The country veteran discusses his track record, work ethic and the family affair behind his new music
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
Vince Gill is doing his best to earn his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, never mind that he's already a member.
Inducted in 2007, at age 50, Gill still admits to feeing a bit unworthy, despite his numerous career accomplishments, which include winning a whopping 20 Grammy Awards and selling more than 26 million records.
"I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm so young," says Gill, now 54, who has been making music professionally since the 1970s. "And I can't help but look [at other stars] and go, 'Well, I think THAT person should be in this hall long before I should.' That's just because of my respect for what's come before me.
"The other side of it is I do want to go earn it," he continues, describing what he calls his "workingman's mentality."
"I want people to say 'We chose well,' so from this point on, let me earn it and do as much as I've done to this point [all over] again."
His new album, "Guitar Slinger," is a big step in that direction, even though by now nobody but Gill thinks he still has anything left to prove. The Oct. 24 release is his first new project since 2006, when he released an ambitious, four-CD boxed set of all-new material titled "These Days."
Gill wrote or co-wrote the dozen songs on the new album, which manages to largely maintain an upbeat tone despite the fact that three songs are about death. Two are based on friends of Gill's who died, including one in a tragic murder-suicide. The third, "Threaten Me With Heaven," was co-written with Gill's friend Will Owsley, who later took his own life. That poignant song is the new album's leadoff single. It's currently in the mid-40s and still climbing the country radio airplay charts, although not swiftly. Gill's previous track record at country radio boasts 27 top 10 hits to date, including five No. 1s.
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As the title would suggest, "Guitar Slinger" showcases Gill's celebrated guitar playing much more than most of his previous releases. For years, Gill says, his guitar skills were eclipsed by the critical acclaim for his voice.
"My singing has probably always overshadowed my guitar playing to some degree," he says. "It's been more attention getting, I guess." But thanks, in part, to his frequent appearances at Eric Clapton's annual Crossroads Guitar Festival, which brings together the world's best players, Gill says, "people are more drawn to my guitar playing than they may have ever been.
"I think I'm just finally being seen in my entirety, not so much as a country music star," he adds. "People [at the festival hear] I'm a country music star and they're surprised I don't have a hat."
"Guitar Slinger" was the first album Gill recorded at his newly built home studio, which lent a casual feel to the recording process, since Gill says he could work barefoot and pad into the kitchen for a sandwich during breaks.
Recording at his Nashville home also made it easy for Gill to make the album a family affair. Not only does the set feature the vocal and songwriting talents of wife and fellow music star Amy Grant, but also Gill's daughters Jenny and Corrina, and Grant's daughter Sarah Chapman.
In an odd but effective choice, Gill had Corrina, who was 9 years old at the time, sing on one the album's darkest tracks, the murder-suicide song "Billy Paul," after the child took a liking to the song.
"She grasped what it was about and it wasn't traumatic for her," Gill says, which hatched a plan he thought could be "the worst idea I ever had or the coolest." But first he had to run it by Corrina's mother, Grant, who understandably needed some convincing.
Once he got Corrina in the studio, he says, "She just killed it. Her pitch was good and she could match the phrasing, which was remarkable to me. I think it adds a really eerie quality to [the song]."
Having older daughter Jenny on the album was a treat for Gill as well, as it helped fulfill a long-held Everly Brothers fantasy.
"Jenny happens to be a viciously great singer, so when I sing with her, I get to have a real DNA blood/Everly Brothers thing," Gill says. "You can't imagine what that feels like. I went my whole life trying to be Phil Everly or Don Rich or whoever the great harmony singer was, for hundreds and hundreds of [my] records over the last 35 years. For me to finally get to call on somebody that can give me that sound, that perfect family blend, it's unbelievable."
Teenage stepdaughter Sarah lends backing vocals to an album cut on which Gill and Grant duet, "True Love," and Gill says, "She has a really unique voice. It has a really cool texture to it that I think is fantastic."
On the title cut, one of the album's most humorous songs, Gill lightheartedly references losing more than 30 guitars and 30 amps last year when the Cumberland River overflowed and flooded Nashville, including the Soundcheck storage facility where Gill and many other musicians kept their precious gear. And while he can joke about it now, there was no humor in the situation at the time, especially coming as it did the day after Owsley's death.
"That Saturday I came home from Canada and was devastated by that news [about Owsley]," he recalls. "Then the flood started. We watched the weather for two days alarmed at what was going to happen [as the river rose.] Somebody called and said, 'Hey, have you heard about Soundcheck? It's completely under water.' My heart sank."
But when Gill told Grant the news, her reaction was pragmatic. She said, "'That's going to be devastating, but you can make a living with one guitar if you had to,'" he recalls. That comment inspired the song's lyrics "Even though half of my stuff's in the Cumberland River/Well, now all I really need is just one six stringer."
"Still, the hardest part for me was looking at all those [ruined] things and going 'Well, that guitar played the solo on that record' and 'That guitar played the solo on this record.' Those guitars had lives and they made memories," Gill says. "To a musician, those instruments are like your photographs. So in a sense, all those instruments took my pictures."
Gill says he's always been motivated by nothing more than a pure desire to make music. But in a way, his Hall of Fame induction is driving him to create that music with a bit more urgency.
"I'm 54," he says, "I don't know how long my voice will hold out. I don't know what's going to happen to my hands, if they'll stay nimble. In most cases, it doesn't happen. Once you get some years on you, stuff starts failing," he adds with a hearty laugh. "They say you get the first 50 for free, and that's the truth."
Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites including Radio-Info.com, where she authors the newsletter Stark Country. She was previously the Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.