Vince Gill - With Forever In Mind

First Published in Country Music International – September 1998

Surfing the Music City wave of fame and fortune on a raft of awards and platinum discs, Vince Gill has had his share of knocks and hard times, the latest being his much-publicised split with wife Janis. Yet he retains the genuine modesty and down-to-earth values that are reflected in his latest and very traditional album The Key. “I’ve got just as many flaws as anyone else,” he confides to Alan Cackett

“I wanted to bring back the sounds that made country great,” says Vince Gill of his new MCA album THE KEY. “Really it’s just me missing the hardcore traditional country music I heard when I was growing up. Many of my albums have been very fragmented; I’ve tried to make this one more of a whole. I really had a clear focus on what kind of songs I wanted to write and how I wanted them to sound.”

In a career that spans the past 25 years and has incorporated bluegrass, West Coast country-rock, soulful balladry, western swing, r&b, and modern, radio-friendly country, Vince Gill has continually rung the changes musically, while consistently maintaining a distinctive sound that is instantly identifiable as his very own. THE KEY marks the first time that Gill has done an entire album of all-originals, and all are staunchly-traditional country songs. His talents as a vocalist, songwriter and guitarist are well-documented by a raft of awards, widespread critical acclaim and praise from his peers. This makes it increasingly difficult to find new adjectives to describe the lanky Oklahoma native. Suffice to say he is one of country music’s biggest stars, with six platinum and two gold albums and a shelf-full of industry awards, including 11 Grammys and a record-setting 17 CMA awards. Yet, despite these accolades, he remains modest and down-to-earth, Nashville’s genuine quintessential nice guy.

“Just because you’re in the public eye doesn’t give you the right to put yourself above other people,” he says. “I realise that I’ve been given a gift that’s special, but that doesn’t make me special. It just means what I can do is special, and therein lies the difference for me.”

What’s engaging about Gill is that the ‘niceness’ seems totally genuine, but universal admiration is bound to elicit a backlash, or at least some salacious gossip, and he has had to put up with numerous I-knew-he-was-too-good-to-be-true  mantras. Tongue-waggers were poised for a Gill fall from grace for months, and rumours persisted of marital problems for several years before the Gills finally split up last year.

Perceived as the most married man in country music, constantly being in the public eye could well have been the main cause for the breakup of his marriage to Janis Oliver, one half of sister act Sweethearts Of The Rodeo. Though the marriage had been under strain behind closed doors for several months before the breakup, when the split finally came it affected Vince deeply.

“I’ve got just as many flaws as anybody else,” he says candidly. “My life’s not perfect, and it has elements that I struggle with. But whatever happens to me I have to close my eyes and sleep at night and live with myself. That’s always gonna be the bottom line for me.” References to the pain and heartache of his marital problems litter the new album, but though songs such as All Those Years and There’s Not Much Love Here Anymore cut to the bone, it is not a downer album. The first single, If You Have Forever In Mind, was inspired by Ray Charles’ evergreen country album, MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY AND WESTERN MUSIC. Gill’s original idea was to get former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald to record a modern country-soul record moulded on Charles’ classic.

“That’s always been one of my all-time favorite albums,” says Gill. “I’ve loved that record since I was a kid. I had the idea to do an album like that, but told my producer, Tony Brown, that it would be great if Michael McDonald did a soulful country record like Ray Charles did in the 1960s. Tony really put me on the spot, and said: ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’”

Gill already had plans to record a more solidly country album, and though drenched in strings, If You Have Forever In Mind, fitted what he had in mind perfectly. Readily admitting that he is very disorganised when it comes to songwriting and recording, Gill tends to arrive at his sessions with scraps of ideas that he, Brown and the session musicians then have to work into the seamless musical arrangements that become the final recording.

“When it comes time to make a record it is quite primitive with me and Tony,” he jokes. “I show up with note pads and I don’t really know the songs real well. I’ve got them on a little boom box, just me and a guitar. We’re playing them, and my tapes are scattered around. It’s very messy and very unrehearsed. That’s my lifestyle.”

Though he gives the impression that his pre-preparation leaves a lot to be desired, Gill does put a great deal of thought into casting the session players and background vocalists who appear on his albums. Besides Patty Loveless, who duets with him on My Kind Of Woman/My Kind Of Man, a number of other guest singers sing harmony on THE KEY. Speaking of appearances by Alison Krauss, Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, Shelby Lynne, Sonya Isaacs, Dawn Sears, Liana Manis, Curtis Young, Billy Thomas and Jeff White, Gill says, “I cast them just as I would an instrument. Different voices are right for different songs.”

The sessions were relaxed affairs, with Gill and Brown guiding, but never directing the musicians. “Tony and I get together and we just pick the songs we like,” he explains. “And that’s the way we play them for the guys when it’s time to learn the songs. We just basically write chord charts and they hear it in this primitive, awful form. Then they go and put their creativity into it. I have my ideas, and we work on those. But I still let them be creative. It makes it a much more community-minded project, when they feel like they’re a part of it.”

