But behind that easygoing smile is one ridiculously talented artist. Owner of one of the smoother voices in country music, and considered one of the best guitar players in the world by Eric Clapton, Gill has now released (as writer, performer and producer) what may be the most talked-about country record of the year. But These Days is more than a record; it's 43 brand-new songs spread over four discs, with an all-star cast.
Nobody's overlooking Vince Gill now; he's on top of the country music world, and he's coming to Spokane on Saturday night.
"We're having a blast out here," says Gill the morning after his 17-piece band played in Mesa, Ariz. "I've never had this many players. Amy and I have done symphony tours, with the full orchestra, but this is just huge."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & ill's new record is not just electrifying fans; Nashville's pretty excited about it, too. At a time when the music world has been shaken to its core by a powerful little gadget with a tiny apple on it, country music is doing a lot of soul-searching. How do the record companies continue to attract new fans? Should it continue to seek out the crossover success of the Shania Twains of the world? Or should it get back to its old time, high lonesome roots?
Into that fray, These Days seems to answer those questions with "Yes and yes." Made up of four discs -- The Country & amp; Western Record, The Acoustic Record, The Rockin' Record and The Groovy Record -- Gill seems to be saying country artists don't have to fit into one tidy section at the record store.
"This record probably goes against any type of logic of what's going on in music right now," says Gill, "and I kind of like that. It just goes against the grain."
Rather than continually force-feeding fans the latest flavor-of-the-month, perhaps These Days will show Nashville execs that if they treat their core fans with respect, there will be rewards.
"History has shown that a young fan base is hard for any genre to keep, because youth is not settled," says Gill. "With this record, I was trying to find my really hardcore fan base; I was really pointing toward them."
Gill is one of the few country artists who could pull off a project this monumental, but even so, MCA-Nashville took a hell of a risk by releasing the first-ever four-CD set of new music. Now that risk is paying off.
"It's been a lot more successful than the record company anticipated," says Gill. "Four or five times more successful. And we've been getting better than great press; it's unique press because it's something so different.
"You see more and more, it's hard to get people to listen to an 11-song record, to get a radio guy to listen to it, or even a fan," Gill continues. "With all the iPods, it's become a single-song mindset."
And that single-song mindset means radio is as powerful as ever in shaping tastes, making country music more monolithic and hit-happy.
"It truly is dependent on radio, and you've seen radio squeeze and squeeze its playlist," says Gill. "It's not so much that it's gotta be one thing, it's just such a small window of what's going to be allowed in."
But even radio is fragmenting, as satellite radio steals listeners and big cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia have no country stations at all. It's a bit of a free-for-all at the moment, with blockbuster records harder to come by and everyone trying to figure out what the business will look like in a few years.
Gill's offering, and its critical and financial success, throws a wrinkle into the mix: If you take the fans seriously and realize they are willing to make the investment of money and time it takes to wade into 43 songs, you might change the dynamic a bit. In other words, don't just make records; if you can, make a musical event.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & nd These Days is a musical event. Like seeing a seasoned director release his best film, or an artist paint her masterpiece, Gill is at the top of his game and it's fun to watch.
Gill's road to the top started in Oklahoma, learning a few banjo chords from his dad. After high school, he kicked around in a couple of bluegrass bands, including Ricky Skaggs' Boone Creek. Odd as it might sound, Los Angeles was attracting a lot of Country musicians in the mid-1970s -- after all, that's where the Eagles had set up shop. So Gill made his way out there, and by 1979 he was fronting the Pure Prairie League, singing their hit "Let Me Love You Tonight." Later, he hooked up with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.
After a move back to Nashville, he signed as a solo act in 1983. In 1989, he moved over to MCA and recorded "When I Call Your Name," which shot him straight into country music's Milky Way, where he has stayed ever since. In 2000, he married singer Amy Grant; they'd be Nashville's preeminent power couple if they weren't so down to earth. Amy and daughter Corrina are staying back in Nashville while he tours. ("Corrina can't miss that much school," Gill says.)
And there has been more musical success since his breakthrough, but you couldn't have blamed Gill if he'd have just kind of ridden it out. Instead, with These Days, he took the artistic envelope and ripped the end off of it with his teeth.
