Vince Gill on Okie, the new class of country artists, and playing with the Eagles
"I'm taking a page from Willie Nelson," says the veteran country star.
Vince Gill released his first album, The Things That Matter, nearly 35 years ago.
In the intervening years, the Oklahoma native with the tenor kissed by angels and the guitar prowess of a man who made a deal with the devil, rose to become one of the most respected names in country music, often serving as a link between the classic artists that preceded him and the generation of stars that have followed in his footsteps. In 2019 — 21 Grammys, 14 CMA awards, and one Country Music Hall of Fame induction later — Gill is still writing and singing about the things that matter on his just-released album Okie.
Whether addressing the topic of sexual abuse (“Forever Changed”), teen pregnancy (“What Choice Will You Make”), racism (“The Price of Regret”), paying tribute to his mother (“A Letter to My Mama”) or wife Amy Grant (“When My Amy Prays”), or pondering the ways in which the world has changed for good and for ill (“Black and White”), Gill remains a clear-eyed observer of his own world and the world at large.
His dance card also continues to be jam-packed. In addition to his own tour for Okie, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter-guitar slinger will be lending several hands over the next couple of months. He’ll be playing Hotel California front to back as part of his side hustle as an adjunct member of the Eagles. He will continue to do his part to raise money for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum with another in his series of occasional all star “All For the Hall” benefit shows, this year at the Novo in Los Angeles on Sept. 17 with guests including the red-hot Luke Combs, the legendary Emmylou Harris, and his good buddy Sheryl Crow. (Gill also appears on Crow’s excellent new album Threads, out August 30.) He’ll jam with Eric Clapton and a slew of other shredders at Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in September in Dallas. And on the small screen he will pop up as a talking head in the new eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music premiering Sept. 15 on PBS. And, as if that weren’t enough, when he’s not on the road, you can generally find him at 3rd & Lindsley on Monday nights playing country classics with the Time Jumpers.
The amiable singer-songwriter recently chatted with EW about getting vulnerable for Okie, the Eagles, and
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: These days heritage artists tend to put more time between records but your last one came out just three years ago. Did these songs come all in a rush and tell you they had to come out?
VINCE GILL: I’m taking a page from Willie Nelson. How prolific he’s been at making records is staggering, given his age. When you love being creative and you love making music and you get to a certain age, you see the passage of time and understand that there’s not going to be as much time left as there has been to this point. I just feel like there’s so much music inside me, I want to get it out.
There’s an intimate, contemplative, singer-songwriter sensibility to the album. There aren’t a lot of uptempo tracks. Were these songs all from one batch or do they date back over time?
Some of them are actually old. Some of them have a lot of years on them, and sometimes you’ve just got to wait for the right record to put a song on and where a song finally has a home. “A Letter To My Mama” is 18 years old. Amy and I had just married, and we had just had [daughter] Corrina. Dawn Sears, my dear friend who passed way from cancer a few years back, sang in my band for over 20 years. She heard that song at some point a few years ago, and she said, “Why haven’t you recorded that song?” I said, “Well, I don’t know.” She goes, “Well, promise me that you will record that song for your mom before it’s too late.” My mom’s 93 and still around, so I did. It felt good to fulfill a promise to an old friend.
At 93 does your mom still have the mental acuity to understand that the song is for her?
Yeah, and it’s funny, the remarks she made the first time she heard it because she had headphones on, and she didn’t know anybody could hear her. I keep those to myself, but they were priceless. [Laughs]
That song is one of several that represents some deep reflection on your part, which may be a function of being an artist of a certain age, staring down your own mortality and looking back on things that are important to you. Of course, that happens regardless of what it is that you do for a living, but you have the benefit of working through it artistically. When you put it all together in one place like this, is it a little scary?
It kind of is, in the fact that when I started talking about the album, I didn’t know what to expect. I was pretty astounded how emotional it was to talk about all this stuff because it touches in personal ways. There’s a song on there about sexual abuse. There’s a song on there about racism and equality. There’s some songs about faith and my own faith that’s fairly vulnerable — “When My Amy Prays” — I don’t have that history of that in my life like my wife does. So yeah, what I wanted to do is make a record that nothing got in the way of the songs. I didn’t want a bunch of solos. I didn’t want a bunch of big chorus harmony singing or anything to take away from the words of these songs. That’s why I think it feels so personal is because there doesn’t seem to be anything that ever takes your attention away from being in the middle of the song. It is a singer-songwriter record, I guess, and I don’t think I could have made a record like this unless I had 45 years of life out on my own.
