Vince Gill is intense.
Who’d have thunk it?
He’s such a pleasant sort. Back when Gill hosted the CMA Awards (motto: “We’re still kind of, sort of different from all those other country awards shows”), he lent a folksy, casual air to the proceedings. And throughout his career — a career that has landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame — he has shown an ability to laugh at himself, to support fellow musicians rather than take sides in whatever petty squabbles are going on, and to remain affable, kind and funny.
I tried to railroad him on the phone, when I called the day after Hank Williams Jr. got the Monday Night Football yankeroo for comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler. I figured I’d surprise Gill with an impossible-to-answer-without-looking-like-a-jerk question. It’d be my entry into gotcha journalism.
“Would you compare the president more to Hitler, or, say, Stalin?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. Ask the Dixie Chicks,” Gill answered, then chuckled.
Alright, so he’s unflappable. Cannot be flapped. But still, intense.
An ever-present icon
Gill works on his craft each day, seldom going 24 hours without playing guitar. He obsesses over improvement, focusing on getting better even years after his legacy has been ensured.
“After I got to town, (Country Music Hall of Famer) Harlan Howard said to me, ‘Kid, you’re a great singer. And you’re a pretty good songwriter,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘OK, I get what you’re saying.’ I always remember my worst reviews, because if you’re smart enough, you can learn from them and take them as motivation. Not as in, ‘I’ll get even,’ but I knew I could learn something from the criticism. I worked on it and got better.”
Gill has won four CMA song of the year prizes, which isn’t bad for a guy who was supposed to be a singer and musician first and a songwriter second. Or would that be third? Or maybe fourth, behind singer, musician and doer-of-good-works. On Thursday, Oct. 13, Mayor Karl Dean and the Nashville Predators will honor Gill for his charity work and for his role as an ambassador of the city and of its spunky hockey team.
He’s a fixture at Preds games, where he and wife Amy Grant stomp their feet, swig beer and hurl foul invectives at opposing players.
Wait, no, I’m thinking of Taylor Swift.
Actually, Gill is just a well-behaved fan with a well-known face, and he played guitar at the sold-out All For The Hall concert (“All For The Hall” is an initiative he spearheaded, to raise dough for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum) while wearing a Preds jersey.
His charity, of course, extends beyond hockey rinks and halls of fame.
Googling “Vince Gill” and “benefit” lands you more than 1.5 million results. His friend Nanci Griffith actually calls him “Benefit.”
If it’s a worthy cause, chances are Gill has picked and sung in its support: flood relief, mental health, children’s advocacy, Alzheimer’s research, cancer research (What kind of cancer? Pick a cancer, any cancer), AIDS research, housing initiatives… Someone needs to explain to Gill that ubiquity is a profit-buster, that being everywhere in support of every good thing puts an end to the mystique that is supposed to go part-and-parcel with fame.
Actually, plenty of people have explained that to Gill. And his response is a rather intense, “So what?”
“People theorize that you water yourself down if you make yourself available for everything, but at the end of the day, it’s always worth it for me,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you help if someone asks you to and you can? It’s just like if there were people at the record label saying I shouldn’t be singing on Reba’s records, or Sara Evans’ record or all those other records. It’s what I’ve always done, and if I suffer because of it, it’s OK with me. I’ll be the anti-star, I guess.”
The anti-star’s new album, Guitar Slinger, comes out on Tuesday, Oct. 24. It’s full of songs from his own pen, songs of a compositional and lyrical level far above what Gill could muster three decades ago, when he left Pure Prairie League and went to work in Rodney Crowell’s backing band, The Cherry Bombs. On paper, that one looked like a foolish transition, but Gill knew that being around musicians the caliber of Crowell, drummer Larrie London and bass man (and, now, producer) Emory Gordy Jr. would force him to raise his game.
“Everything I chose to do in my career was a chance for me to get better,” he said. “Joining the Cherry Bombs was a giant leap forward, musically. And that’s still my reason for doing the things I do today.”
Among those things: Joining classic country and western swing revivalist combo The Time Jumpers, with whom he plays Monday nights at the Station Inn, and joining Sting for a CMT Crossroads episode that’s set to air Nov. 25.
“With The Time Jumpers, I’m finding myself challenged in a big way as a guitarist, and it’s great for my learning curve,” he said. “And the Sting thing was fantastic for me. To me, he’s Beatle-like in his talent. And his music is difficult: It was a chance to learn into something that was out of my comfort zone. We wound up really hitting it off, and I think they got a great show out of it.”
In truth, Gill is never far from his comfort zone when he’s got a guitar in his hands.
Recorded at his home studio, his new album is filled with six-string adornments and with songs that find Gill referencing his own life and times.
The album-ending “Buttermilk John” is a tribute to his late steel guitar-playing pal John Hughey, who played the signature steel intro on Gill’s hit single, “Look At Us.” “Billy Paul” is a troubled letter to a troubled friend who took his own life, and the album-opening title track is a statement of purpose and fact.
“I swear, I’ll play for free,” he sings.
And he does play for free, for the benefit of others in his city of Nashville and elsewhere. He plays for free, with intensity, and still feels intensely well-paid in the end.
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