Next Big Thing (MCA)
Kicking off Vince Gill’s new album, Next Big Thing, is the title track, a bouncy rockabilly number that evokes the jittery excitement of a young musician’s first flush of success. The lyrics aim some mild satire at the hype that always surrounds a new star, but the crackling give-and-take of guitars between Gill and co-writer Al Anderson reveals the underlying truth: Few things are as much fun as being a young singer who has connected with a large audience.
Gill should know. The early ’90s may be known as the Garth Brooks Era, but Gill was nearly as big a star. From 1991 to ’95, he charted 15 Top 10 singles, compared to Brooks’ 16; he won the CMA Male Vocalist Award each of those five years and added two CMA Entertainer of the Year Awards to boot. After 1997, though, the singles peaked lower and less often on the charts, and the awards were fewer and further apart.
No big dealit’s a common career trajectory, and that arc forms the context for the best song on Gill’s new album. “Young Man’s Town,” a leisurely barroom lament, finds him crooning, “You wake up one morning, and it’s passing you by.... You feel like an old memory hangin’ ’round. Man, you gotta face itit’s a young man’s town.” This is one of those country-music-ain’t-like-it-used-to-be songs, the easiest cliché of the past 10 years. While a handful rise to the level of inspired satiremost notably Bobby Braddock’s “Billy B. Bad” and Larry Cordle’s “Murder on Music Row”most of these songs are as hackneyed as the crossover-pop they pretend to outclass. “Young Man’s Town” is different. It’s marked by a subtle ambivalence that’s unusual not only for “new country” but for traditional country as well. Sure, the singer regrets losing the fame he once had, but he’s honest enough to realize that that’s part of the game. With an implied shrug of the shoulders, Gill sings, “Why bitch and moan and say they’ve done you wrong? Just teach ’em what you know and pass it on down.”
What’s fascinating about this performance is the honky-tonk persona Gill adopts for his weary vocal and his laconic guitar figure, as if he were a dancehall veteran like George Jones and Merle Haggard bewildered by all these apple-cheeked suburban hat acts. But Gill was never a hard-core honky-tonker; his solo career has always been about crossover country-pop. Yet here is proof that he could have built upon his bluegrass beginnings and matured into as fine a trad-country singer as anyone in his generation.
But in the mid-’80s, Gill made a conscious decision to take another path. He turned away from the hillbilly roots of one employer (Ricky Skaggs) and from the Beatle-esque/Dylan-esque ambitions of two other employers (Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash). He took aim instead at a strain of tasteful country-pop that allowed college-educated country fans to indulge their sentimentality without feeling embarrassed by it. Gill was very good at this, but what he gained in hits, he paid for in diminished substance.
So perhaps the mood of “Young Man’s Town” has as much to do with lost chances as with lost fame. Few musicians are as talented as Gillas a singer-picker, he’s a combination of Alan Jackson and Mark Knopflerand yet he has made few enduring records. Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, just published by Vanderbilt University Press, finds no room in its list for any of Gill’s solo singles, and it’s hard to argue with that choiceat least on this point. Gill’s singles have always been enjoyable but never have they broken new ground or sounded new depths.
Much of the press coverage of Gill’s first new album in three years has focused on the effort to restore the Oklahoma-born singer to superstar status. That’s unlikely to happen, given the artist’s own admission that it’s a “Young Man’s Town.” The more compelling story is Gill’s quest to reclaim some of the artistic potential he displayed in the early ’80s and then frittered away.
That’s why he launched a money-losing tour of medium-sized clubs this winter. That’s why he dragged his old honky-tonk moves out of the attic. That’s why he came up with his own variation on Alan Jackson’s “Drive” in the form of “Whippoorwill River.” That’s why he wrote such richly ambivalent songs as “She Never Makes Me Cry,” “From Where I Stand” and “Young Man’s Town.”
But Gill still can’t quite overcome his lifelong habit of placating radio programmers. It’s as if he couldn’t quite decide what kind of record to makea Mark Wills album or a Buddy Miller albumso he made both. Put them together, and Next Big Thing becomes a very long (17 tracks in all), very schizoid project.
Gill sounds just like Miller when he’s paying honky-tonk tribute to Merle Haggard (“Real Mean Bottle”) and Waylon Jennings (“You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody”) and when he’s singing the hell out of the thinly disguised soul ballad, “From Where I Stand.” But then he turns around and sounds just like Wills on such maudlin, over-the-top ballads as “Someday” (co-written with Richard Marx) and such breezy fluff as “Don’t Let Her Get Away.” How can Gill play such sparkling honky-tonk guitar licks on “The Sun’s Gonna Shine on You” and then arrange “We Had It All” as a Tex-Mex number with all the authenticity of a Taco Bell franchise?
If the story of Gill’s career is the tension between his terrific talent and his commercial compromises, Next Big Thing doesn’t resolve that conflict so much as it heightens it. For the album contains plenty of strong evidence for both sides. Buddy Miller fans could edit it down to a very satisfying 10-track disc, and Mark Wills fans could do the same, though it would be mostly different songs. But it’s the juxtaposition of those different styles, jostling each other as if on a crowded bus, that provides the best insight into Gill’s odd position in country music.
He was a crucial member of the 1980s movement that saw country-pop as a way to fuse Johnny Cash and The Beatles, the Louvin Brothers and Bob Dylan. Gill was a member of The Cherry Bombs, the group that backed both Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, and he sang harmonies in the studio behind Patty Loveless, Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris (who returns the favor on Gill’s new album). Gill could have been the figurehead who led that movement into the ’90s when the original leaders began to fade. He could have been the standard-bearer for the kind of literate storytelling and meaty chord changes that this tight-knit group specialized in.
But when Garth Brooks came along and turned country-pop into something entirely differenta way to fuse Conway Twitty and Dan Fogelberg, Hank Williams Jr. and KISSGill didn’t lead the resistance. Instead, he was first in line to sign up. The decision made him a very famous and very wealthy man, but it left his earliest fans wondering what might have been. Gill seems to be wondering himself, for regret fills his vocal in “Young Man’s Town” when he sings, “There’s nothing you can do when the fields have turned brown.”
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