(Universal Music Group Nashville)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
At the risk of being overly simplistic, or worse clichéd, many albums can be slotted into “Saturday night” or “Sunday morning” categories. Using that as a vague guide, Vince Gill’s Okie is very much a Sunday morning listen.
It’s being called his most personal ever which, with 21 Grammy Awards and over four decades as a professional musician and about two dozen titles, is saying a lot. The predominately hushed set of ballads is driven by Gill’s near whispered vocals and largely acoustic backing. This folksy singer-songwriter groove doesn’t discount Gill’s country roots but rather expands on them.
The disc’s title pays tribute to the singer’s Oklahoma roots, although Okie was once a disparaging Depression-era term applied to migrants that caught trains from that state to California. And while Gill never rode trains, his life on buses provides the subjective experience to open this set with the heartfelt “I Don’t Want to Ride the Rails No More.” He sings about his life in “An Honest Man,” owning up to his faults as being “a little rough around the edges and sometimes I lose my tongue,” but ultimately feeling as if he’s the titular straightforward person.
Gill pays respects to two of his strongest musical influences, both deceased, in “Nothing Like a Guy Clark Song” and “A World Without Haggard.” The latter closes the album with the words “He made me proud to be an Okie, God knows we paid our dues,” before acknowledging that Haggard was “my greatest inspiration” atop sobbing pedal steel. Perhaps things get a little too gooey in the spiritually based homage to his wife “When My Amy Prays,” where Gill sings with sparse piano accompaniment, “She gave me my first bible/ It sits right beside my bed.” The feelings are undoubtedly genuine with Gill’s stirring vocals telling of the love to his better half, even if it treads a little too close to Hallmark melodrama. The difficulties faced by a pregnant unwed teen are soberly explored in the even-handed if rather dismal “What Choice Will You Make.”
“That Old Man of Mine” is the only instance that ramps the rhythms up to a fellow Okie-styled J.J. Cale chug. Here, Vince tells a first person account of killing his violent, heavy-drinking father in what we learn is the protagonist singing from his jail cell.
Each of the dozen tracks that unwind over 50 minutes is beautifully produced with exquisitely subdued backing and Gill pouring out his heart with the restrained and honest intensity of his always authentic voice. It’s perfect to sip coffee with on a lazy Sunday morning as the tunes amble along and you delve into his finely crafted lyrics, although by the halfway point, the stylish, unassuming musical approach starts to feel repetitious.
Those looking for recent Eagle member Gill’s more animated side will need to go elsewhere. Compared to what’s here, even that band’s most languid performances sound like garage rock. A little sincerity goes a long way, and the lack of a lighter conceptual touch doesn’t do this set any favors. But the exquisite Okie is nonetheless filled with emotions he evidently needed to express, which makes it an important entry in his bulging catalog and arguably his most intimate, deeply felt release.