A true country gentleman, Gill is highly respected in the music industry, not only as a singer, but as a guitarist, lending his picking talents to projects by dozens of fellow artists. He believes that he gets to sing and play on other artists’ recordings because of his talent, not because of who he is, and he uses that same axiom when it comes to choosing who will play on his own sessions.

“I don’t try to load a record up with famous people,” he explains. “I don’t think that’s the exercise. I really think that every one of those people fits and contributes in a way that is musical and right, and not because of what their name is. I hope that I’ve been used on projects for that reason—I know it wasn’t for so many years—and that’s the reason those people are on my records: because they’re talented, not because they’re famous.”

Even though Gill has now achieved fame and success, and is one of the busiest and hardest-working stars in Nashville, he still finds time to guest on other performers’ recordings, often just as a background guitarist and vocalist. In the past year he has been heard on albums by Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Faith Hill, Ronnie Bowman and several others. “I love it when people ask me to play and sing on their records. That, to me, is what music’s all about—sharing it with people, not hoarding it for yourself.”

Sharing his talent is something that comes naturally to Gill and was instilled in him by his father, a banjo-picking lawyer. He was taught at a very young age that music should be for everyone and not treated as a secret or hidden talent. The new album was not only inspired by his obvious love of traditional country music, but also by the death of his father last year. The title song, The Key To Life is about his father, and includes a reference to Gill’s nostalgia for his father’s banjo playing. “I play this old banjo on that song,” Gill says. “He wasn’t a great player, but he had a kind of rhythm, sound to his playing, and you can hear that on there.”

His father never became a professional musician, but he did impart to his son a love for music and the knowledge that a band leader is only as good as his supporting players. “It’s not all about the star sitting up there on the pedestal while everything around it doesn’t mean anything or is not as important,” says Gill. “I’ve always said that Don Rich was as important to the sound of Buck Owens as Buck Owens. The same goes for the guitar playing of James Burton with Elvis Presley. There are reasons why those songs are hits, and there are reasons why people love those songs.”

“Barry Beckett’s piano intro on When I Call Your Name was as important as my vocal or Patty’s vocal, and it just set the thing. John Hughey’s steel guitar playing on Look At Us did the same. Those things make a big difference. I don’t think people realise it consciously, but I think it registers and it triggers them knowing the record as much as the voice.”

Gill has always been quick to credit Patty Loveless’ vocal contributions to his breakthrough hit, When I Call Your Name, which not only became his first Number One record, but also opened the door for his record-breaking Grammy and CMA awards. Prior to Patty joining him on that record, Gill had actually sung harmony on her first Number One, Timber, I’m Falling in Love, a year earlier.

“Very few times do voices blend like ours, unless maybe they’re family,” he says. “There’s just something magical about it. It’s like George and Tammy or Conway and Loretta. At some point in our career, when everything’s settled down, we might make some duet records together. There’s just something about the way we sing together that’s really magical.”

Reaching the top in his chosen musical profession was not an easy ride for Vince Gill. He has many stories to relate about hard times and hard knocks as he climbed the ranks to the superstar status he enjoys today. Playing small gigs when he and his band all too often outnumbered the audience keeps him well and truly grounded as he is out on the road today playing large auditoriums and stadiums to the thousands. “I feel lucky that I’ve achieved what I've achieved and gotten to do what I've gotten to do—maybe even more so in the years that were lean, in the years that I didn’t have hits,” he reflects.

Many of the songs that Vince has written and sung about have been from personal experience or about people whose lives have touched him in some way or another. The song he is most proud of is Go Rest High On That Mountain, which is probably the least successful record, chart-wise, that he has had since 1990. Written about his brother and inspired by the late Keith Whitley, it won two Grammys and is almost certainly a benchmark in his career.

Connecting with a listener’s innermost emotions is a gift that few artists possess, but Gill has consistently taken personal stories and related them in universal terms. Few are more touching than Pretty Little Adriana. Moved by the random shooting of a 12-year-old Nashville girl, he wrote the song from the perspective of the child’s parents. Though Pretty Little Adriana became a hit song, Gill has steadfastly avoided discussing the true story behind the song, lest he appear to be cashing-in on the tragedy.

“This little girl named Adrianne Dickerson had been shot and killed in a drive-by shooting here in Nashville,” he relates. “I thought her name was pretty, and I just started writing the song, almost from the perspective of what it must be like for her folks.”

The more one talks to this unassuming man, the more it is apparent that music really is a passion for him. Though he has a reputation for taking time off to go and play some rounds of golf, offer him a guitar pull with some songwriting buddies, and he will opt for the latter every time.

“I’m passionate about it,” he concludes. “I worked hard for a lot of years, and I did gigs that I know nobody else has done. It’s so inside of me that that’s the best way I can express myself. I could talk your ear off about it—I just love to hear music and sing it. And to have the ability to do it is a great gift.”