If it’s tough being the most-liked person in all of country music, Vince Gill bears that burden without too much apparent effort. Between his singing, writing, and guitar heroism, he’s arguably the most all-around talented guy in the genre, and also, simultaneously, its most unassuming. If he ever does get a big head, it’ll come from being called “humble” one time too many.
Being a folksy icon isn’t the only apparent paradox you could associate with Gill. He put his hands in concrete last week for the RockWalk in front of the Guitar Center’s flagship Hollywood location, which found friend Joe Walsh coming down to introduce him. Gill spoke at the induction ceremony about how growing up on Joe Walsh’s work in the James Gang at the same time he was listening to banjo great Earl Scruggs made him “a confused individual.”
His confusion is our gain on the new album Down to My Last Bad Habit, which has Gill mixing blues-rock and R&B-tinged balladry, with just the tiniest bit of the traditional country he’s known for championing.
We spoke with him in the vintage-guitar back room of the Guitar Center — where he admitted experiencing a little bit of lust, despite “having enough guitars for 10 guitar players.”
YAHOO: You’ve made history now by being the only guy who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has handprints in the Guitar’s Center RockWalk.
GILL: And was the first white guy ever on the cover of Jet magazine!
Jet magazine? How did that happen?
I did a duet with Gladys Knight. That was awesome.
You have an interview in the Guitar Center catalog where you say that early on in your career, someone gave you the advice…
…”Play me half of what you know.” I’d like to give that advice to myself, but I won’t. [Laughs] The real point of communicating these songs to people is to set the song up and do what’s most appropriate for the song. Even lyrically, even if I’m writing a song, if there’s a bunch of unnecessary stuff, you take it out. The whole point of it all is to play and sing what’s necessary and not a whole lot more. That’s what’s beautiful about the way Joe Walsh plays. He’s a testament to how much every note really matters; he doesn’t waste anything.
The new album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, has a diversity to it, but if there’s a common style, it’s that there’s a lot of lightly bluesy playing and rock shuffles…
The record to me is not a country record, in truth. There’s one country song on there, in my view — the song about George Jones [“Sad One Comin’ On”] — and the rest of it isn’t. I love traditional country music, and I feel like Bakersfield [his 2013 collaboration with steel guitarist Paul Franklin, on an album’s worth of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs] allowed me to go to that traditional place in a great way. The new Time Jumpers record is gonna have a lot of really traditional country stuff on it. That’s another avenue where I get to let that shine. So with this record, I felt free to play whatever I felt like playing. If it was a little soulful, a little R&B-ish, if it rocked a little bit… The first track sounds like a cross between the Stones and Bonnie Raitt. There’s one blues tune on there that sounds like I’m trying to channel Howlin Wolf, if I could’ve. Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want it to sound authentic. If I’m singing the blues, I don’t want to sound like a country singer singing the blues; I want to be a blues singer.
There may be some pendulum swings in how people think of you, if not necessarily how you think of yourself. In the ‘90s, you became known for doing ballads like “I Still Believe in You,” and sometimes people said, “Why doesn’t he do more traditional country?” Then in the 2000s, it seemed like you started reintroducing a lot more traditional country elements into your sound. And now I think people kind of think of you as a traditional country standard-bearer, because you produce Ashley Monroe, and you stand up for the old stuff so much, and you made the Bakersfield album. But now you’ve gone and made a record that doesn’t have much of that at all.
Yeah. At any point in my life I’ve never felt like I had to be one thing. Even all those records that were successful for me in the ‘90s, they were all over the map. “I Still Believe in You” is a pop song; I don’t think it’s a country song. “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” is pretty much not a country-sounding song to me at all. So, yes, there’s “When I Call Your Name,” there’s “Look at Us,” there’s “Pocket Full of Gold,” and other things that are traditional, but…. I stick up for it, because I see it dissipating more and more, and to the point now where there doesn’t seem to be any of whatever it is that I define as country music. These (current hits) all kind of sit in a country format, but there’s not a thing about ‘em that feels like a country record to me. And I don’t say that with any point. I’m not trying to say it’s wrong, or I’m not being judgmental. It’s the truth. The truth’s kind of okay to speak. I’m not afraid of speaking the truth. So part of me wants to stick up for that stuff, and playing with the Time Jumpers, I get to play really traditional music. And the records with Paul (Franklin) — we’re gonna do anther record together. That’s a great way to honor some great music, and I will continue to do so. But all this other stuff’s in there too. And I don’t want to just be a country singer. I’ve got this heart of a musician in me; I’ve got to go feed that knucklehead!
