Vince Gill: The Things That Matter

Four decades into a storied career, the Nashville icon is making sure every note counts.

Photos by Jim Wright

It’s noon on a Friday, and Vince Gill has just woken up.

“I don’t normally sleep until 12 p.m.!” he insists, filling his hotel room with a laugh that’s equal parts sheepish, playful and punch-drunk. Even by his standards, it’s been a long week. Hours earlier, he played a sold-out sports arena in Milwaukee with the Eagles, having joined the band’s lineup — perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently — in the wake of Glenn Frey’s passing back in 2017. No one expected the group to do much touring, but the revitalized Eagles hit the road hard. Last night’s show in Milwaukee was their 53rd show of the year, making this tour one of their longest since the Nineties.

Filling Frey’s shoes is a tall order. Night after night, Gill has been singing lead not only on “Heartache Tonight” and “Lyin’ Eyes” — songs originally delivered by Frey — but also on Randy Meisner’s “Take It To The Limit,” whose sky-high glory notes have become too challenging for the other Eagles to hit. He’s been playing guitar, too, strumming open chords during the bulk of the set before unleashing an extended solo during the band’s version of “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away,” Gill’s own hit from 1992.

“I like to watch the faces of the people in the audience when he starts playing those leads,” says Don Henley, who led the band’s decision to hire both Gill and Frey’s 25-year-old son, Deacon. “He’s been standing over there playing acoustic guitar and singing up until that particular point in the show, and suddenly, its like he’s been let off the leash! Where he really shines, though, is singing lead vocals on songs like ‘Take It To The Limit.’ It’s the first song he sings alone in the set, and he usually gets a standing ovation, because he hits the high notes at the end of the song. That immediately puts to rest any doubts about whether he fill this position. We just get that out of the way, right from the get-go.”

For Gill — a music fanatic who moved to Los Angeles during the 1970s, back when the Eagles were still flying high — playing with Henley and company has been a dream fully realized. That said, it’s understandable that the new kid in town would snooze until noon once in awhile.

Why? Because at 61 years old, Gill remains consistently — almost cartoonishly — busy. He’s been flying back to Tennessee during gaps in the Eagles’ schedule to play with the Time Jumpers, the western-swing supergroup whose Monday night performances have become a Nashville tradition. Every holiday season for the past half-decade or so, he’s also been teaming up with Amy Grant — wife, muse and Christmastime duet partner — for a string of sold-out gigs at the Ryman Auditorium, where the two swap harmonies on a combination of carols and originals. He’s one of Nashville’s busiest sessions musicians, too, having contributed to hundreds of albums as a harmony singer or guest guitarist. And finally, he’s still Vince Gill: the most award-winning country singer in Grammy history, with a voice that hasn’t lost its elasticity and a string of solo records rooted in twang and taste.

That’s why he’s still groggy at 12 p.m., having slept his way well past breakfast. He perks up at the mention of Honolulu, where the Eagles will close out their 2018 tour by playing for 50,000 fans at Aloha Stadium. Then he laughs again, knowing that he may sleep until noon after that show, too.

“It’s gonna be a crazy one, because I’ve got a gig with Amy the night before,” he says. “She and I will do one of our Christmas shows in Nashville, then the Eagles play Hawaii the next day! I’ll fly all night to get from one to the other. It’ll be a long day for Vinny!”

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Vince Gill has never been afraid of long days. Raised in Oklahoma City, he grew up balancing his schoolwork with nighttime gigs as a bluegrass musician. He could play everything — mandolin, banjo, fiddle — but he funneled most of his focus into the guitar, earning a spot in a local band along the way. The guys were active on the Oklahoma circuit, opening for acts like Pure Prairie League and KISS while Gill was still a teenager. He left town soon after high school graduation, logging a few months in Kentucky before heading west to California. In Los Angeles, he found a community of musicians who, like him, were drawn to both the twang of country music and the amplified bang of rock and roll.

“I met Vince in 1976, when he was 19 years old,” remembers Rodney Crowell. “I walked into the Troubadour with Guy Clark and Emmylou [Harris], and Vince was onstage singing a song of mine called ‘‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ He was doing it so well that I went to him backstage and said, ‘Okay, who are you, and how can you sing that song so much better than the rest of us?’ It was so compelling. I didn’t know this guy and he was doing a song of mine so beautifully. It was like finding my long-lost little brother. We still refer to each other as brothers. He’s my little brother to this day, even though he’s bigger than me and could whup me in any match.”

