VINCE GILL: Breathing Room

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It would take more than one album to sum up Vince Gill’s accomplishments. These Days, released in the fall, packs 43 songs onto four CDs-each of which focuses on one aspect of his artistry. Workin’ on a Big Chill celebrates Vince the rocker. Little Brother looks back to his early years as a bluegrass phenomenon. Some Things Never Get Old is for fans of country & western music; the term is chosen deliberately, he laughs, just “to piss people off” up and down Music Row. And big ballads with all-star duets fill The Reason Why, whose title the amiable superstar explains as he gestures around his roomy home in Belle Meade: “Ballads are the reason why I’ve got this place.” What ties all this music together? Two things-Gill’s golden voice and his vision for writing and arranging songs that speak from the heart.

It would take more than one album to sum up Vince Gill’s accomplishments. These Days, released in the fall, packs 43 songs onto four CDs-each of which focuses on one aspect of his artistry. Workin’ on a Big Chill celebrates Vince the rocker. Little Brother looks back to his early years as a bluegrass phenomenon. Some Things Never Get Old is for fans of country & western music; the term is chosen deliberately, he laughs, just “to piss people off” up and down Music Row. And big ballads with all-star duets fill The Reason Why, whose title the amiable superstar explains as he gestures around his roomy home in Belle Meade: “Ballads are the reason why I’ve got this place.” What ties all this music together? Two things-Gill’s golden voice and his vision for writing and arranging songs that speak from the heart.

What does your four-CD release mean to you, from the standpoint of your journey as a songwriter?

Well, for me, there are songs on each that are really fine songs, but I think you’d be crazy to say that all songs are meant to have these great awakenings, great messages and blah-blah-blah. The truth of it is that the rockin’ record [Workin’ on a Big Chill] is a vehicle for me to rip on the guitar. The songs are supposed to be fun…have a sense of humor. But to me, the songwriting records are the acoustic record [Little Brother] and the ballad record [The Reason Why]. I’m trying to be a fine songwriter on those records, not to dismiss the other ones…but sometimes the style of music can make other things as important in a song.

The title cut, which opens Workin’ on a Big Chill, is mainly a one-chord vamp. What does it take, as a writer, to make a one-chord song stand out?

That’s very reminiscent, to me, of “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, where everybody has a big time on the weekend before they’ve got to go back to work. It’s funky, it’s a deep groove and it’s fun to play. You’re not recreating War and Peace; you’re just talking about drinking some beer and hanging out with your buddies [laughs].  The song doesn’t slide into that one-chord vamp until the outtro. To me, when you’re in a band and you’re trying to put that together, it’s all about providing the foundation so that it’s funky and it’s got holes and space. What’s neat about the ending of that track is that it’s not just a guitar player blowing over the top. It’s bits and pieces-the lick or something else-coming out. That’s the beauty of musicians playing together: the push and pull, listening to each other so that what I play inspires that guy and vice versa. The ticket to what great musicians do is that they listen to each other and edit themselves. That’s what separates a good musician from a great musician.

On Some Things Never Get Old the simplicity of the songs makes clear how important performance and, arrangement are, especially on songs like “Out of My Mind” and “This New Heartache,” both of which feature the guitar and bass playing this repetitive, idiomatic riff in unison behind the vocal.

You’re always searching for it. You look back, and a lot of great records gain their identities from a riff, whether it’s “Day Tripper,” “Brown Sugar” or “Sweet Home Alabama.” Those are the things that musicians do and, to me, they never get nearly the credit they deserve for it. We always play a game on the bus where we put on the satellite radio and guess who the artists are by the intros. When the singer starts, the game is over. But you had to know that steel guitar intro or that fiddle intro. They’re unique in how much identity they gave to songs.

 As you were writing these songs, did you already know who you wanted to sing harmony parts on them?

Yeah, some of them. I’ve always said that this isn’t an exercise in trying to get as many famous people to do these things as I can; I just think it’s real engaging to the listener when there’s character everywhere you look in a record, instead of the character being only the focal point of the lead singer-with everybody else masking around that. I can remember when I was 16, I guess, and I heard Emmy [Harris] sing on a Linda Ronstadt record. I was as moved by the harmony singer as I was by the lead singer. That’s just how I always heard music; not everybody does. It works for me; it doesn’t work for everybody else. I’ve always loved Don Rich as much as I love Buck Owens. Phil Everly was equally as important to the Everly Brothers as Don Everly. The supporting cast has always, in a sense, been more important to me than the artist.

Sticking to the traditional structures can help define the character of the songs on the Some Things Never Get Old. But on “The Sight of Me Without You,” for example, your verses and phrases are broken up in irregular ways. When is it alright to maybe hit the chorus two bars early and yet not jeopardize the traditional feel of a track?

That’s the right thing to do because that song is so slow. It doesn’t need to sit there for two more bars before you start the next bit. Plus, it’s a ballad, so that kind of gives it a lift. Country songs have always done that. At times it’s like, “OK, we don’t need to plod on this all the way through the verse. It doesn’t have to be even.” That’s why the turnarounds are unique. They might be the first half of a verse and the last half of a chorus. Another thing: There have been a million key changes in country music. You have to find a way to make it musically interesting, because a straight country song, by itself, can sound tired. You look at George Jones records…there are tons of modulations on them, and they kind of change the space a little bit.

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