When Vince Gill stepped into the recording studio two summers ago, his intention was to put out a standard country album.
It would be something similar to the 20-plus albums he has released since 1982, with a dozen or so carefully crafted country tunes. But instead of stopping at 12, he just kept playing. And instead of sticking to country, he went all over the musical map.
A year later, the now-50-year-old star emerged from the studio with his latest release “These Days,” a four-disc, 43-song, genre-crossing project. Released last October, the album is split into four parts: “Some Things Never Get Old - The Country & Western Record,” “Little Brother - The Acoustic Record,” “The Reason Why - The Groovin’ Record” and “Workin’ on a Big Chill - The Rockin’ Record.”
The album includes guest appearances from Gill’s wife, Amy Grant, as well as fellow musicians Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood and Emmylou Harris, among others. The ambitious endeavor has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, People, USA Today, NPR’s “Day to Day” and more.
“It was so much fun being able to spend that much time being creative; it was a real gift at my age,” Gill said on a break back home in Nashville during his summer tour. “(The album) is really a neat opportunity for people to blur the lines a little bit.”
Vince Gill: The Friends & Family Tour is a reflection of the new CD. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour, free-flowing exercise in country, jazz, bluegrass and rock.
“What has been fun about this tour is that nobody opens for anybody; we all take the stage and sing four or five things and then Del (McCoury) comes out and then Amy comes out,” he said. “It just kind of meanders through all this different music and it makes for a real interesting night. You get some real traditional bluegrass, contemporary Christian, rock `n’ roll and even a little jazz. It’s a fun night for us musically, we get to cover so much ground.”
That kind of musical smorgasbord requires a small traveling army. Each show features some 25 musicians - 17 in Gill’s band alone. Gill’s 25-year-old daughter, Jennifer Gill, from his first marriage, also performs, making the tour a true family affair.
Both the behemoth tour and album are against-the-grain moves for a star as big and accomplished as Gill. With 18 Grammy awards and more than 22 million albums sold, the singer/songwriter’s high-concept release flies in the face of an increasingly single- and digital-oriented industry.
“It’s going so far against the grain, it’s laughable,” he said. “Nobody is doing this. I wasn’t setting out to prove something. I wasn’t setting out to go against the grain. But I don’t think that anything great has ever been the result of someone being a follower, a copier. I thought, why not now? In hindsight, looking back, had I just made a 10- or 11-song record, it may have gone largely unnoticed. The curiosity of this record is its success.”
Gill said the album initially grew out of his weariness of having to pick only a few songs out of large batch of new originals for each album.
“The rest would go in a desk drawer and you may never hear them again or see them again,” he said. “I told myself I wanted to experiment and see how these songs turned out as a record instead. So I just stayed in a studio. I looked up a month or two later and had recorded 30 songs.”
He then realized the songs fit into different categories - some moody ballads here, some hardcore country there. He took the tracks to his record company, MCA, and instead of making him whittle them down, label representatives encouraged him to record even more and add bluegrass to the mix.
“I just think that all of that music is inside of me,” Gill said. “More than me saying I want to be a pop artist and a blues artist, that music is just also inside of me and this is an opportunity for me to let it out.”
In October, Gill will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with Mel Tillis and Ralph Emery. He said he really isn’t sure what he’ll do come the new year.
“I’m scared to make another record,” he joked. “I’m scared after this record, if I put out a regular record, people will say, `What’s with this guy? He’s cheating us!’ “