Vince Gill is one of those country artists whose reputation extends far beyond his music. I may not be able to readily throw out the names of more than a handful of his many hits, but I know he can smoke on the guitar. Also, he’s married to Amy Grant. And he was the singer for Pure Prairie League for a short time. Beyond that, I admit that my CD collection has a serious Vince Gill deficiency, but I own and love his 4-disc album, These Days. That’s right, not a greatest-hits collection but an actual 4-disc set of new material, spread across several difference styles of music. You’ve got to respect someone who’s that prolific and has that much musical flexibility. When I heard that Gill and Grant were coming to the Ted Constant Convocation Center on one of their occasional Christmas tours, I made the pitch to The Virginian-Pilot to try and talk to one of them. I admit to being pleased that I ended up pulling a interview with Gill. Not that Grant’s not great – even before she made her secular-music mark with “Baby, Baby,” I was already a fan of “Love Will Find A Way” – but…I dunno, I was just more intrigued about the idea of talking to Gill. Especially after I got some good tips on interview topics from my Facebook friends.
Vince Gill: Brother Will?
News Reviews Interviews: Yes, sir!
VG: Hey, this is Vince!
NRI: How are you?
VG: I’m good, buddy! What’s happening?
NRI: Nothing much. It’s a pleasure to talk to you!
VG: Aw, thanks!
NRI: Well, this is obviously not your first Christmas tour, but when did you and your wife first have the idea to do a Christmas tour like this?
VG: Golly, well, you know, Amy and I first met through Christmas music, in ’93, so it’s something that’s pretty near and dear to us, ‘cause it kind of started our friendship. I was always her guest at a Christmas show she did every year for the symphony in Nashville, but then, of course, she would occasionally tour, I would occasionally tour. Then after we got married, we wound up deciding to just kind of combine our efforts and do a Christmas tour from time to time. We toured last year, and we’re gonna tour this year, but we won’t tour next year, so…I guess we just kind of pick and choose. Some years we’ll go out and do a tour, and some years we won’t. But it’ll be fun. We played last year and had a great time, and a lot of the same folks are coming out with us this year, so I’m looking forward to it.
NRI: You said you guys first met through Christmas music. What’s the story there?
VG: I was doing a Christmas special for TNN (The Nashville Network), and I needed guests, and…I remember I invited her and Chet Atkins and Michael McDonald were my guests. So that’s how we first met. And she said, “Well, hey, I’ll do your Christmas special, but I’m actually doing a benefit for the symphony. Will you do my show?” I said, “Sure!” It’s the one I mentioned that benefits the Nashville Symphony and kind of helps them to keep from having to shut down. So we’ve wound up doing that every year ever since. [Laughs.]
NRI: And pulled a lifetime booking in the process.
VG: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess I did!
NRI: So when you two tour together…I mean, although you’re married, you obviously don’t always work together in a musical capacity. Was there any hesitation when you first tried touring together like this?
VG: Oh, no. It’s just so much fun, ‘cause…it’s an interesting stretch of time we get to spend together, you know, because we really have no responsibilities during the day. [Laughs.] We just kind of lounge around and wait for the shows to happen! So it’s a chance for us to spend some really neat time together, and at the end of the day…it’s a little hard on the family as far as getting the kids’ Christmas shopping done from far away, and then to wind up home two or three days before Christmas starts, that makes it a little chaotic. But it’s kind of a neat way for us to…I mean, we were apart a lot this fall. Between the first of September and the end of Thanksgiving, we were apart 70 nights. She was out touring with Michael W. Smith, and I was out promoting my new record, so we were running and gunning and going at it pretty hard. So I think we’re looking forward to just getting to spend some time together.
NRI: Talking about Christmas shopping on the road, has there been any particular unique holiday gift that you’ve been able to pick up during the course of these tours?
VG: [Laughs.] I don’t think so. I don’t remember, anyway. You know, it’s funny: these days, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Everybody’s got the same stores where you can buy the same stuff.
NRI: So what kind of a set list do you do at the shows? Do you throw in a couple of your respective hits in addition to the Christmas music?
VG: We occasionally do. Some years it winds up being all Christmas music. You know, we’re starting Wednesday on this thing, and we haven’t rehearsed yet, so I’m not sure we even know what’s going to turn up this year! We’ll do a few things different than we did last year. She remembers better than I do. I’m not sure I remember what we did last year. But we’ll figure it out this weekend, or we’ll be out there having fun, figuring it out as we go.
NRI: You’ve both done Christmas albums. Do you tend to fall back on material from those, or are there just some standards that you haven’t touched on in the past that you throw into the set?
