At 59, Vince Gill is now one of the elder statesmen of country music, the sort of “musician’s musician” that everyone in the business admires and wants to emulate. So much so that when he recently celebrated his 25th anniversary of being a member of the Grand Ole Opry, he became the first artist to play the whole night.
But the Oklahoma native, who has sold more than 26 million albums, won 20 Grammys, and earned 18 CMA Awards (including two Entertainer of the Year trophies), is hardly thinking of retirement. He’s as busy as he ever was, working a steady concert schedule, and constantly writing and recording, with two albums out this year. He’s also singing, even the humble artist has to admit, better than ever.
You’ve lived in Nashville for more than 30 years now. Do you think we define success differently in the South?
VG: I don’t know. I think what is the most prevalent in the South is manners. Kindness. People are nice to each other here, and I love that. It’s been a great thing to be a part of the South. Every part of the world has its history, and there’s a part of the history of the South that’s deplorable. But there’s part that’s fantastic, too. I think if you can love somebody at their worst, the rest of it is a piece of cake. I like the pace of life here. I like the people. I like the golf courses. (Laugh) I like how green it is. I like everything about it. I won’t live anywhere else. Oklahoma will always be home, but the South really gives me a sense of place.
You’ve written some of the most enduring songs of the genre, especially “Whenever You Come Around,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” and “I Still Believe in You.” What inspires your songwriting?
VG: Oh, my gosh. “Whenever You Come Around” is probably my favorite song to perform. I wrote it for Amy when I first met her. I was just taken with how pretty she was, and her smile. It’s a song of yearning and hope. But I just try to tell the truth. I’ve always wanted to be moved by a song, by a singer or a musician. And at the end of the day, that’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m trying to move somebody. I love the emotion of music. Just let me feel something.
You’re part of a revered Nashville band called the Time Jumpers, and you’re out with a new album, Kid Sister, named in honor of your late “girl singer,” Dawn Sears.
VG: Yeah. I had my big sister, and she was a good one. But I never had a kid sister. Dawn was the real light in the Time Jumpers for a long, long time. We lost her to cancer close to two years ago now. She was easily one of the finest singers I ever heard. And so when she passed, I thought she deserved a song.
What does it feel like to be in such an elite group of musicians?
VG: Aw, it’s fun. It’s a star group of great musicians and singers. I’m just one of the other guitar players, and I get to sing a few songs. Amy and I often talk about the fact that we’re both used to getting our way, and when we work together, we have to compromise a little bit. It’s good for us. And this is the same thing. I’m just one-tenth of a great band. The biggest joy is seeing nine other people who never got the limelight get to have it.
How would you describe the kind of music the Time Jumpers play?
VG: It’s steeped in western-swing. A lot of people in this day and age probably don’t understand what western-swing is. It’s the music that was popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s a derivative of big band music from the same time period, and sits in the world of be-bop and jazz. So it’s not just three chords. It’s a little more big-boy pants music. (Laugh) Bob Wills was probably the most well-known swing bandleader in the music’s history. He made it famous and popularized it.
We do the same kind of thing as Count Basie and others like him, with the big brass, only we do it with western influences--fiddle, steel guitars, and more country-fied instrumentation. There’s not a lot of it around anymore, but it’s amazing to hear swing music. It makes you feel good.
Has playing it made you a better musician?
VG: I’ve been in the band six years now. I never thought I’d be in another band, but looking back on these years, I can say I’m a better guitar player now. So it makes total sense to me as a musician to do it.
Merle Haggard recorded a tribute to Bob Wills’ music in 1970. Merle was a friend of yours. How did you take his death?
VG: I knew it was coming. I first met him in 1981. He was doing a tour of all honky tonks, playing beer joints all across the country. I found out about it, and I called Emmy [Emmylou Harris], and we piled in a couple of cars and drove about 45 minutes to see him. So I got to hear Merle Haggard for the first time live in a beer joint. It couldn’t get any better than that.
Everybody has his favorites, and for me, it was Merle. He was a great musician, and the best songwriter in the history of country music, and maybe the best singer, too. And all those things are what I’m trying to do. He had a crackerjack band, full of great players, and they played on a lot of his records. The completeness of all the things that he did was the most inspiring to me. He was everything I thought you should be.
The late Guy Clark was another huge influence for you, especially as a songwriter. You recently hosted a live tribute to him at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
VG: Well, Rodney Crowell and a bunch of us wanted to do a tribute to Guy, and we thought he was going to be here for it. We planned it while he was still alive, then his health worsened and he passed and didn’t make it. The cool thing about Guy Clark was he was always willing to reach out to a kid who was trying to figure out how to write a song. He had that kindness. And I was one of those 40 kids years ago.
With Guy, every word mattered, and he painted the most vivid pictures in songs that I have ever heard. When he sang about the south coast of Texas, or about a dancehall girl named Rita Ballou, or a fiddle player named Coleman Bonner, or a Randall knife, it was every bit of visual as the written word. I wrote a song on my last record called “The Old Lucky Diamond Motel.” Somebody heard that song and asked me if I wrote it with Guy. And I didn’t. I wrote it by myself. That was the highest praise I’ve ever received as a songwriter.
Your new solo album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, was released this year. It’s your 18th studio album. You love the process, don’t you?
VG: I made my first record 42 years ago, and it’s always the greatest feeling to make the next record or write the next song. You continue to feel like you’re getting better. That’s what this record tells me. I’ve heard so many artists talk about their new records and say, “It’s the best I’ve ever done!” Well, it should be. If you’re really doing your job, your most recent work should be your best work. And I can say with a straight face that this is mine. I played with some people I’d never played with before, and that made me play and sing different, and do all those things that being creative is supposed to do.
It never gets old for you?
VG: No. When I made that first record, I was driving down I-40 in my pick-up truck, and my song came on the radio. I was a 17-year old kid. It was the greatest feeling in the world to hear myself sing on the radio. I got on the CB and told everybody it was on, and people listened and came back saying positive stuff about it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of a sudden, I had this gift of hope.
What do you think the general state of country music is these days?
VG: Oh, I think we’re fine. And it’s ok if I prefer to hear George Jones over the current number one record in country music. Just because it’s the number one record doesn’t mean I have to love it. I’ll give you any era, ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s, and there were a lot of number one records that weren’t my cup of tea. I’m not against these new kids. I’m for them. They don’t have anybody rooting harder for them than me. They reach out to me to do things with them, and I sing on a lot of their records. I just worked on a Hunter Hayes record the other day. He’s a wickedly gifted musician. Unbelievable.
So if some of these young kids aren’t staying that close to the roots, it doesn’t really matter?
VG: Not to me. All it makes me do is miss that kind of music more. And it’s not up to me to say what they play is right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s their art and their point, and I’m not going to rain on their parade. Country music never has stayed to its roots. That’s what everybody forgets. Everybody thinks it was [voice soars], “Only this way, and now this group has ruined everything!” (Laugh) And it’s just not the case. Let’s go back to the ‘40s. Hank Williams showed up, and he was way different than what went on before him.
Then after Hank, Eddy Arnold was way different than Hank Williams. Eddy became the big ballad, lush singer, and he started using strings. Country music has changed and evolved and done a million different things. The ‘60s was a pretty good era, of Merle and Buck Owens. The music got twangy again, and then it got kind of schmaltzy, and then pop-y for a while, and then another traditional movement came along. It’s not going to stay the same. And to get all uptight about what the kids are doing is pointless.
You’re country music’s anti-star star. If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would it be?
VG: “He’s pretty normal.” (Laugh) “Painfully normal.”