I love hearing the R&B and blues side come out.
Me too. It’s all the blues, at the end of the day. [Laughs.]
With “Take Me Down,” the single you have out now, which features Little Big Town, people have compared it to Fleetwood Mac…
They should. It’s exactly where it came from. Unapologetically so. Rumours is one of the greatest records ever made. It was inspirational to me, and it’s a part of my DNA. And yeah, it is in that vein. “Liza Jane” was very similar to “Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton, and this is very reminiscent of “Rhiannon.” I don’t think the song is necessarily that similar—it’s not melodically close to it—but the fact that Little Big Town has the sound that they make, that’s what’s reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac is that vocal sound. Plus, I think all songs in A-minor eventually sound either like “Rhiannon” or “Stairway to Heaven.” [Laughs]
There’s another song on the album, “I Can’t Do This,” with such an amazing hook, once upon a time that would have been an obvious killer single choice. But those kinds of super-melodic songs aren’t necessarily radio songs anymore.
I know. But truth be told, radio hasn’t had much interest in me in a long time—probably close to 15 years. [Indeed, his last top 10 country single was in 2000.] I’m grateful that there is some interest now, and they’re playing it and adding it, and I’m really grateful for it. I didn’t begrudge ‘em for not playing any of the other stuff. I know how this world works and how they move on and somebody else gets a chance and then somebody else gets a chance.
“My Favorite Movies” has kind of a Roy Orbison sound, or even a Jeff-Lynne-producing-Roy-Orbison kind of sound.
Exactly. It’s Traveling Wilburys sounding, isn’t it — those jangly acoustics that start that? Ashley Monroe and I wrote that together, and she was hoping to record it on her record, but time and money and everything in between worked that we couldn’t do it. So I was sitting there making my record and thought ‘’Maybe I’ll do it,” so I did.
Obviously Glenn Frey has been on people’s minds. Your song “One More Mistake I Made” is one it’s easy to imagine him singing with the Eagles, even though the Eagles didn’t have a lot of trumpet solos on their records.
They didn’t, but yeah, that sounds like one of their kinds of songs. I’ve believed over the last 40-plus years that those guys have influenced country music as much as any of the greats. What Nashville really hangs its hat on is great songs and great songwriters, and there weren’t any better ones than those guys. That’s my little daughter Corrina (age 14) singing with that on me, and the wickedly gifted Chris Botti playing a jazzy-sounding trumpet solo. We got to be friends and collaborated on something on his record, and he returned the favor.
Let’s talk about your extracurricular activities, which are many. It’s great that people coming to Nashville know they can see you playing with your side project, the Time Jumpers, almost every Monday night.
That’s a fun band, and we’ve got a new record coming out in June. A lot of original music on it, which I really championed the guys to try to do. I said, “Let’s try to make an original statement with songs that sound old.” You can write new songs that sound old and timeless and in the vein of what that band’s been all about. It’s been a real treat to make a record with those guys
You’ve worked with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson on their upcoming albums, and you said played with Joe Walsh on a new Sheryl Crow album.
Staying busy. The phone’s still ringing. Thank God!
And you’re doing another round of Christmas shows with your wife (Amy Grant) this year, right?
It looks like it, at the Ryman. We’re doing nine shows this year, instead of the eight we did last year. That’s Amy’s great time to do what she works the hardest at and likes the most, really — the Christmas stuff. She does it good. I’m just riding her coattails.