As one of the most decorated performers in country music, Vince Gill — who will be granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today — grew up with surprisingly eclectic tastes. “I was mesmerized by guys like Chet Atkins, but I also listened to Hendrix, Clapton and Jimmy Page,” says the 55-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer. “And I loved bluegrass, Billie Holiday — anything authentic.”
A humble guy from humble roots, Gill grew up in a musical family. “My earliest memory’s of my grandmother playing piano and singing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ ” says the Norman, Okla., native who evolved into a gifted musician at a young age. He moved to Los Angeles as a 19-year-old, his career path already solidified at an age when most kids are still grappling with their future in purely abstract terms.
In L.A., Gill hooked up with a bluegrass group fronted by famed session fiddler Byron Berline. “It was a fantastic scene and we did a lot of film work, toured, and then in 1979 I joined Pure Prairie League as lead singer,” he says. After three albums (the first yielded the 1980 Top Ten hit “Let Me Love You Tonight”), Gill joined Rodney Crowell’s backing band the Cherry Bombs, and in 1983 signed with RCA Records.
It’s that authenticity that endears Gill to fans and critics alike. “Gill has always been true to who he is,” says Billy Dukes of tasteofcountry.com in reviewing the singer-songwriter’s 2011 album, “Guitar Slinger,” noting that Gill’s singing and guitar work “are too pure and original to go unappreciated.”
But Gill’s wide range of influences also points to a C&W career that can’t fit easily into any one box. “Guitar Slinger” came on the heels of the 2006 multidisc “These Days,” separated as it was by genres devoted to rock, ballads, classic country and bluegrass. “With every album Gill releases, it seems the boundaries of what constitutes modern country music are pushed further and further back,” said the Hurst Review in October of “Guitar Slinger,” which featured such guests as Phil Everly, Guy Clark, Bonnie Raitt and Trisha Yearwood.
“He made it all sound seamless,” says Grand Ole Opry announcer and WSM radio personality Eddie Stubbs, who adds that Gill’s success is easily explained. “He’s a timeless artist because he’s the real deal,” Stubbs tells Variety. “His music and songs are genuine, honest and believable, and he’s an artist of great depth.”
“That was the start of my solo career as a country artist,” he says. “I moved to Nashville where I’ve lived ever since.” But Gill was no overnight success. “It took several records, and in the meantime I supported myself as a session musician playing and singing on hundreds of other people’s records. I thought that’d be my real calling.”
In fact, Gill says in 1989 Mark Knopfler approached him with an offer to join Dire Straits as a full-time member. “He wanted me to do their world tour for the next year or so, and I was struggling at the time, so it was very tempting,” he says. “But in the end I felt I had to give my own career a chance, even though I’d been making records for seven years without much success. So I turned down his offer. I felt it would have been like giving up on myself.”
Instead, Gill persevered and his big break finally came with 1990’s “When I Call Your Name.” “That single busted everything wide open, and then it was 10 years of big record sales and crazy fun,” he recalls.
The work and the accolades have piled up since, resulting in 18 studio albums, over 40 singles on the U.S. Billboard charts, more than 26 million albums sold, more Grammys than any country music artist (20), and 18 CMA awards, including two Entertainer of the Year laurels and five Male Vocalist wins.
Friend and collaborator Keb’ Mo’ (born Kevin Moore) first met Gill backstage at a Nashville gig a decade ago. “He just came up an introduced himself — that’s the kind of guy he is,” recalls the blues musician, a three-time Grammy winner himself.
Since then, Moore and Gill have played together at the Grand Ole Opry and various shows and benefits, and last year Gill co-wrote and sang on Moore’s “My Baby’s Telling Lies.” “Yeah, he’s an unbelievably gifted natural musician, but more importantly he’s a truly special person,” adds Moore. “And that comes through in his music.”
While Gill’s long run of multi-platinum albums eventually slowed over the past decade, he points to the past few years as “even more rewarding musically. I got to play all Eric Clapton’s ‘Crossroads’ shows — I’m doing the next one in April in New York — and people got a chance to see me as just a musician, which I loved. And a couple of years ago I joined this western swing band, the Time Jumpers (see story, page xx) and I’m having a blast. And I just collaborated with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti on a killer Randy Newman song, ‘Losing You,’ for Chris’ new album. So while you may not have the chart success you once did, there are other satisfactions.”
Still a big concert draw, Gill has gradually cut back on his live performance schedule and now plays about 60 shows a year. “I love touring — to a point. But after I married (fellow CW artist) Amy (Grant) in 2000, I wanted a family life and a home life, so I’ve found a nice balance between career and home,” he says. “I don’t want to be on the road 340 nights a year anymore.”
The rise of the Internet, the digital revolution and demise of the traditional record companies and business models have also affected Gill’s outlook on the biz. “I personally feel that music has been devalued pretty severely by all the 99-cent download sales of singles you see today,” he says. “That’s offensive to me. That’s exactly what it cost back in the ’50s. Show me something else that’s the same price it was 60 years ago. I bet you can’t.”
At the same time, Gill is no Luddite. “The Internet and all the new technology has changed the music business for the good in many ways,” he admits. “You have this amazing ‘connectability’ with people and fans now, and making an album’s faster and easier than it used to be. You can write a song, put it down and get it out there almost instantly. That’s pretty amazing.”
Other changes have been more drastic, he points out. “I’ve been listening to country music for about 50 years now. It sounds nothing like it used to, that’s for sure. But what’s great about country music is that it kind of meanders out one way, and then it comes back. It always winds up being somewhat circular, and there’ll be a traditional movement back again. I’m rootin’ for one of those!
“The one consistent thing is the music,” he adds. “That transcends all the business side and how the industry works and so on, and looking ahead, I plan to do as much over the next two decades — if not more, musically — than I have to this point. I feel that I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. I play better than I ever have, I sing better now, and I write better songs now. And unlike athletes whose careers are over by 30 or 40, musicians can keep going. And I’ve got a lot of music in me.”
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