"I've always been inspired by all kinds of music," he says. "In small doses, you can find all this stuff on my earlier records. It's not a new wheel, it's in keeping with what I've always done, but there's just a lot more of it."
These Days may not be a new wheel, but it's still stunning in its range and depth, from a jazzy duet with Diana Krall ("Faint of Heart") to the old-timey "Take This Country Back" (about the music, not the nation). His daughter Jenny (from his first marriage) sings with him on two tracks ("Time to Carry On" and "A River Like You"), and there are some soon-to-be-classic ballads ("Everything and Nothing" and "The Only One" to name just two).
And the roster of guest artists is unprecedented: Rodney Crowell, Del McCoury, Michael McDonald, LeAnn Rimes, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack, John Anderson, Guy Clark, Katrina Elam and, of course, Amy Grant.
So where'd he find a muse big enough to create These Days? Gill can't explain his creative binge, other than to say time was his friend.
"Nobody was beating down my door to get this record out," Gill says. "I had the time, and away I went."
When he's not collaborating with other songwriters, Gill says he likes to write at home, guitar in hand, with the music and lyrics often rolling out at the same time. "It's hard to explain... I just kind of make it up," he says. "You compromise -- see what you like and what you don't like. Kind of like dating."
Gill fully expected to pare down his musical motherlode to 11 or 12 songs, but when he played 31 finished tracks for MCA executives and there was no chaff to be found, the idea for something completely different started to come into focus.
And the live show is as super-sized as the new record. Not only is he packing around a 17-piece band, but he's also been doing huge, Springsteen-like shows. In Columbus, Ohio, a few weeks ago, he played 34 songs, both new and old, over nearly four hours.
"It never started out to be this big," Gill says of These Days. "It just evolved."
He might as well be describing his entire career.
Vince Gill plays the INB Center (formerly the Opera House) on Saturday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 325-SEAT.
The Reason Why (The Groovy Record)
I'm not sure exactly what "groovy" means, but this disc is the one you might call "soft rock" -- kind of like "Take It To The Limit"-era Eagles. It's the type of music that's popular in Nashville these days, and Vince Gill can do it as well as anybody.
The Groovy Record has what appear to be most of the radio-ready tracks on it, including the silky smooth first single, "The Reason Why," featuring Alison Krauss. If Vince has a crossover hit beyond country radio, it'll come from this record.
If you love ballads, though, this is the disc for you. "Time to Carry On," featuring his daughter Jenny Gill, and "Everything And Nothing" both simmer up to a boil, with nice guitar solos from Vince. "Faint of Heart," a jazzy concoction with Diana Krall, is fun, but ultimately feels out of place. But "What You Give Away," with Sheryl Crow, is a soulful celebration of the joys of charity.
DOWNLOAD: "Everything And Nothing"
Workin' On A Big Chill
(The Rockin' Record)
This is The Groovy Record with an edge -- upbeat electric guitars and horn sections. It all starts out as advertised -- rockin' -- but it really starts to rip by Track 6, "Nothin' For A Broken Heart," a duet with Vince's old good-time buddy Rodney Crowell. And they sing like they've know each other for years, making this one of the strongest duets on These Days -- the tight horn section and honky-tonk piano don't hurt anything, either. Then it's off with another FOV (Friend of Vince), Del McCoury, on "Son of a Ramblin' Man."
This is the sexiest record of the bunch, too, with Vince singing about lovin', both wholesome ("The Rhythm Of The Pouring Rain," "Love's Standin'") and naughty ("Cowboy Up").
Between The Groovy Record and The Rockin' Record, you get Vince at his straight-ahead best. But as fan-pleasing as these two discs may be, when I reach for These Days, I find myself reaching for the other two discs more often.
DOWNLOAD: "Nothin' For A Broken Heart"
Little Brother (The Acoustic Record)
Know this: Acoustic does not necessarily mean mellow. From the opening plucking on "All Prayed Up," you know The Acoustic Record refers to the instruments being played, not the tempo they're played at. Charlie Cushman's banjo part is lickety-split and Vince shows off his chops on the mandolin. There's even more old-timey finger-pickin' fun on "Girl" and "Give Me The Highway."
