Every interview with Vince Gill is punctuated by frequent laughter. Not only is he the most honored man in country music, with 20 Grammys and a garage–full of Nashville industry awards, he’s really, really funny.
He’s also refreshingly candid. In a business where humility is usually just something an artist pulls out of a drawer to wear in public, Gill is the original nice guy who, beating the odds, finished first. Since his career began, in the early ‘80s, he’s sold 26 million albums. In 2007, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Oklahoma native believes in giving back, and has sponsored and/or given his time to dozens of charities, both in and out of Nashville, where he lives with his second wife, Contemporary Christian vocalist Amy Grant and their 10–year–old daughter.
Although they maintain separate careers (“we don’t want to become Sonny and Cher,” he says), Gill and Grant go on the road together every holiday season. Their show The 12 Days of Christmas visits the Johnny Mercer Theatre Dec. 11.
Gill, 54, has just released Guitar Slinger, his 17th album, the first since 2006’s four–CD box These Days. That collection, which won the Grammy for Best Country Album, consisted of 43 songs spanning a cross–section of musical styles, from bluegrass and country to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
At the forefront, always, is Gill’s pure, high tenor voice and astonishing skills as both an acoustic and electric guitarist.
“Vince has so much talent and he’s so loveable, so sweet, so unassuming, you love him with all your heart,” says his friend Rodney Crowell. “Then you want to break his fingers ‘cause he’s so damn good.”
The Christmas tour comes at the end of yet another busy and productive year for Gill – along with finishing up Guitar Slinger, he hosted a Hall Of Fame benefit at which he performed with Zac Brown, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris, he and Sting taped an episode of Country Music Television’s groundbreaking Crossroads together, he produced the new LeAnn Rimes album and he cut a song for the astonighingly rich new CD This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark.
Last month, he donated $12,000 to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame to build an interactive children’s exhibit.
Yet somehow, he found time to pose, with Grant and a big tray of sugar cookies, for the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine’s Christmas issue.
You’re Grand Marshall of this year’s Nashville Christmas parade. And there you are on the cover of Good Housekeeping, wearing a Santa cap. And inside is this warm and fuzzy story. Is Christmas really that big a deal to you?
Vince Gill: Probably more so for Amy. To be perfectly honest. She’s so good at it – I’m ridin’ her coattails. I’m out there being her guitar player and singing a few songs, too, but she absolutely adores this time of year. I’m a guy – I don’t have a Santa hat, and I’m not baking any cookies. It’s a Good Housekeeping myth! I’ve been taking so much heat from my buddies – I’ll get a call, ‘Hey, I didn’t know that you were the cookie connoisseur that you are!’ And ‘You’ve never touched a vacuum!’
What happens in this Christmas show?
Vince Gill: Well, we all sit around and adore Amy.
Like I said, she loves this a tad bit more than I do, but it’s a great time of year for us to be together and travel, and get to do something that really can connect our audience, because I think our audiences are probably pretty different. I joke all the time – I say our audiences are the same. I get ‘em liquored up Saturday night, and you save ‘em on Sunday morning.
Because of the structure of the show, the music transcends any kind of genres – it’s just Christmas music, and everybody can come and hear these great old songs and have a good night.
There are some people from my band, and some from Amy’s band. There’s some reading that goes on, and we have a horn section, the Sapphire Blue Horns. They’re viciously talented. So it’s Big Band–minded, but it’s pretty laid–back. It’s pretty but it’s not over the top.
So why the Christmas parade?
Vince Gill: I’m crazy about the mayor, Carl Dean. He’s a great guy and he asked me to do it, and has in the past, but because of touring and whatever I couldn’t do it. He’s maybe the biggest flag–waver for our town and our music that we’ve ever had. Politics aside, he’s strictly a good person and he’s got a good heart and he’s out there doing a good thing.
Did you lose a lot of stuff in the 2010 floods?
Vince Gill: Yeah, I did. I think the count might be around 50 guitars, 60 old cases – sometimes the cases might be worth more than the guitars – 30 or 40 old amps, stuff I picked up around all over, my whole life. Half a million dollars worth of stuff.
The interesting thing was, my daughter was getting married five or six days later, so as sad as it felt it didn’t make a dent. I kind of thought, “My daughter’s getting married on Saturday – this is just stuff.” I loved this stuff, and this stuff had a great life, it played on these records and all that, it was difficult. But at the same time, I moved on.
Do you ever get tired of being called ‘the nice guy’ all the time? Ever want to say ‘buzz off, I don’t feel like it’?
Vince Gill: I probably would’ve if I felt that way, but you know what? At the end of the day, I like feeling normal. I like being normal. It’s funny to me that people are surprised when you’re nice. What a sad belief system we have on ourselves, you know? If you’re shocked that I’m nice.
To me, it’s easy. It’s very easy to be nice. And I like people. I like having conversations with people, I like strangers. I don’t care what you do, I don’t care of you’re the President or you cut the grass, you’re all the same to me. I know that in my heart; I don’t really operate with any kind of pecking order or that kind of stuff. I don’t like preferential treatment – if there’s a line and they say “We’ll move you up to the front,” I’ll say nope, I’ll just wait my turn. I like normal.
Were you always that way?
Vince Gill: I was horrible as a child! No, I’ve always been pretty easygoing. People that have known me my whole life will all tell you pretty straight–up I haven’t changed. I like saying that I ignored my failures and I ignored my success.
Did you always have a singular career vision?
Vince Gill: I always knew I was gonna do this. The most comforting thought is that I didn’t care what the results were gonna be. I didn’t care if I was in some Holiday Inn six nights a week, or in front of a million people. I just wanted to play. I know I would do it no matter what, because when I was just playing and maybe making 15 or 20 bucks a night, trying like hell to pay the rent, I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. There wasn’t any part of that where I went ‘I can’t do this any more. If I don’t make some more money...’ It never felt like that to me once.
Between the stylistic changes on These Days, your TV show with Sting and the varied sessions you’ve played on, it seems to me that genres just don’t mean anything to you. Is that a pretty fair assessment?
Vince Gill: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I viciously support country music, and will to the day that I die. It helped me more than anything I’ve ever known, and I have a great love for it, probably a first love. But I really like the traditional side of it.
At the same time, I’ve always felt just like a musician that just wanted to play. I didn’t care what it was. Everybody else may have, but I sure didn’t.
After you started having all those hits, in the ’80s and ’90s, was there a feeling of “Well, I’m locked into this now – I’m a country artist”?
Vince Gill: With a straight face, I don’t think so because even as all that was going on, I didn’t stop doing all the other things that I did. I didn’t stop playing on other people’s records, I didn’t stop being a guitar player that liked to play the blues. I never stopped any of those things.
And even on those records in the heyday of having hits, you’d find an off–the–wall tune in each of them, that would allow me to be not just one thing. There’s only one record that I ever made that I felt was a really pointed, traditional–minded record from start to finish, The Key. And all the rest I think were all over the map.
But what’s interesting to me is, even as successful as those years were, I listen to those records versus the records I make today, and I don’t think they compare. My ears tell me what I’m doing now is so much better.
Is that one of the reasons you did These Days as a mix of styles?
Vince Gill: Well, that was an accident, in all honesty. I had a big satchel full of songs, and they were all over the map – jazz, bluegrass, whatever – and I just said “I’m tired of seeing songs I’ve written, that don’t make it on a record, never get out of a desk drawer.”
There was no rush for a record from me. The standard joke is “Nobody was beating down my door to get it.” So there wasn’t any big hurry. And I looked up, and I’d recorded 25 or 30 songs – uh–oh! Now what am I gonna do?
I started analyzing it and looking at it and I thought “If I took this batch of songs, I could have a really traditional country record. If I took this batch of songs, I could have a really cool romantic record ....” It unfolded. It never was intentional. So I think that’s what made it even more honest.
It was your All Things Must Pass.
Vince Gill: I guess! Sans the beard.
I assume These Days was a hard act to follow. What did Guitar Slinger represent to you?
Vince Gill: You know what? At the end of the day, I think these songs are better. The album title’s probably a little misleading. As I’ve talked to people and seen them react, they go “Where’s all the guitar playing?” And I go “Well .... there’s a song called ‘Guitar Slinger.’ It’s got a great sense of humor.’”
There’s more guitar playing than usual for me, but even when it’s more for me it’s maybe not enough for most people to deem that title.
Why are the songs better?
Vince Gill: I don’t know – I’m older. I should be a better songwriter tomorrow than I am today.
What happens next for you – after your Grand Marshall gig, after the Christmas tour and after you bake all those cookies?
Vince Gill: I’m going to be creative, whatever way, shape or form that shows up. I don’t really know, I just kinda like the moment, and I play what fits in the moment.
I have a studio in my house, and I’m without a record deal for the first time in 32 years. I feel like Willie Nelson is a great mentor for me in what he’s done in the last 15 or 20 years. He’s probably done more in those years than he did in his heyday, doing different projects. So I’m looking forward to really having some fun.
Vince Gill & Amy Grant
The 12 Days of Christmas
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11
Tickets: $39.50–$69.50 at etix.com