was a great feeling, it was worth fighting for. It mattered to a lot of people, you could tell. That was cool.”