Still a decade shy of hitting his stride as a solo artist, Gill bounced between several bands during those early years in L.A., even joining a reshuffled version of Pure Prairie League in 1979. He’d opened for the group as a high-school student. Now, just a handful of years later, he was their fresh-faced leader, crooning his way to the top of the adult-contemporary charts as the singer of Pure Prairie League’s final hit, “Let Me Love You Tonight.” It was with Rodney Crowell’s tight-knit group of friends, however — a community that included Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash — that he found a group of lifelong friends and collaborators.

“Rodney and that crew became my tribe,” he says. “They were the people I was drawn to, even before I got to California. The first time I heard Emmylou’s voice, she was singing harmony with Linda Ronstadt on ‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.’ I heard this voice I’d never heard before, so I went and bought the record and thought it was Dolly Parton using a fake name. I actually convinced a few of my friends of that! Shortly after that, I was knocking around a record store and found Pieces Of The Sky. I heard that record, heard Rodney’s songs on it, heard the way Emmy sang … and I think that was the first time in my young life that I thought, ‘I see what I want to do.’ I felt pointed for the very first time. Then, two years later, I ran into them. That’s the beauty of playing music: it leads you into these friendships.”

The respect was mutual. When Crowell began producing Guy Clark’s The South Coast Of Texas, he recruited Gill to sing harmonies. Gill started making cameos on Crowell’s own albums, too, and later joined his backup band, the Cherry Bombs, after leaving Pure Prairie League. As the ’70s gave way to the early ‘80s, he became Rosanne Cash’s guitarist, as well.

“Whenever Vince was singing harmony, he’d make you sound better,” Crowell recalls. “It was like Phil Everly singing with Don. He played really blistering guitar, too; he could overdrive an amp and play the blues, or he could do the really fast chicken-pickin’ stuff like James Burton. We had fun. I remember working with him in the studios in Hollywood, then driving home to the Valley, where we both lived. We’d both take the Ventura Freeway out to Thousand Oaks, and we’d race. I mean, real dangerous racing. That was when Vince was still drinking, which he hasn’t done in years. We’d have some margaritas and then race each other all the way to his exit, which was one before mine, and it was cutthroat! I’m surprised we didn’t get hauled to jail.”

Gill eventually landed a solo deal with RCA Records in 1983. Now based in Nashville, he spent the rest of the decade on the perpetual brink of stardom, scraping the outer edges of the Top 40 with songs from his first album, Turn Me Loose, then inching his way upward with 1985’s The Things That Matter and 1987’s The Way Back Home. He remained an active session musician, too, appearing on Crowell’s Diamonds & Dirt, Lyle Lovett’s Pontiac, Bonnie Raitt’s Green Light, and every album Rosanne Cash released during the ’80s. Few people in Nashville had better credentials. Even so, Gill finished the decade the same way he began it: as a household name to a very small community of fans, and an unknown entity to pretty much everyone else.

Things changed entirely in 1990. “When I Call Your Name,” a butter-smooth ballad about broken hearts and empty homes, hit the airwaves that spring, and the effect was seismic. The song quickly climbed into the Top 10, as did Gill’s next 15 singles. After spending a dozen years in his peers’ shadow, Gill was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, standing alongside Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson as one of country music’s newly-crowned kings. He hosted the CMA Awards in 1992 — a role he wound up reprising for 11 years — and began cleaning house annually at the Grammys, taking home awards for “I Still Believe In You,” “Go Rest High On That Mountain” and nearly two dozen others. Pop fans knew him, too, thanks in part to the crossover success of his “House Of Love” duet with Amy Grant. As the decade progressed, the guy was simply inescapable — not only to country fans, but to anybody paying attention.

I just put one foot in front of the other, which is what I’ve always done,” he says of those busy years. “I just answered the phone when it rang. I didn’t have a master plan, and I still don’t. I like winging it. I don’t sit there and analyze where I need to be in five years or 10 years. It’s always been about being in the moment. It just suits me, and it’s not an ultra-conscious decision. I just live.”

