Hall of Fame country star free to explore styles
Sarah Rodman – Boston.com
Vince Gill, famously, loves to play golf. So it’s not hard to imagine that one of the youngest-ever inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame might hit the links and let himself go a little.
But that isn’t Gill’s style. In fact, that 2007 accolade spurred the justly acclaimed country singer-songwriter-guitarist to let himself go in another way: creatively.
“Some of my greatest heroes are songwriters, and so with getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, I feel motivated beyond even my expectations,’’ said Gill recently, on the phone from the home he shares in Nashville with his wife, Christian-pop singer Amy Grant, and their children. “I feel like ‘OK, they’ve [given me] that, now go earn it.’ ’’
Considering the honors the Oklahoma native has already earned – including a clutch of top 10 hits, 20 Grammys, 18 Country Music Association awards, and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame – that’s saying something. Gill’s last effort, 2006’s “These Days,’’ was a sprawling four-disc, 43-song set of all new recordings that spanned bluegrass, country, jazz, gospel, pop, Americana, and rock with nary a bum track. It nabbed the Grammy for best country album.
Gill, who plays the Wilbur Theatre on Sunday, recorded “Guitar Slinger’’ (due out Oct. 25) in his home studio – allowing his wife and daughters Sarah, Jenny, and Corrina to chip in on vocals – and tried to challenge himself.
The result is a stunning record that illuminates his still soaring tenor, nimble guitar work, and emotionally resonant songwriting that is by turns funny and poignant.
“I feel like that’s the whole point of doing it,’’ he said. “You’ve got to get a little bit better, either with your songs or your playing or your singing.’’
Vocally, especially, Gill lets some grit seep into the high lonesome croon that has made him a much-sought after harmony vocalist. In the case of the zesty, rocking title track, he evokes the enjoyably raggedy side of Paul McCartney, which he chalks up to finally allowing that particular influence, among others, to emerge.
He also indulges in a fiery extended guitar outro on “When the Lady Sings the Blues.’’ And he works his way across the spectrum of country music. There is both stone cold traditional country material like the haunting murder-suicide track “Billy Paul,’’ sadly based on a true story of someone Gill knew, and frothier pop gems, including the winsome “When Lonely Comes Around,’’ which features more Beatles-esque flourishes in the harmonies.
“I felt like my whole life I’ve held back,’’ said Gill. “And in my defense, [I was] trying to be subtle. I think there’s always been a side of me that was trying to be the hip, cool, and groovy musician that said ‘Don’t overdo it, don’t show off too much.’’’
His increasing desire to simply play the music he wants to play hasn’t been lost on Gill’s peers in Nashville. “Vince is probably better than he was,’’ says veteran Music City songwriter Bob DiPiero, who has written or co-written dozens of popular country songs including Gill’s 1996 hit “Worlds Apart.’’ “He’s loose from the radio funnel that songs have to sound a certain way in order for them to break out onto a Top 20 list. He’s free from the tyranny, so he’s free to be who he really is. He’s free to explore. His playing, if possible, is better than ever.’’
It is somewhat bittersweet for Gill that “Guitar Slinger’’ is coming at a point in his career when elder statesmen get plenty of respect but very little radio play.
“I think there were hits on the last record and the one before that. But the way that life works, I don’t know that it would’ve mattered what I’d done in that period of time,’’ he says of the changing winds of country radio.
Doesn’t he think something like “When Lonely Comes Around’’ has hit potential? The always congenial singer quips with a chuckle, “Yeah, for Lady Antebellum.’’
“It was just that time where everybody was moving on and there was a new crop, and that’s how things are supposed to work,’’ says Gill, who has watched the guard in Nashville change several times over the course of his nearly 35-year career, as a member of Pure Prairie League and session guitarist and vocalist before breaking out on his own. “The only thing that’s slightly frustrating is I feel like some of my best work is not being noticed as much. It’s disappointing, but it doesn’t rob me of the joy of making the music one ounce. And I feel like if I make a record that sells 20 million copies or 20 copies, no note has changed because of it.’’