Vince Gill rocked back and forth, acoustic guitar across his knee, and beamed as his daughter, Jenny, sang her heart out to a house that has meant so much to him over the years.
On Aug. 13, Jenny sang Vince’s classic “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind” at the Grand Ole Opry during an event honoring Gill’s 20th anniversary with Nashville’s venerable institution.
In the background, Gill quietly mouthed the words, closed his eyes, and thought about “how full circle things have come since I first got to perform there,” he said in a phone interview from his Nashville-area home. “It was great to just sit there and be dad for four minutes.”
It was when Jenny was 7 years old that Vince got the call from the Opry, asking him to make his debut on the historic stage. He turned them down because he had promised Jenny he’d be at her talent show on the night the Opry asked him to perform.
He laughs at that memory now. Since then, he’s performed hundreds of times at the Opry, which he speaks of in almost reverential terms.
“It’s history is so deep. It’s been the Mecca of country music for 85 years, especially in so many of those years before there was television,” Gill said. “You can go down there during the week and see me, a kid singing there for the first time, and Little Jimmy Dickens, who’s been there for over 60 years — all in one night.”
If you’re lucky enough to be at the Opry when Gill performs and lucky enough to get back stage, you’ll find him in dressing room No. 1. The door will be open because Roy Acuff told Vince you should never shut the door on your fans.
“Vince will welcome anyone in to take pictures with him,” Pete Fisher, vice president and general manager of the Opry, said of his longtime friend. “He’s always been an example of someone who hasn’t gotten too big for his britches. He’s always been an approachable, warm human being. It parallels what we try to achieve at the Opry — have a down-to-earth, accessible experience for the fans.
“If you could create a human being who mirrors what the Grand Ole Opry is, it’d be Vince Gill.”
Those are words he probably never expected to hear as a boy in Oklahoma, where he learned to play the banjo and guitar and dreamed about one day getting to hear his songs on the radio.
He has sold more than 26 million albums, won 20 Grammys and 18 Country Music Association awards, and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next year.
And he’s not finished yet. On Tuesday, he released “Threaten Me with Heaven,” the first single off his upcoming album, “Guitar Slinger,” which will be in stores Oct. 25. It will be his first album in five years.
“I know I’m doing my best work now. I can’t fathom that my ears would lie to me — they haven’t yet,” he said. “And my ears are telling me that you’re improving, singing better than you ever have, playing better than you ever have, and your songs are better than they ever have been.”
But he knows how country radio works. His last album, “These Days,” sold more than 1 million copies and earned him a Grammy for Best Country Album, but he had a hard time getting the songs on the air. “The Reason Why” was the highest charting single on the album, and it only reached No. 28.
“Young people have taken up the radio slot I possessed for a long time,” he said. “It’s the same thing that happened to the generation before me. I showed up and they started playing my records and maybe didn’t play theirs as much. I wish that didn’t happen, but it does.”
If radio does turn its back on Gill, it doesn’t mean music will stop for him. He’ll keep on writing and playing for fans like those who will come out and see him Monday night at the Fulton County Fair. He won’t be dancing around or jumping into the crowd.
“I’m just a guy who plays and sings,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “I’ve never been aerobically enthusiastic on stage.”
Vince Gill will perform at the Fulton County Fair, which is just north of Wauseon on State Route 108, at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Seats on the track are $22. In the grandstands, tickets are $18 and $16. Tickets can be purchased at fultoncountyfair.com, by calling (419) 335-7469, or at the fair box office.