More of Mr. Nice Guy

The Inlander | November 21, 2006
It’s easy to overlook Vince Gill. Maybe the nicest guy in Nashville, he’s definitely got that boy-next-door thing going on. So it’s easy to forget about him when, say, Keith Urban comes strutting down your street.

But behind that easygoing smile is one ridiculously talented artist. Owner of one of the smoother voices in country music, and considered one of the best guitar players in the world by Eric Clapton, Gill has now released (as writer, performer and producer) what may be the most talked-about country record of the year. But These Days is more than a record; it’s 43 brand-new songs spread over four discs, with an all-star cast.

Nobody’s overlooking Vince Gill now; he’s on top of the country music world, and he's on the road again, too.

“We’re having a blast out here,” says Gill the morning after his 17-piece band played in Mesa, Ariz. “I’ve never had this many players. Amy and I have done symphony tours, with the full orchestra, but this is just huge.”

Gill’s new record is not just electrifying fans; Nashville’s pretty excited about it, too. At a time when the music world has been shaken to its core by a powerful little gadget with a tiny apple on it, country music is doing a lot of soul-searching. How do the record companies continue to attract new fans? Should it continue to seek out the crossover success of the Shania Twains of the world? Or should it get back to its old time, high lonesome roots?

Into that fray, These Days seems to answer those questions with “Yes and yes.” Made up of four discs — The Country & Western Record, The Acoustic Record, The Rockin’ Record and The Groovy Record — Gill seems to be saying country artists don’t have to fit into one tidy section at the record store.

“This record probably goes against any type of logic of what’s going on in music right now,” says Gill, “and I kind of like that. It just goes against the grain.”

Rather than continually force-feeding fans the latest flavor-of-the-month, perhaps These Days will show Nashville execs that if they treat their core fans with respect, there will be rewards.

“History has shown that a young fan base is hard for any genre to keep, because youth is not settled,” says Gill. “With this record, I was trying to find my really hardcore fan base; I was really pointing toward them.”

Gill is one of the few country artists who could pull off a project this monumental, but even so, MCA-Nashville took a hell of a risk by releasing the first-ever four-CD set of new music. Now that risk is paying off.

“It’s been a lot more successful than the record company anticipated,” says Gill. “Four or five times more successful. And we’ve been getting better than great press; it’s unique press because it’s something so different.

“You see more and more, it’s hard to get people to listen to an 11-song record, to get a radio guy to listen to it, or even a fan,” Gill continues. “With all the iPods, it’s become a single-song mindset.”

And that single-song mindset means radio is as powerful as ever in shaping tastes, making country music more monolithic and hit-happy.

“It truly is dependent on radio, and you’ve seen radio squeeze and squeeze its playlist,” says Gill. “It’s not so much that it’s gotta be one thing, it’s just such a small window of what’s going to be allowed in.”

But even radio is fragmenting, as satellite radio steals listeners and big cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia have no country stations at all. It’s a bit of a free-for-all at the moment, with blockbuster records harder to come by and everyone trying to figure out what the business will look like in a few years.

Gill’s offering, and its critical and financial success, throws a wrinkle into the mix: If you take the fans seriously and realize they are willing to make the investment of money and time it takes to wade into 43 songs, you might change the dynamic a bit. In other words, don’t just make records; if you can, make a musical event.

And These Days is a musical event. Like seeing a seasoned director release his best film, or an artist paint her masterpiece, Gill is at the top of his game and it’s fun to watch.

Gill’s road to the top started in Oklahoma, learning a few banjo chords from his dad. After high school, he kicked around in a couple of bluegrass bands, including Ricky Skaggs’ Boone Creek. Odd as it might sound, Los Angeles was attracting a lot of Country musicians in the mid-1970s — after all, that’s where the Eagles had set up shop. So Gill made his way out there, and by 1979 he was fronting the Pure Prairie League, singing their hit “Let Me Love You Tonight.” Later, he hooked up with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.

After a move back to Nashville, he signed as a solo act in 1983. In 1989, he moved over to MCA and recorded “When I Call Your Name,” which shot him straight into country music’s Milky Way, where he has stayed ever since. In 2000, he married singer Amy Grant; they’d be Nashville’s preeminent power couple if they weren’t so down to earth. Amy and daughter Corrina are staying back in Nashville while he tours. (“Corrina can’t miss that much school,” Gill says.)

And there has been more musical success since his breakthrough, but you couldn’t have blamed Gill if he’d have just kind of ridden it out. Instead, with These Days, he took the artistic envelope and ripped the end off of it with his teeth.

“I’ve always been inspired by all kinds of music,” he says. “In small doses, you can find all this stuff on my earlier records. It’s not a new wheel, it’s in keeping with what I’ve always done, but there’s just a lot more of it.”

These Days may not be a new wheel, but it’s still stunning in its range and depth, from a jazzy duet with Diana Krall (“Faint of Heart”) to the old-timey “Take This Country Back” (about the music, not the nation). His daughter Jenny (from his first marriage) sings with him on two tracks (“Time to Carry On” and “A River Like You”), and there are some soon-to-be-classics (“What You Give Away” and “The Only Love” to name just two).

And the roster of guest artists is unprecedented: Rodney Crowell, Del McCoury, Michael McDonald, LeAnn Rimes, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack, John Anderson, Guy Clark, Katrina Elam and, of course, Amy Grant.

So where’d he find a muse big enough to create These Days? Gill can’t explain his creative binge, other than to say time was his friend.

“Nobody was beating down my door to get this record out,” Gill says. “I had the time, and away I went.”

When he’s not collaborating with other songwriters, Gill says he likes to write at home, guitar in hand, with the music and lyrics often rolling out at the same time. “It’s hard to explain… I just kind of make it up,” he says. “You compromise — see what you like and what you don’t like. Kind of like dating.”

Gill fully expected to pare down his musical motherlode to 11 or 12 songs, but when he played 31 finished tracks for MCA executives and there was no chaff to be found, the idea for something completely different started to come into focus.

And the live show is as super-sized as the new record. Not only is he packing around a 17-piece band, but he’s also been doing huge, Springsteen-like shows. In Columbus, Ohio, in October, he played 34 songs, both new and old, over three and a half hours.

“It never started out to be this big,” Gill says of These Days. “It just evolved.”

He might as well be describing his entire career.

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1227 W. Summit Parkway, Spokane, WA 99201
  • Phone: (509) 325-0634