Vince Gill wowed an audience of country radio professionals in Nashville this week with an unrecorded song about sexual assault, “Forever Changed.” And although the lyrics are sung by a third party to an abuser about a girl’s molestation, Gill explained that he’d only gradually come to realize that the trigger for writing the tune may have been his own frightening first-person experience with a gym teacher as a teen.
The opening lyrics: “You put your hands where they don’t belong/And now her innocence is dead and gone/She feels dirty, she feels ashamed/Because of you, she’s forever changed/Too afraid to tell someone/You might as well have just used a gun/She cries for Jesus to ease the pain/Because of you, she’s forever changed…”
The occasion was the annual Universal Music Group Nashville artists’ showcase that takes place at the Ryman Auditorium for attendees of Country Radio Seminar, which draws roughly 2,000 programmers and DJs to Music City every February. At the invite-only Ryman gig, stars like Luke Bryan and Keith Urban perform acoustic versions of their current or future singles. The exceptions each year are Chris Stapleton and Gill, who both prefer to surprise the industry crowd with unreleased songs from their respective back catalogs. In Gill’s case, a lot of moved attendees felt the singer should consider moving “Forever Changed” up to the front burner.
“You come up here and get to sing one song, and you go, what the hell you gonna sing?” said Gill, 60, after thanking the radio crowd for their support in the 44 years since he first made a record. “I think that the greatest way to live is to welcome the moment that you’re in and the time frame that you’re in. I chose this song that I wrote some years ago, and never really knew where the song came from, other than… We’re living in a time right now when finally people are having the courage to kind of speak out about being abused. And I think that is beyond healthy, and beyond beautiful, to see people finally have a voice for being wronged. And maybe this song came from a personal experience for me.
“I was in seventh grade, and a young, dumb kid,” he continued. “And I had a gym teacher that acted inappropriately towards me and was trying to do things that I didn’t know what the hell was going on. And I was just fortunate that I got up and I ran. I just jumped up and I ran. I don’t know why. And I don’t think I ever told anybody my whole life. But maybe what’s been going on has given me a little bit of courage to speak out, too. I’m going to sing you this song that was inspired by all the people that are…” He let the thought trail off as he began picking out the introductory licks, but the cultural moment didn’t require much elaboration.
Some Gill fans remember that the singer has told of his junior high experience before, in a 2014 Rolling Stone interview. A few hardcore fans might have known that “Forever Changed” was not getting its official premiere at CRS: He’d sung it in December, also at the Ryman, as part of his annual Christmas residency with wife Amy Grant. But those performances may have gotten lost in the holiday shuffle. Gill reportedly told fellow performers backstage that he has no plans to record the song, but the Country Radio Seminar audience clearly saw it as a hit — to the solar plexus, at least, for starters.