But there is mellow stuff, too, with three tracks among Vince's best ever. On "A River Like You," he sings with his daughter Jenny, punctuated by Jerry Douglas's dobro and Michael Cleveland's fiddle. "Little Brother" is an ode to the longings for home and simpler times a musician can feel while seeking fame out on the road: "I hit every barroom from Bakersfield to Boston / Seeking whiskey, fortune and fame / Countin' these white lines sure gets lonely / Someday they'll all know my name."
And finally there's "Almost Home," with Guy Clark intoning his parts with that gravel road he calls a voice. Like his 1998 song "The Key To Life," this one's about his own dad and the bond between fathers and sons. But here he expands his themes into a spiritual parable on seeking answers in this life. It's a haunting masterpiece.
DOWNLOAD: "Little Brother"
Some Things Never Get Old
(The Country & amp; Western Record)
While The Groovy Record and The Rockin' Record show Vince can compete with the best of Nashville on the kind of music that gets played on country radio today, he also proves that he's not giving up on the old days -- the way country was. And from the first steel guitar chords of "This New Heartache," the opening track of The Country & amp; Western Record, you'll feel like you're back listening to Pasty Cline and Johnny Cash. These are the kinds of simple, tuneful songs you'd have heard coming out of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1950s and '60s. Vince is stripped down to essentials here, and this is the best of These Days' four discs.
"Out Of My Mind" with Patty Loveless has classic country bass and drum lines matched with quintessential lyrics like "You're bringin' on a honky-tonk heartache." This is pure country music, and there's more of it on "The Only Love" and "I Can't Let Go" with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski.
There's a duet with Emmylou Harris, "Some Things Never Get Old," that seems like it should have been on The Groovy Record, but I'm glad they put it on this disc -- and I love the John Prine reference.
In case you're wondering what's up with Vince and all the old time music, check out the raucous "Take This Country Back" with John Anderson. It's Vince's manifesto for his mission to bring authenticity back to country music: "We need a few more matchin' Nudie suits," Vince sings, "and silver dollar Cadillacs / There's one too many dime store cowboys / muscled up in a cowboy hat / We got to take this country back."
DOWNLOAD: "I Can't Let Go"
POP UP VINCE
(5 things you might not have known about Vince Gill)
1) He was once invited to join the
Dire Straits by Mark Knopfler. So
other than Dire Straits, which band
does he wish he had been a member of?
VG: "There are tons of bands I'd have loved to have been in: The Allman Brothers, Led Zepplin. I think I would have made a pretty good Eagle. Or Bill Monroe [and his Blue Grass Boys]. If I had the capacity to play it, I would have loved to have been a Buckaroo [Buck Owens' band]. And I did get to join one of my favorite bands, the Notorious Cherry Bombs [Rodney Crowell's band]."
2) He's a wicked good golfer (zero handicap). So what's the most memorable round he ever played?
VG: "I once shot a 62 in a tournament on a big, hard course -- a PGA qualifying course [Greystone, outside his home in Nashville]. But playing with Arnold Palmer, playing with Jack Nicklaus -- that's really something, too. I love it because you never get golf right. You get close, you get good, you get bad -- you get all kinds of ways. But the perfection is unattainable, and it drives you out of your gourd."
3) He lent his tenor to TV's King of the Hill
for two episodes. So which cartoon does he
wish would have written him in as a character?
VG: "The one I always liked was Ren and Stimpy, because it was edgy -- sick, kind of demented humor."
4) He does a spot-on impersonation of
MSNBC's Rita Cosby, as he showed off on
The Don Imus Show recently. So who is his
cable news favorite?
VG: "I don't watch much network TV, but I watch a lot of those news shows, like Chris Matthews, and a lot of sports. And I love watching Rachael Ray [chef and star of the Food Network's 30 Minute Meals]."
5) He loves the record The Carnegie Hall Concert by Buck Owens and His Buckaroos (1966) -- one of the first country shows ever to be booked into the venerable institution. So what's the most oddly memorable show he ever played?
VG: "I opened for KISS with a bluegrass band. The other opening act cancelled just before the show, and they called us and said, 'Can you get right down here?' It was a pure Spinal Tap moment."
[Gill and his boys were booed off the stage.]