Country star Vince Gill set the bar awfully high when he released the ambitious “These Days” album five years ago. The four-CD, 43-song collection delved into bluegrass, rock, jazz and soul and also featured contributions from a ton of notable guests, including Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Gretchen Wilson and LeAnn Rimes. The well-reviewed, platinum-selling project won Gill a Grammy for best country album and was nominated for album of the year in a category that included Amy Winehouse, Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock and Kanye West.
The 54-year old Nashville resident, one of the headliners at this weekend’s Ford Arts, Beats & Eats, will issue the long-awaited follow-up, “Guitar Slinger,” in October. Gill experienced major highs and lows while writing and recording the album, making it one of his most personal and emotional efforts to date. The follow-up to “These Days” keeps things a little closer to home, with contributions from Gill’s wife and fellow singer-songwriter Amy Grant, plus three of their children.
QUESTION: What were some of the life-changing events that took place while you were making “Guitar Slinger”?
ANSWER: I look at life so much differently at 54 than I did at 24. Amy and I were talking about this the other day. She says, “It’s kind of hard to believe but about two-thirds of your life is done.” Mortality is very present, and you’re getting to that age where the generation before you is starting to go, and there were a lot of really strange things that happened. I lost two friends to suicide, and just, I don’t know, real life happened, that’s all. And it’s not always just the best.
I lost a lot of equipment and guitars in the (Nashville) flood last year, a lot of guitars I’ve been collecting my whole life, and the real beauty in all of that was really the fact that there was a great perspective. There was something much sadder that had happened. My friend (musician-songwriter) Will Owsley took his life April 30, the day before the flood happened, and on the flip side of all that, my daughter (Jenny) was getting married the next Saturday.
So I just kept my eye on that, and I said, “You can flood and take a bunch of my stuff away and friends — Amy lost a relative in Afghanistan that week — but you’re not robbing me of my joy of watching my daughter walk down the aisle.” So I had this real life yin and yang going on. Life happens and you learn a lot more about how you respond to it than anything else.
Q: You made the recording of “Guitar Slinger” quite the family affair, didn’t you?
A: My oldest daughter, Jenny, is quite a gifted singer, but I wouldn’t invite somebody to sing on my record unless they were really good. I’m much too much of a snob, and she’s good enough. She gives me that opportunity to have blood-blend, like the Everly Brothers, and the kind of things that I just adore.
So when I really want that family-ish type of thing, I really lean on her because she can really deliver that. My duet with Amy, “True Love,” has my 18-year old daughter Sarah singing on it. That was the first thing we recorded in our new home studio. And my youngest, Corinna — who was 9 — sang on the song “Billy Paul.”
I’m doing it because I’ve always felt that music was like painting. I would think, “What sound do I want here?” moreso than what famous person do I want. With Sarah, her voice is so unique and compelling, and it’s very interesting to me, not just idle background stuff that doesn’t get noticed.
Q: Given Detroit’s incredibly rich music history, what artists from here did you grow up listening to?
A: All of ‘em!
(Bob) Seger cut one of my songs a couple records back (on his “Face the Promise” album) called “Real Mean Bottle.” I’ve always loved his songs; they get a ton of airplay at my house.
We became friends not too long ago. I host a golf tournament here and we have a real informal jam session after we play golf, and one year, he got up and sang. That was great.
It’s got an amazing history musically, Detroit does. There are several places around the country that have a great history, and it’s one of those meccas that turned out some of the greatest music ever made.
Q: With all the awards and all the plaudits you’ve received over the years, it’d be easy to rest on your laurels, and yet you still sound enthused and inspired about making music. What has kept you so motivated?
A: The laurels haven’t changed anything. The accolades, they feel great, they make you feel the work is being well-received, but it never diminishes the desire for wanting to do it. I feel like I did when I was 17 and I was playing a joint for twenty bucks or fifty bucks or whatever I could get. …
The travel’s hard, being away from my family is hard — that’s a different stage of life than I used to be in. I don’t tour as much as I used to and I have other responsibilities that life has dictated I do, so everything’s in a great perspective, a great balance. But that whole music thing inside me has never changed in any way. I still feel driven to get better.
Q: What songwriters do you look up to?
A: From a lyrical standpoint, two of my all-time favorites are Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell. They became great friends of mine, not only mentors but great friends. But I’d also have to say James Taylor, Lennon and McCartney, Carole King and Paul Simon. I’ve always loved where Paul Simon takes you rhythmically, it’s always unique.
There’s Jimmy Webb, Dylan, I could just go on and on and on. Where do you stop? You can’t.