When country fans began shifting their attention toward newer sounds during the early 2000s, Gill felt more relief than disappointment. He’d been expecting it. The ’90s had been a godsend to his career, but they also made him miss the freedom that semi-obscurity had provided. He missed performing in his friends’ bands. His missed playing smaller rooms. Perhaps more than anything, he missed playing the electric guitar. There hadn’t been much opportunity to showcase the instrument during his days in the country mainstream, when fans tended to focus more attention on his voice than his ability to shred.

“I knew that at some point, radio would not be keen on my new record, and some other kid was gonna come around and take my slot on the hit-bound radio stuff,” he says frankly. “When that moment came, it gave me a different kind of freedom. Eric Clapton started inviting me to play those guitar festivals, and suddenly, all of these legendary guitar players began seeing me as a real musician, too. I started playing in a swing band, the Time Jumpers, on Monday nights. I started playing with the Eagles. To me, not everything had to be centered around, ‘How can I stay in the forefront of everybody’s attention?’ I never cared much about that. I’ve always liked to be the side guy — the guy in a band — and that’s a role I’m glad I can still play. I do that with the Eagles, where I’m just part of the band. Even during the heyday of my solo career, I still felt like the whole thing was a band, and I was just the guy singing the songs.”

If the 1980s shone a light on Gill’s determination to win over a wide audience, and the 1990s — with their multi-platinum records and award-show accolades — found him meeting success with humility and an unflagging work ethic, then the 2000s gave him a chance to get weird. On 2006’s These Days, he spread 43 original songs over four different discs, covering everything from soul to mountain music in the process. On 2011’s Guitar Slinger, he sandwiched a similar spread of diversity into a 12-song tracklist, gluing everything together with a high-lonesome tenor — a holdover from his bluegrass days — and smart fretwork. Somewhere along the way, he also joined the Time Jumpers, a supergroup of local sideman who played old pop standards, half-forgotten swing tunes and bygone country songs. The group performed weekly at the Station Inn, a pint-sized bluegrass venue in downtown Nashville, and later moved to 3rd & Lindsley. The new venue accommodated 700 people — nearly five times the Station Inn’s capacity, but still much smaller than the venues Gill routinely played.

He was the Time Jumpers’ most recognizable member, but he didn’t act like it. Happy to be part of a band again, Gill played most of the group’s performances sitting down, allowing vocalist Dawn Sears to literally stand in the spotlight and serve as the group’s de facto leader. If it seems odd that one of the best-selling country artists in living memory would commit to playing weekly shows with a western-swing band and not be the lead singer, that’s because it was. And Gill didn’t care.

“A lot of people see a sideman’s role as being a lesser role,” he explains, “and I feel like it’s quite the opposite. I think it’s harder. It’s way harder to be in the band, versus being the knucklehead up front who gets to do whatever he wants, and everyone has to follow him. But if you have to watch that person up front, listen to him, match him and enhance him — that requires bigger ears. The goal is to do what’s necessary. If you’re a harmony singer, you match the lead singer. If you’re a bass player, you listen to the drummer. And if you’re a guitarist, you play what’s appropriate so you can serve the song. Most of us — probably all of us — have a tendency to play too much and sing too much. I remember doing a session for someone years ago, just recording some guitar parts, and the producer came on the talkback mic and said, ‘That was good! Now play me half of what you know.’ Ha! It was a great point to make, and a good thing to learn as a kid. Since then, I’ve tried to let brevity be at the forefront of whatever I’m doing. It’s all about what you don’t play — the space between the notes.”

Coincidentally, it was Gill’s involvement with the Time Jumpers that helped inspire the Eagles’ decision to hire him.

“Vince has been a solo artist and part of a group,” says Henley, whose own career has included a similar mix of solo hits and band projects. “He knows both ends of the spectrum, and he knows how to fit in. When we sing harmonies, he just takes whatever part the rest of us aren’t singing, and he makes it work. He’s incredibly agile and flexible when it comes to that.”

