Country Music

Vince Gill, the Conscience of Country Music

When Eddie Rabbitt abruptly canceled his appearance at the 1983 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, rodeo officials called in a little-known country singer and bona-fide cowboy from San Marcos named George Strait. He rode into the arena on a horse, and before even singing a note sealed his spot in RodeoHouston history. But also pinch-hitting for Rabbitt that day was Rosanne Cash, still flush from the success of “Seven Year Ache,” and in her band happened to be an Oklahoma-born guitarist named Vince Gill. An A&R scout from RCA Records was also there that night, and signed Gill to his first major-label record deal.

“It was a fun night for me,” Gill says from his home in Nashville. “Made a lifelong friend in George and got a record deal all in the same night.”

Now 58, Gill notes he has a “long, neat” history with Houston, which will continue Thursday night on the Arena Theatre’s rotating stage. He first came here as the lead singer of country-tinged light-rock band Pure Prairie League, and says he remembers how bad Gilley’s smelled.

“One of my forgettable evenings of being overserved was spent in Houston,” he chuckles.

More than 30 years later, Gill's credentials are impeccable. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, has sold more than 26 million albums, and could fill a couple of golf carts with all the Grammy, ACM and CMA trophies he’s won; plus a couple of more for all his humanitarian awards. Like Brad Paisley a generation before him, he can trade lick for lick with the most serious session cats in Music City, and be charismatic enough to play witty and gracious emcee of the CMA Awards, which he hosted or co-hosted from 1992 to 2003. And some of his hit songs — “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” “I Still Believe In You,” “Liza Jane,” “When I Call Your Name,” among many others — are as good as country music gets.

These days Gill can do what he wants, so he makes records like 2013’s Bakersfield, a tribute to the rockin’ twang sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard; or the Time Jumpers, the old-timey hillbilly-swing outfit he started in 1998 with about a dozen of Nashville’s other top session players. (They played Stagecoach, California’s top country-music festival, this year.) The day we called, he had just finished producing the next solo album by Ashley Monroe, a member of Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies, which he says is “pretty of-the-hook good”; was three-quarters of the way through the next Time Jumpers record; had recently recorded a tune for an upcoming Roger Miller tribute album; sang on young buck David Nail’s new record; and just tracked a session with jazz pianist Bob James; all in the name of “trying to stay creative.” He’s also one of Nashville highest-profile golfers, but — incredibly — Gill has never played a round with maybe the one country musician who loves the links more than he does.

“I think it's because I'm not a partaker of Willie's Reserve,” he laughs. “The contact high might be too much for me. Could you imagine how much I'd weigh if I hung out with Willie all the time?”

All kidding aside, Gill says it “meant the world” when Nelson recorded a song of Gill’s on last year’s Band of Brothers album, “Whenever You Come Around," which Gill wrote for his wife, Christian pop/rock star Amy Grant.

“It floored me that he liked one of my songs enough to record it,” he says.

This week the big news in country music is radio consultant Keith Hill’s controversial comments about the lack of gender parity on country radio, which have drawn heavy criticism from stars like Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride and, according to Hill, even led to some death threats against him. Although he has since backtracked and “clarified” his original remarks after the story went viral, Hill effectively said that radio stations who reduce the amount of female artists to around 15 percent of their total content will see higher ratings. What everyone remembers now is his awkward analogy of country radio as a salad, with male acts as the lettuce and the women as the “tomatoes.”
Even before all that hit the fan, Gill said it saddens him to see so few women at the top tier of country music, especially given its rich past, and that he really doesn’t know why things have come to be this way.

“That's one of the greatest tragedies in this stretch of life for me,” Gill says. “Because I've been inspired as much or more by women artists, equally, than I have as men. So if there's only a couple that are getting the opportunity to really knock it out of the park at radio, then you just go, “What about Patsy Cline/Kitty Wells/Tammy Wynette/Loretta Lynn?’

“I could go on and on and on and on and name you about 50 great female artists,” Gill continues. “And I don't know why that is. To me, they're making much more...interesting records. They're saying more things I'd prefer to hear, lyrically and song-wise, and that's compelling. This Ashley Monroe kid, she writes songs like she's 80 years old. It's remarkable, and it's not dumbing it down. It's not going for the lowest common denominator. It's so refreshing, you know?”

When you’re on the phone with one of the most respected — and quotable — musicians in not just Nashville but anywhere, it’s a good idea to ask him about whatever you can think of. Here are a few more of Gill’s thoughts on a variety of country-related topics.

Singing a Great Duet:
I think the blend of voices [is key]. They don't have to sound alike. They just have to work together. You know, Tammy Wynette and George Jones didn't sound anything alike. There's all the famous brother duets like the Everly Brothers and Louvin Brothers. Those sounded so amazing because they were seamless. They were like one person.

But there's been a lot of amazing duets. I've done my share, everything from Gladys Knight to Ralph Stanley. A lot of times I think that great duets are songs that really lend themselves to being a duet, rather than just a song that everybody sings. There's gotta be some good creativity, rather than just some melodically arrangement structure, things like that.
His Great Partners:
Dolly would be a great one; getting to do “I Will Always Love You” with her. Anything I've ever done with Allison Krauss has been pretty magical. To me one of the most seamless-sounding partners has been Patty Loveless. I think we only maybe did one “real” duet together over all these years, but we both sang on each other's first hit records.

I've been singing with her since, gosh, the mid-'80s, when she made her first record and we sang together. There's something magical about our voices together that I was always drawn to. She sang on “When I Call Your Name,” “Pocket Full of Gold,” and I sang on a bunch of her hits — “If My Heart Had Windows” and then backgrounds on probably 15 or 20 of her records over the years.

Nashville, the TV Show:
I don't know if it's done a whole lot [for] the image of country music as much as it has the city of Nashville. It seems to me that at the end of the day it's still a soap opera, so to speak, but it's batted around a loosely truthful [idea] about the music business. It's fun to watch, because you'll hear names that really are record executives, and that kind of thing.

It really blurs the lines, and I like to watch it. But I like all those people that are on the show. They have embraced this town like you can't imagine. They're out supporting everybody and everything. They're fantastic, so I'm rooting for them.

The Music of Nashville:
What I really like about the show more than anything is the quality of the songs that they choose, and I think a lot of that is that Buddy Miller is at the helm musically, and I just adore what he does. So they're not perpetuating what really is going on currently, material-wise, with country music. I sit there and watch the show and three out of the four songs will kill me; I think they're great.

And this is not a knock on those [actors], but they're not the singers that some of the ones that really are in the industry are. But I like great songs. I'm not really too hung up on who sings 'em. A singer-songwriter that's crusty and edgy and all that is way more interesting than a singer that's polished [and] beautiful.
The Grand Ole Opry:
I was there last night. They did a real neat 'salute to the troops' night. We were out there on Tuesday night, and I'm playing there a week from Friday. They're doing good. They're pretty solid, you know? They've been going on since 1925 — I'm going to bet on them for a good bit longer.
Vince Gill performs 8 p.m. Thursday, June 4 at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Fwy.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray