An Interview with Vince Gill: Award Winning Songwriter

When looking at the songs he has recorded since moving to Nashville in 1984, his current recognition as one of the city’s foremost singer/songwriters seems inevitable. He wrote or co-wrote “Everybody’s Sweetheard,” “The Way Back Home,” “Turn Me Lose,” “Colder Than Winter,” “True Love,” “If It Weren’t For Him” (With Rosanne Cash), and “Oklahoma Borderline” (with Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark.) Of the songs mentioned earlier, he wrote “Never Alone” with Rosanne Cash, “Oklahoma Swing” with Tim Dubois, and “Pocket Full of Gold: with Brian Allsmiller.

“I wrote a few of the hits at RCA,” Gill agrees. “They weren’t big hits, but they charted and did well. Maybe I just didn’t write the right record. But think there are some pretty decent songs from the past.”

Gil’s writing reaches back to his days in California and his membership in the group Pure Prairie League as well.
“I started writing songs when I was 19,” Gill says. “When I was with Pure Prairie League, I wrote about half of the songs on the three albums I did with them.

“When I started playing with Pure Prairie League, they asked me if I had any songs,” Gill explains how his interest in developing his skills as a writer evolved. “I wound up getting five songs on the first album I did with them. That shocked me. I had only been writing for about a year, and didn’t write a lot back then, but that inspired me to write a lot more. And getting to know Rodney (Crowell) and some of those guys, it became apparent that was a pretty neat part of being musical.”

Prior to joining Pure Prairie League, Gill played with several bluegrass groups. He left the pop band to join Crowell’s Cherry Bombs, and through that affiliation continued his friendship with Tony Brown, who had played in Emmylou Harris’ band before joining Crowell. After Brown joined RCA Records in the A&R department, he signed Gill to a recording contract. Before the two could work together, Brown moved over to MCA Records, and Gill’s albums at RCA were produced by another Harris-Crowell alumnus, Emory Gordy.

Gill’s influences are as diverse as the bands in which he’s played. He lists Merle Haggard (“I’d love for Haggard to cut one of my tunes,”) Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Chet Atkins alongside The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. These influences can be seen in the lyrics and music he writes.

While Gill admits to being one of those people who cannot write while he’s out on the road, he also admits that just making time to write does not always produce a hit song. “You have to make time for it, but you have to have a good idea to sit around and work with or you’ll wind up spinning your wheels.” Gill says. “On the other hand, you can sit down with a great idea and still not have enough on the ball to get it done. There are no rules.”

One thing that Gill does enjoy is co-writing, and he’s had the opportunity to write with a cross-section of Nashville’s finest writers.

“I really enjoy the co-writing, the camaraderie. I like being with people, period. It’s great to have somebody else’s brain to bounce ideas with. I can have a song two-thirds finished and still call in a co-writer to help finish it. They might se a different angle, or just to get the idea (from them). I could probably finish it, but I like to get together with somebody and team up to finish. I don’t know why. It’s a lot harder when you sit down with somebody to write and just pull something out of the blue. It’s better for me to have a part of the song written.” Gill called in Max D. Barnes to help him finish “Look at Us,” a song off his current Pocketful of Gold album.

“I had pretty much two verses done and the whole theory of the song done, but I played it for Max and he gave me a different angle for the second verse. And we wrote a bridge, and it took the song to a whole better level than I would have thought of on my own. That’s when it’s really neat to co-write.”

Barnes is one of those writers that is most-often mentioned when people talk about great co-writers. Gill offered a few reasons why Barnes is so well thought of among other writers.

“He just has such a whole, great perspective on lyrics, on everything. I fancy him one of the true great country songwriters.” Gill explains. “We have a great time writing.”

Although he and Crowell are good friends, and have written together, Gill doesn’t feel that he can call him up anytime to write.

“Rodney and Guy and I wrote “Oklahoma Borderline,” and I hold Rodney in the highest regard. I feel apprehensive to ask him to co-write. He to me is so much superior songwriter, and if he wanted to write with me he’d call and ask me. I’m doing that out of respect to him. When you’re a young songwriter and someone else is a veteran, they have to have the reason to write with you. You can’t just go up and ask to write. Dave Conrad at Almo Irving (publishing company) put Max and I together.”

Gill maintains no set schedule when it comes to writing. He jots down ideas that he has, but he doesn’t necessarily sit down every day to write, unless he knows he has a recording session coming up.

“I do discipline myself when I have a record coming out,” Vince says. Then I do go everyday and write. It’s (writing) still hard work and you have to go and sit in a room and slug it out.”

The ideas Vince jots down have no origin which he can pinpoint.

“Who knows where ideas come from,” Vince replied when asked that oft-asked question. “The song god.” “Pocketful of Gold” was given to me by a guy that I play basketball with, who had never written any songs to speak of in his life. “Everybody’s Sweetheart” was a tongue-in-cheek song about Janis (who is half of the duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo).

“So was “The Radio,” but that one was more serious. It seemed like that was almost how we were communicating those days. I turned the radio on and there she would be. But it wasn’t a song that said how sorry we were about the way things were, because all along we knew that was the life we had chosen. “Colder Than Winter” was something I wrote one cold winter day when I was sitting looking out the window.
While it seemed that at first, Vince was writing for himself, he is proud of the tunes he’s not having recorded by other artists.

“I do have other songs out. Alabama’s next single “Here We Are,” is one I wrote with Beth Nielsen Chapman. Baillie and the Boys have cut something I wrote with Kathy (Baillie). I don’t actively pitch them as much as I should.”

While Vince tries to write a good percentage of the songs he records, he is open to outside material because he knows the quality of writers who are penning songs alongside of him. When reviewing material that is pitched to him, he listens to the entire presentation, and also depends on a gut feeling about the song.

“Obviously the lyrics are important, then the melody has to be something in my realm of singability,” he explains. “You either like it or you don’t.”

While maintaining that he is not a good person to give advice, Vince did offer a few words of encouragement to songwriters still striving for that first bit of recognition from a publisher of the public.

“Be persistent. Write more than you think you can. Even the greatest songwriters don’t write a great song every time.

“Be patient with the lyrics, and don’t settle for the first that works in a line. There are songs I still haven’t finished, but I work on them all the time.”

When asked what the NSAI singer/songwriter award meant to him, Vince was both humble and proud. “It meant a whole bunch to me, because there were a lot of folks out there who didn’t fashion me being a good songwriter. There were folks that didn’t want me to write. That might have been all I needed to help me write better songs. So getting an award that meant recognition from my peers means a whole bunch to me.”