VG: I think we’ll do a bit of both. We have done a few things in years past that neither one of us recorded. We started doing the really fun duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” because, you know, everybody does it. [Laughs.] In fact, I just did it on a Christmas special a few weeks ago with Miss Piggy! So that was a real thrill for me. But, yeah, you know, I think everybody really likes the familiarity of this time of year, so, percentage-wise, we’ll probably end up doing more of the traditional things than maybe our hits or newer or more obscure stuff. I think everybody likes the warm and fuzzy feeling of hearing [Sings.] “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Things like that. It just makes you feel good. Or it does me, anyway. When I reach for a record and put in this kind of music this time of year, I’m always reaching for Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis or those kinds of folks singing those great standards.
NRI: To talk about your non-holiday work for a bit, I’m a big fan of These Days.
VG: Thank you!
NRI: I’m just really impressed with…well, just from a conceptual standpoint, the fact that you knocked out a new album turned out to be a four-disc set.
VG: You know, I finished that album, and my greatest fear was that, after those 43 songs over four different CDs, people were gonna hear them and their comment was going to be, “11 would’ve been plenty.” [Laughs.]
NRI: Still, I’d think it must’ve been pretty cathartic to knock out so many different styles of music over the course of those songs.
VG: Yeah, I think it was. I think… I feel like I’ve probably always done that, but never in that quantity, I guess. So it gave me a really neat freedom where if, say, you were dabbling with a jazzy kind of song like “Faint of Heart,” which I did with Diana Krall, you had the room to go all the way in there and really make it authentic. But if you’ve got a song with 10 or 11 slots on it…a song like that may not make it on a regular record, but with something like These Days, you’ve got so much more freedom. And I found it to be easily the most creative stretch I ever went through.
NRI: There’s a review of it on AllMusic.com that’s really in-depth, and…well, actually, I just said to somebody today that just reading that review would be enough to intrigue just about any open-minded music fan, whether they’d necessarily call themselves a country music fan or not.
VG: Yeah, I think so, too, ‘cause…it’s very far from being a country record. There’s one disc on there that you would probably perceive as a country record, and the other three are not. There’s one that’s kind of Americana bluegrass-y record, and the two others, one’s a much more ballad-y, romantic record, and the other’s got a lot of up-tempo fun stuff with guitar-playing. So, yeah, there’s a country record in there, but I don’t know that I’d deem the whole thing a country record, ‘cause I don’t think it is.
NRI: Given the intimidating nature of that release, did it have anything to do with the amount of time between that record and Guitar Slinger.
VG: No. [Laughs.] I don’t think so, anyway.
NRI: “We want five discs now, Vince!”
VG: Yeah, I told them that, in honor of the woman who had eight babies – Octo-Mom or whatever – I’d do one called Octo-Vinnie with eight discs. [Laughs.] You know, that may have seemed unique, but it felt like the right thing to do then. Maybe it was a one-time thing, or maybe I’ll do it again and go in four completely different directions from that one. I’ve always been a musician, and there’s all kinds of music that I’ve learned how to play and know how to execute, so just because I’ve kind of made my way through country music, I don’t see myself as a country music artist as much as I do an artist or a musician. So I think that it’s gonna be fun to see what turns up for me in the years to come, ‘cause I put a studio in my house, and I wound up waiting to start my new record ‘til I finished the studio, and it wound up taking forever to finish, and on and on and on. So that’s one reason that record took forever to get out.
NRI: I watched a clip of you on 1990 where you’re tearing it up on a Telecaster, and at the end of the performance, you made a comment about how you learned quite a lot from the Roy Clark handbook.
VG: [Bursts out laughing.] I love Roy Clark! I went to see him as a kid, and he was a great showman. He was a really fine entertainer. And a pretty darned good musician, too.
NRI: Well, the great punchline that you gave was that the book didn’t actually teach you how to play anything. It just offered a whole bunch of facial expressions…
VG: …to make it look hard. [Laughs.] He was the master of that, boy. He could tell you what he was playing just by the faces he would make. You know, I say that in jest, but underneath it all, he was a really talented musician. And still is.
NRI: So how did you enjoy doing the Crossroads special with Sting?
VG: That was one of the funnest things I ever did in my life. Absolutely. To stand next to the guy who sang, wrote, and recorded “Every Breath You Take” and all those others, I just…I mean, there are certain times when you just pinch yourself and go, “How did this happen? What the heck is going on?” And that was one of those moments. He’s extremely iconic and savagely talented, and it was really fun. It was intense, because you had to…you can’t just phone that in, you know? You’ve gotta really be on your game. And I think it was equally intense for both of us and equally as much fun for both of us to delve into somebody else’s music a lot deeper than maybe you normally would or do. But it was a gas. My band just absolutely killed it. My band was our band, along with his guitar player, Dominique Miller. And we just had the best time working up those songs. It was just really fun.
NRI: Of course, this isn’t your first interaction with British musicians. In fact, you were – at least, reportedly, anyway – once asked to join Dire Straits.