I’m curious about the sequencing because it feels very intentional, particularly the middle bit that feels like a mini-suite homage to Amy.
Yeah, I always really obsess over the way that you sequence music because you can throw a wrench in the vibe, and everything has to follow what just came before it. And as it was finally sequenced, I said, “Oh, look, the first few songs are about reflection. The next couple of songs are about this. The next couple of songs are both about Amy. Then there’s a song about my mom, and then two songs about people that I just adored, Guy Clark and Merle Haggard.” So, it does flow in a unique way and there are just little pockets of somewhat similar topics.
It’s interesting because so much of the second half of the record is about gratitude — to your mom, Amy, to what Guy and Merle brought to your life — and then in the middle of that you put this real spirited rocker “That Old Man of Mine” about a son lethally standing up to his dad. Given that you’ve talked about your own dad being abusive, I’m curious how much of that is a revenge fantasy.
[Laughs] That’s awesome. No, I only stood up to my dad one time, and it didn’t go well. So, no. Once again, I like the history of great murder ballads. Yeah, bluegrass had ’em. Great country music had ’em, and I just love the fact that I have the imagination to tell a story like that. I don’t know, it’s pretty heavy-handed, but you better start caring about something at some point.
Musically, it’s also this jamming combination of the Grateful Dead and Merle Haggard…
Yeah, it’s funky like a dog. You let them boys out of the trap, they’ll show you a good time, those musicians. [Laughs] You’re just trying to play music with people and make it interesting, not only for them but for yourself and then the listener. I mean, it’s a pretty heavy song, but I go back to Merle Haggard. I think what gave him such a beautiful slant on the way he wrote songs is he had his freedom taken away from him by going to prison. And then all of a sudden, that’s a different light. Everybody to some degree probably takes their freedom for granted in this country. You look at the first couple lines of [Haggard’s] “Sing Me Back Home”: “The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom.” It’s like, good God, in the first line, you’re already done. It just doesn’t get any more real than that. I’m not much on fluff. I’ve had those songs. They’re fun to play, and they feel good and all that. But I like the emotional, melancholy, serious kind of songs. They move me the most. I always want to be moved by music more than uplifted and “oh yeehaw! this feels great.”
You are not an artist known for social commentary and Okie feels front-loaded in that regard in a way that feels very timely. Are those topics almost easier to discuss than the more personal stuff on the back half because they’re outward-looking at society as opposed to inward-looking?
Oh gosh, I know that slings and arrows are coming because everybody’s so divisive these days and snotty with their comments, and that’s what’s sad to me is just how unkind we’ve become to each other. So yeah, I’m not afraid because I think honestly, the subjects are being available without judgment, and I think if you could have a conversation about any subject without judgment, then you have the chance, to me, to advance the conversation. And if you’re just telling me how to feel. “You should feel like I do,” that doesn’t have any point. That just doesn’t work.
Your support for younger artists never seems to wane. You were on hand recently when Luke Combs was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and he’ll be playing at the “All For the Hall” show in LA next month. The great Charlie Worsham contributes to Okie. Clearly you still have faith in country music.
Everybody will wax poetic about the old music, and I go, “Hey, have you forgotten how many bad records were made in the ’40s and how many bad records were made in the ’50s?” In 20 years, you’ll remember the great records that were made in this generation. I try to love them all. That’s the way [older artists like] Minnie Pearl and Jimmy Dickens treated me: they treated me kind, and so that’s my experience. That’s what I know.
The Eagles continue to play shows and that experience seems like it’s been gratifying for you. Is there any non-self-deprecating part of you that could admit that you are giving them an injection of something they could use?
I think if there was an injection, it’s fun. I think that’s what I bring to the table is a little bit of a light heart.
Are you excited for the Hotel California shows?
Yeah, it’s just hysterical. I mean, I would be sitting there going, “Oh, I know this song. Oh hell, I’m playing this song!”