“Somebody wrote a review of an Eagles show,” Gill adds, “and they said, ‘What was impressive about Vince being in the band was what he didn’t do.’ And that meant a lot to me. You do your part, don’t draw a lot of attention to yourself, sing the songs they want you to sing and just be a good soldier. Going into this project, I knew that my role with the Eagles would be mostly singing and rhythm guitar. They’ve got Steuart [Smith, Don Felder’s replacement since 2001] and Joe [Walsh], so they’re fine on guitars. That role is well-covered! I think it’s inspiring to be a great rhythm player. I’m all about finding a big, fat pocket and driving that rhythm. Truthfully, the Eagles are a ‘song band’ more than a ‘shred band,’ anyway, so everything has its place. Including me.”

That said, even a team-oriented player like Gill could use a reminder to turn down once in awhile.

“Vince shows up to his first day of rehearsal with us, and he’s got this gigantic amp,” Henley recalls with a laugh. “This big rock and roll amp with two speaker cabinets! I go, ‘What is this, man?’ And he goes, ‘I’m a rock and roll guitar player!’ And I said, ‘Ok, I’ve always thought of you as a bluegrass and country guy.’ And he goes, ‘No, I wanna play some rock and roll with you guys.’ So we had a few discussions about volume.”

******

Back home in Nashville, Gill takes a seat in his living room and glances across the hallway, where dozens of electric guitars are resting in individual stands. He’s been renovating the recording studio that occupies an entire wing of the house, so the hundreds of instruments that normally fill the space — including two 1952 Telecasters, a 1928 spruce-top Dobro square-neck and a Gibson F-5 mandolin — have been temporarily evacuated to other rooms. Once the home repairs are done, he’ll move everything back into the studio and add the finishing touches to a new album. It’ll be his first solo release since 2016’s Down To My Last Bad Habit, and in typical Gill fashion, it will sound nothing like its predecessor.

“I don’t have that many years left to be creative, so I want to cover as much ground as I can,” he says. “This record is very different from anything else I’ve done. It’s very acoustic-minded. There’s no soloing. It’s very song-minded, too, and these are age-appropriate songs that a 61-year-old man should be writing. It’s about real life and the things that really matter. I’ve got a song on there that I wrote for Guy Clark after his passing. A song I wrote for Merle Haggard after his passing. Two songs about Amy. A song about abuse. A song about teenage pregnancy. It’s a lot of subjects that some people are gonna completely run from.”

On “Forever Changed,” Gill scolds a man for robbing a younger woman of her innocence. It’s an Americana ballad for a generation shaped by the #MeToo movement, and it doesn’t need any amplified riffs to pack its punch. The lyrics do that job on their own. “You put your hands where they don’t belong/ And now her innocence is dead and gone,” goes the chorus. “She feels dirty, she feels ashamed/ Because of you, she’s forever changed.” Another song, “Black & White,” takes a similar look at the problems facing the modern world. “We’re too far left, a little too right/ Were we better off in black and white?” sings Gill, who co-wrote the song with Charlie Worsham.

“I wouldn’t call it political,” Gill says of the album’s tone. “I’m not here to be confrontational or make anybody mad. I might make them think, though. This is just me telling the truth. Some of these songs are hard to hear, but they’re truthful things that are happening.”

At the moment, the album remains a work in progress. There’s no title yet. No release date, either. Gill’s still putting one foot in front of the other, and the new album will sort itself out at some point. When it does arrive, though, it’ll showcase a songwriter who refuses to coast his way toward an easy retirement. “I’m the 61-year-old new guy,” Gill has been telling the audience at every Eagles show, and his flurry of recent activity — the Eagles gigs, the solo albums, the Time Jumpers shows and beyond — does feel like the work of a musical veteran reborn. The thing is, Gill’s work ethic never died. It’s just been renewing itself, time and time again.

“I think I sing better now than I ever have,” he says. “I play better, too. It’s all about the subtleties. It’s about what you choose not to do. I listen to some of my singing on the older records and shake my head, thinking, ‘Why all those turns?’ The funny thing about making a record is, you don’t know the songs when you’re cutting them. Then, after you’ve done them for 20 or 30 years, you’ve learned how to sing them! You discover what to do and what not to do, and you adjust accordingly. It’s such a minority of people that would ever sense that you did something different, but you’d know it, and that’s enough for me. It’s enough for me to sing the old songs better live than I do on the record. I let my ears lead the way, as I’ve always done. You can’t just play the music; you have to really hear it. My ears have never let me down.”

Vince Gill is still listening.