VG: I was. Back in ’89, ’90, somewhere in there.
NRI: How did that come about?
VG: Mark (Knopfler) was just a fan of what I did. He knew of my playing, and…he had to have known of my playing, ‘cause none of my records had really blown up in a way that anyone would’ve ever heard ‘em. [Laughs.] In hindsight, I still wish I could’ve done that. At the time, I was changing record labels, and I was kind of starting to get a second chance, so to speak, with a new company and some fresh faces and whatnot. I told him, “I want to do this. In fact, I need to do this, ‘cause I’m pretty much broke!” [Laughs.] “This would be a great thing for me. But if I do it, I feel like I’m kind of bailing on what I’ve been doing, and I don’t think I want to admit to myself that I couldn’t do this. I don’t think I can quit. I don’t think I can turn my back on this. I’ve tried too hard, and I really think I have something to offer this world of country music.” And, you know, the smart money would’ve said, “Go do that, you need the money.” But I turned it down just on my own stubbornness. And it paid off. But I was just lucky. [Laughs.]
NRI: Are you ever surprised when somebody outside of the country genre suddenly announces themselves as a fan of your work? For instance, I always think back to the first time I found out about Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, where I was, like, “Wow, Elvis likes country music? That never would’ve occurred to me.”
VG: Yeah, that’s funny that you mention him, ‘cause he’s actually a really good friend of mine, along with his wife, Diana (Krall). He played at the Opry some years ago, and I was on the side of the stage, and…I knew him, and somebody was grousing, “What’s he doing on the Grand Ol’ Opry? He’s not country,” and blah blah blah. And I turned to him, and I said, “I’m gonna tell you something. First of all, I’ll be you anything you want to bet that he knows more about our music than you do. And I know you’ve spent your life doing it. This guy’s a student and a massive fan of our music.” I thought it was really cool that he was on the Opry. But, y’know, I always think that musical people are just drawn to other musical people, and they don’t have the perceptions or the definitions of what someone is. Although I must say that it surprised me when Eric Clapton called me and asked me to come play at the Crossroads festival. But it just helped reaffirm the belief in myself that that’s what he saw in me: a musician. Not a country singer, but a musician. And I really think that’s the way most musicians are. I don’t care that the music’s jazz or pop or bluegrass. A gifted musician is a gifted musician, and they’re always fun to be around.
NRI: You were talking about the Dire Straits thing and being in a band. You’d certainly been in bands before – you were in the Pure Prairie League, of course, and I believe you were part of the Cherry Bombs at one point.
NRI: Now that you are secure in your status as a successful country music artist, would you consider revisiting the band thing someday?
VG: Oh, I would think so. You know, I think the sky’s the limit right now, and I think even my history or discography or whatever you want to call it would still bear that out. Even in the best years of my country career, I was still doing off-the-wall things with different people. Different genres of music, certainly. So that’s always felt that way to me, but, yeah, even more so, I thought it’d be fun to have one of those really cool bands like the Traveling Wilburys, where you go and find some different people who might enjoy making a record together. So I’m ‘bout up for anything. [Laughs.] I’ll show up.
NRI: Have you got a favorite album from your back catalog that didn’t necessarily get the love you thought it deserved?
VG: I don’t think so. Not really, no. I never did let the results have too much of an impact on me, I guess. There’s always been times that I would wind up disappointed. I think that’s human nature, and that’s fair if your record didn’t get played or didn’t go up the charts or whatever. I think the hardest thing to come to grips with doing this is…it’s like a conversation with somebody. And at some point, the conversation doesn’t come back to you anymore like it used to. I guess that’s the hardest thing to figure out. But all in all, I don’t think there’s anything I did that I think the whole world is missing out on. [Laughs.] No regrets.
NRI: Lastly, with the Pure Prairie League, I think “Let Me Love You Tonight” is the signature song from your era with the band, but is there any other song that you did with them, one that people might not remember, that stands out for you as something they ought to check out?
VG: I don’t think so. I felt like those years were my infant years, in a sense, and my songs were not very good, and I didn’t know how to sing yet. I was young, and I played way too much, and I wasn’t subtle. I go listen to that stuff, and it…it’s gratifying because I see I improved. [Laughs.] I see that I got better. But, listen, that was such a fun time for me. It was a great learning experience. Learning about playing in front of big crowds, a big rock ‘n’ roll audience, with spotlights and people holding their lighters in the air in the dark. Man, that was an unbelievably rewarding experience for me, and I wouldn’t trade that for nothing. But at the end of the day, I don’t really look at the music that I made and wrote and whatnot as being a whole lot. It was the best I had at that time, the best I knew how to do at that time, but – at least to my brain – I don’t think I’ve gotten anything but better. And I’m grateful for that. [Laughs.]