The first time Vince Gill played music in front of anybody was in the second grade. He played “House of the Rising Sun.” “I was scarred early.” He laughs. “I didn’t know I was playing a song about a whorehouse.”
It’s a good thing for us, though, that he’s still carrying those scars lightly, since the passion and love for music and the talent he displayed all those years ago as a youngster continue to propel him into new musical territory.
Gill is a musician’s musician, forever looking for the next just-right note, an inventive delivery of a tune, a crafty way to pen a lyric, or a fresh way to blend traditional music with more contemporary musical idioms.
If you go only by the numbers, of course, he’s been a huge success: selling over 26 million albums, winning 20 Grammys, and 18 CMA Awards (including two Entertainer of the Year awards). But numbers aren’t how Gill measures his success or what motivates him these days; he gets a kick out of playing with rockers like Eric Clapton and Joe Walsh and bluesmen like Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Cray. In Nashville, Gill carries on a grand tradition of established country musicians, lending wisdom and helping hands to younger musicians who are navigating their way in the often choppy waters of the country music scene.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of being creative, of coming up with new songs,” he admits. “I’m a better singer, songwriter, and musician that I was 10, 20, 30 years ago. And, I’m still having fun playing music. The only reason I wanted to play music in the first place was that it made me emotional.”
Gill’s newest album, Down to My Last Bad Habit — his first solo album since 2011’s Guitar Slinger and his 18th studio album — colorfully illustrates his jaunty journey across a rich musical landscape, following his guitar strings wherever they lead. He’s joined on the album by a host of guests including, among others, Little Big Town, Cam, Alison Krauss, Bekka Bramlett, and Charlie Worsham. The songs range from the slow jazz burn of “One More Mistake I Made,” which features Chris Botti on trumpet and Gill’s daughter Corinna on harmony vocals, and the soul-inflected shuffle “Reasons for the Tears I Cry,” which featured Corinna and his other daughter Jenny on harmonies. This one tune alone is proof enough that, in Gill’s hands, even a sad song turns into a joyful dance groove that gets you moving despite its subject.
The album’s title track aches with yearning and regret, and features Gill’s just-right lead riffs played in call-and-response manner against Paul Franklin’s somber, sparkling steel. In the last 24 bars of the song, Gill bends the strings crisply as the notes climb higher and higher into an ethereal space. It bears an echo of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” here.
“Me and My Girl” jauntily celebrates of the glories of love and the beauty of life. All is right with the world when the one you love is sitting by your side, no matter where you’re headed, and it seems like it can last forever. Gill’s chicken-picked, brightly strummed guitars carry the lightness and ecstasy of being next to your lover as he sings:
Your kisses feel like nothing I’ve ever known
we’ll take the long way
down a two-lane highway
headed for nowhere
just me and my girl.
“I Can’t Do This” opens with spare piano chords that echo Bette Midler’s “The Rose” before building into an REO Speedwagon power pop anthem. He sings about the excruciating moments of watching an old lover with someone new, as you remember the passionate moments the two of you once shared. It’s an “I-can’t-quit-you-baby” tune that balances the power of attraction with the overpowering weight of regret
Little Big Town joins Gill for “Take Me Down,” which opening with guitar riffs that echo Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” (a motif that runs through the entire song). It’s a sizzling, simmering, down-to-the-bone embrace of lust. The beauty of the song is its acknowledgement that this desire for your lover gets right down into every corner of your body and soul, always leaving you burning for more.
The album closes with an aching country shuffle, “Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones).” Alison Krauss joins this one, and Gill’s vocals channel Jones. Paul Franklin’s steel soars on the bridge. It’s one of Gill’s best country tunes, and a great tribute to his late friend, the king of broken hearts.
Gill and I chatted recently about everything from the new album to Merle Haggard.
Henry Carrigan: So, are you down to your last bad habit, Vince?
Vince Gill: (Laughs): I hope so, but I bet I have a few left. You know, the way I came up with that song is that I ran into a friend at breakfast one morning and asked him how he was doing. He told me, “I’m down to my last bad habit.” I knew I had a song.
My condolences to you on Merle Haggard’s death.
He was my greatest inspiration, I believe. I got to sing on four or five songs on the new record he was working on. I just adored that man.
Do you have a favorite Haggard song?
He has the greatest collection of songs ever. I could sing one after another: “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Mama Tried.”
This new album has a nice, diverse group of songs on it, but only one that might be called a country song.
There’s only one real country song on this album, the one for George Jones, “Sad One Comin’ On.” You know, making Bakersfield was a great stretch of time to jump in and to honor real country music. I’ll always be somebody who makes traditional country music but I also get to play with guitarists like Eric Clapton.
If you could put together a guitar supergroup like Kooper, Bloomfield, and Stills, who would you want to include?
Robyn Ford, Joe Walsh, Derek Trucks, Larry Carlton.
What’s the narrative arc of this album?
This new album is about all forms of love: the good, the bad, the ugly. I didn’t realize that until we finished it.
How did you choose Cam to sing with you on “I’ll Be Waiting for You”?
I always pick what my ears tell me might work. I love when a new artist comes along and I love the voice. When I heard Cam’s “Burning House,” I thought right off the bat she’s interesting. I wish we could learn a lesson about how compelling a song that is, and I said to myself “why not sing with her?”
Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
I like telling a story, and I have a knack for being able to tell one. Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark: they have all the information that’s needed in their songs; nothing less, nothing more; you can see it in their words; best part about it, their songs are steeped in tradition. How do you serve the song the best? Say the most with the least. Learn not to waste your time. With me, sometimes it’s the fine tuning. Great art is never finished, it’s just abandoned. Part of the charm of getting better is listening to old records and cringing. (Laughs)
What do you think is the state of contemporary country music?
Somebody once told me that there are drainers and refillers; which do you want to be? I’m not a drainer; I like to encourage younger artists. I think these kids are living their dreams, doing what they’re compelled to do. I get to like what I like. There’s never been a golden era of country music; every year, every decade it has changed; country music does what it does, and great stuff floats through like it does in every era. Ashley Monroe has a killer voice and killer songs. Cam has a great voice, and Charlie Worsham is trying to get that big lick. Chris Stapleton, he’s like Ray Charles; he’s undeniable.
How have you evolved over the years as an artist?
If I could have seen the future I would have been scared to death. I wouldn’t want to know how it ended. It’s been more interesting; I like the surprises of life. (Laughs)
What’s next for you?
I have the next three or four records in my head. I want to make another album with Paul Franklin. I want to do a pared down record that touches on dark and tragic subjects; it’s important to talk about those. My manager, Larry Fitzgerald, wants me to do a book about my guitars.