The thousands of fans now flocking to Amy Grant and Vince Gill’s annual holiday residency at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium are receiving one giant Christmas surprise: Gill is performing a brand-new verse to “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
Wait a minute. He’s doing what?
Isn’t that the timeless classic that won both CMA and Grammy awards for best country song? And isn’t that the same song that shows up on every list of all-time greatest country music?
Doesn’t Gill know if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?
Gill just chuckles. “Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense, does it?” the 62-year-old Hall of Famer tells PEOPLE. “Yeah, ‘Leave it alone, you idiot!’ That should be my mantra. But in my heart, I think this makes it better.”
There’s no doubt Gill could have left well enough alone. With its uplifting Christian message of eternal life, “Go Rest High” has long been considered the multi-platinum-selling artist’s masterpiece, the one he himself is certain he’ll be most remembered for. Since its debut in 1994, it has gone on to rival “Amazing Grace” as a standard at funerals and memorial services.
Indeed, over the years, Gill has lost count of the number of times he has sung it at “every hillbilly singer’s and friend’s funeral.” And it’s been that endless succession of performances, he says, that eventually led him to feel something was missing.
“In all seriousness, as I looked at it as a piece of work, I thought it was unfinished in a way that a song should close the door and have an end and tell the whole story,” he says.
As legions of fans know, the first verse is a sober acknowledgment of the end of a troubled life. The second verse expresses both grief and the assurance of life after death. Now, the new verse arrives with the blessed promise of a heavenly reunion: “You’re safely home in the arms of Jesus / Eternal life, my brother’s found / The day will come I know I’ll see him / In that sacred place, on that holy ground.”
Its introduction during the dozen Christmas concerts that he and his wife, best-selling Christian artist Amy Grant, are appearing in this month has been greeted with joyous cheers and standing ovations. “The whole place comes unglued,” Gill says.
For the singer, the new lyrics have proven to be an emotional workout. He needed the first six shows, he says, before he could get through the third verse without his voice faltering or breaking. “It’s emotional,” Gill says, “to relay new information on something so set in stone.”
From its very beginning, the song has been steeped in emotion. Gill started it in 1989, moved by the death, by alcohol poisoning, of 33-year-old country star Keith Whitley, whose hits included “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”
“I had two lines — ‘you weren’t afraid to face the devil / you were no stranger to the rain’ — and that was about it,” Gill recalls. “And maybe the first line, ‘I know your life on earth was troubled,’ which was true for Keith.”
Still, there was no melody, he says, and because he was only a casual friend of Whitley’s, he felt awkward about even writing the song. “And so I put it away,” he says.
Four years later, Gill’s older brother, Bob, died of a heart attack, and grief sent Gill to retrieve the snippet of lyrics. “Then the ‘go rest high on that mountain’ [chorus] came,” he recalls. “Then the second verse was obviously about my brother’s passing, and so away it went.”
Gill had no intention of ever recording the song, but after hearing it, longtime producer Tony Brown had another say. It debuted on Gill’s 1994 album When Love Finds You and was released as a single the next year. The song was only a modest hit on the Billboard chart — peaking at No. 14 — but it made a profound impression on fans and critics alike. The CMA and Grammy awards arrived in 1996, and Gill’s interpretation also earned him another Grammy that year for best country male performance. A year later, “Go Rest High” was anointed BMI’s most-performed song.
Since then, the song has taken on a life of its own, transcending both its creator and its genre. Ken Burns’ recent Country Music documentary series brought renewed focus to the song, telling its story and reverently showcasing perhaps its most memorable performance, Gill and Patty Loveless’ duet at George Jones’ televised funeral in Nashville in 2013. As Gill describes it, with a soft chuckle, “I got up there and then I fell apart.”
While he struggled through sobs to regain his voice and Loveless soldiered on, most of the congregation gathered at the Grand Ole Opry House rose and wept with Gill.
There’s no embarrassment about that day for Gill, who says he has often struggled through the song. “Some nights I make it, some nights I don’t,” he says. “I’m okay with that. You know, I’m always going to be an emotional guy, so I’m used to that.”
He also came to see that his lost composure at the Jones funeral turned into a “gift.” “It gave everybody the okay to let go,” Gill says. “So you know, ‘Hey, it’s okay. We can all fall apart.’ And they did. I wasn’t the only one.”
But unbeknownst to most, Gill reveals, the loss of the country legend wasn’t what triggered his flood of emotions. “George was extremely dear to me, and we were good friends and one of my all-time favorite singers,” he says, but he actually was swept under by “the sound of Patty’s voice.”
Each had sung backup on the other’s hits — including “Go Rest High” — and “we hadn’t gotten to sing together for a long, long time,” he explains. “There’s just something other-worldly that happens when our two voices sing together. And I’m always singing that song by myself at a funeral. And then there was Patty’s voice, and it just did me in.”
As much as “Go Rest High” means to its listeners, Gill says the song means even more to him — “so much more than they could ever comprehend.”
“You know, a hit song’s a hit song,” he says, “and people like it and they sing and they dance to it, whatever. But when they lean on something you’ve done, that has a much deeper kind of connection. It’s so much cooler than any hit record I’ve ever had.”
As far as Gill is concerned, the newly lengthened song is now the official version, even though “I don’t really know if I have any intention of recording it with this third verse,” he says. “I was just sitting there thinking last night that if I take one of the [instrumental] solos out of the original record and sing the third verse there, it would work. So I don’t have any idea of what’s to come of this other than I just did it. I’m going to start singing that last verse because I think it makes the song a lot better. Maybe I’m foolish, but I don’t think so.”
Gill and Grant’s “Christmas at the Ryman” continues through Monday, Dec. 23.