Ordinary Superstar

"There were a lot of farm people in my family, and you just did your work," says Vince Gill. "You didn't stand there and grandstand about it."

That upbringing perhaps helps to explain Gill's unusual modesty. He possesses one of the most heart-tugging tenors in all of music, not to mention enough guitar skills to be a top-level session musician. But chances are Gill would never describe himself in such glowing terms.

Gill grew up in Oklahoma, the youngest of three children born to his father, Stan, an attorney, and mother, Jerene, a homemaker. Neither parent was the sort to let a child get a big head. "My mom made a comment years ago at a show that one of the crew guys was working his butt off," recounts Gill. "She asked me, 'How much money do you make?' I said, 'Oh, about this much.' She said, 'How much does he make?' 'Oh, probably about this.' And she said, 'Well, that's not fair. He does a whole lot more work than you do.'"

It's not that Gill wouldn't be justified in displaying at least a little arrogance. After all, he has won eight Grammys, 17 Country Music Association Awards (including the 1993 and 1994 Entertainer of the Year honors), had four platinum records and more than ten number one singles -- all in just the past eight years. Gill's most recent success is 1996's High Lonesome Sound, an album that delivers its share of familiar Gill moments, including the soaring ballads "Pretty Little Adriana" and "You and You Alone," and the up-tempo country-pop of "A Little More Love." But there are also some surprises, like the bluesy romp "One Dance with You" and "Down in New Orleans," which approximates a fusion of slick Steely Dan pop and Little Feat funkiness. Then, there's "Tell Me Lover," a tune the artist himself describes -- quite accurately, in fact -- as Bo Diddley with a Cajun accent. Some observers have speculated that High Lonesome Sound's new musical wrinkles were a reaction to the singer's fear that his studio work was becoming too formulaic. But Gill warns not to put too much stock in those opinions.

"I'm an artist who's been around for a long time, and that's real typical and natural for people to say, 'Okay, we've heard this; now we've heard it for seven or eight years.' But you could say the same thing about George Strait. When he tries to do something different, everybody jumps all over him. It can be a double-edged sword."

Still, Gill acknowledges, "I'm listening [to the critics], and some of it I pay attention to and some of it I don't. I wanted to be a little different. But at the same time, the sameness that people would speak of, I'm kind of proud of."

Vince Gill's achievements have not come overnight. Interestingly, it wasn't his vocals that first gained him a place in country music. It was his mastery on guitar and other string instruments such as mandolin and banjo. In the '70s, Gill got his foot in the door with stints in Ricky Skaggs's band, Boone Creek, and in Byron Berline's bluegrass group, Sundance. But it was his few years with Pure Prairie League that brought his first taste of success. (It was Gill who sang the group's hit single "Let Me Love You Tonight.") After recording two albums with PPL, Gill opted to replace Albert Lee in the Cherry Bombs -- an outfit comprised mostly of former members of Emmylou Harris's famed Hot Band -- which backed the likes of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash.

Then, finally, in 1984, Gill launched his solo career with RCA Records. The three releases he made for that label generated a few modest hits, but little in the way of career momentum. Many felt his RCA efforts suffered from a lack of focus, as the artist and his label tried to hash out a signature sound that would connect with radio. Still, Gill won't blame RCA.

"I don't look back and point fingers at any of them," he says. "I tried to make the records I thought would work. It just didn't happen. I'm man enough to stand up and say I made them. Most people kind of ignore those years and dismiss them, and there were some good times in there. I had, I think, three Top 10 hits over there at RCA. Shoot, I don't sit there and go, if I could have done this or they wouldn't have made me do this I would have been this. We just tried, and it didn't make it. So let's press on."

And press on is exactly what Gill did -- and then some. With his 1989 debut for MCA, the singer finally had a bona fide solo hit on his hands. The title track, "When I Call Your Name," made it to number one and triggered a winning streak that hasn't let up since. The releases that have followed -- Pocket Full of Gold (1991), I Still Believe in You (1992), When Love Finds You (1994) and High Lonesome Sound -- have all gone platinum and yielded over ten major hits. It shouldn't come as a surprise that to this day, Gill cites "When I Call Your Name" as the song that meant the most to him.

" 'When I Call Your Name' is always going to be my favorite because of what it did, what doors it opened for my career," he says. "I feel like I looked for that song for a long time."

Vince Gill performs at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Astrodome. Tickets are $10 and $12. For info, call 629-3700.

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Alan Sculley