Nobody seems less worried about Vince Gill's chances of continuing to chart country hits than Vince Gill. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that he's seen what big songs can do for a career, and that he knows he's still delivering high-quality performances. (In fact, there are some on his new album, Guitar Slinger.)
"Well, I'm not gonna go try to be what the [popular] thing is at current mainstream radio," says Gill good-naturedly. "I can't change what I am and how I do things just to try to accomplish that, because, you know, there's a whole lot of that that's not very appealing. So yeah, I am gonna be much further down on ... the totem pole of current radio airplay and things like that. ...I'm just doing what I feel like is some really fine work. Whether the results are No. 1 records and up the charts and those kinds of things, I don't think that's really the exercise. ... Whether everybody buys it or nobody buys it, none of the music changes. That's not why it's great, just because a lot of people bought it."
He adds, "I'm OK. I'm at a good place."
Not that being at a good place is new for Gill. Long before he hit the commercial sweet spot of the 1990s with country ballads like "I Still Believe in You," he'd already covered more territory than most people do in an entire career. He sang, he picked, he wrote, and he was in his element regardless of whether the setting was pop rock, California country rock, neotraditional country, bluegrass or something else besides.
There's visual proof of Gill cultivating camaraderie with music-makers of various styles, generations and levels of fame in the video he made for his first No. 1, "Don't Let Our Love Start Slipping Away." The camera spotlights a motley group of musicians backing him onstage, including — but by no means limited to — Delbert McClinton, Leon Russell, Pam Tillis, Kevin Welch, Kelly Willis, Little Jimmy Dickens and The Kentucky Headhunters.
Says Gill, "In all those heydays of massive hits and selling millions of records, I was part of the process — I wasn't the reason. I had a great steel guitar player in John Hughey, that made 'Look at Us' great. I had a great intro on 'When I Call Your Name' by Barry Beckett [and] Patty Loveless singing harmony, which made it great. So it's always been that kind of democratic mentality ... at the forefront of anything I've done. You ask anybody that has known me before. ...I think most people would tell you I'm pretty much the same guy."
They'd be telling the truth. Gill remains the rare country superstar in town who regularly shows appreciation for the sorts of musicians who sweat it out in clubs. And he is, in all likelihood, the only person on earth who's a natural fit for a Monday night Western swing gig at The Station Inn, an album by roots rocker Will Hoge (Gill contributed an acoustic guitar solo) and the job of CMA Awards host, which he held for a dozen years. Plus, in honor of the public role Gill has embraced over and above that of performer, Mayor Karl Dean recently declared a week in mid-October "Vince Gill Week."
Guitar Slinger happens to be the first album Gill has released since his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Did that change anything? "I don't think so," he says. "I think more than anything, I feel compelled now to go earn it."
That Gill feels that way even after attaining country music's highest honor is as notable as his present peace of mind about radio. "I want to buckle down and do the majority of my work while I really still have my faculties in great shape," he says. "I don't think I've ever sung better, I don't think I've ever played better, and I know I've never written as good of songs as I am these days. So while maybe all those things go a little more unnoticed by the mainstream, it doesn't lessen the fact that I know I'm better than I have been. So that's motivation in itself, to know that you're getting better at what you're doing."
Gill's new album gives people no reason to pine for his good-old hit-making days. It's a pleasure hearing a multitalented musician, burnished singer and straight-to-the-heart songwriter like him doing everything he wants to do — be it mellow, modern R&B or a steel guitar-showcasing ¾-time weeper — and nowadays, bringing a lot more life experience to bear. "I think you should write different songs at 54 than you did at 24 or 34 or whatever," he says with a chuckle. "I've been kicked in the head a few times over the years."
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needs more candlelight! i like this song.