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Creative outburst puts Vince Gill out front

Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer

NEW YORK-Among country music stars, Vince Gill has never been a supernova.

A sweet-voiced ballad and harmony singer, a guitarist esteemed by those in-the-know, and an affable guy who for years served as host of the Country Music Association awards, he's mainstream country's Mr. Reliable. Not Mr. Audacious.

So what was he doing onstage at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square this week, leading a big band through a startlingly good three-hour show in support of "These Days" (MCA Nashville, 3 ½ stars), his new - not double-, not triple-, but quadruple-disc - set of 43 songs?

Proving that he can.

"I've never been competitive with other people," says Gill, whose 17-piece band includes former NRBQ guitarist Big Al Anderson, vocalist Bekka Bramlett and a four-piece horn section. "But I've always been stupidly over-competitive with myself.

"If I get frustrated and mad, it's because of my expectations of myself," the soft-spoken, 6-foot-3 Oklahoman says. "I have a standard I want to play to."

For Gill, that goes for golf - he has a zero handicap - as well as for music. And the creative burst that became "These Days" - which features collaborations with Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall and is divided thematically into individually named discs devoted to moody ballads, horn-fueled roots-rock, honky-tonk country, and bluegrass - was spurred by his fear that, as he approached 50, he was beginning to lose his way.

Sitting in the midtown Manhattan offices of Sirius Satellite Radio after making stops at six of its stations, he has traded his pinstripe suit from the show for jeans and a rumpled shirt.

"These Days," he says, wasn't intended to be the first four-CD set of original, all-new material released by a solo artist, though that's what it is. (Take that, Ryan Adams!) It started out as Gill's reminder to the world, and himself, that he was more than a glib awards-show host.

"After you have that run where they play everything you put out, and you're on top of the world, it starts to wane a little bit. And you start to doubt yourself," says Gill, who lives in Nashville with his second wife, the Christian singer Amy Grant (who joined him at the Nokia show for the romantic duet "Whenever You Come Around"), their 6-year-old daughter, Corinna, and three children from Grant's previous marriage.

"And I got to thinking: I want to be an artist. I'm a musician. That's how I want people to see me." (These days, they're seeing a lot less of Gill, who recently dropped 30 pounds. He jokes that he shies away from playing the fiddle on stage because "it makes me look like a have six chins.")

Gill didn't want being a funny awards host to be his legacy. "I always told myself if people are rolling their eyes, I'm going to quit. And truth be told, I was the one rolling my eyes. It was, `Oh, no, not me again!'

"So I wanted to invest myself back into my music again. I don't think that I hadn't been doing that, but the perception was that I hadn't. That I wasn't as passionate about it."

After working years as a sideman for Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell - and spending three years as the lead singer for Pure Prairie League - Gill recorded his haunting 1989 breakout hit song, "When I Call Your Name." But 15 years later, he had lost some of his focus. "There were times where, if I looked myself in the mirror, I honestly had to admit that I was doing it for the money," he says.

Gill got a big confidence booster in 2004, when Eric Clapton invited him to play at his Crossroads Guitar Festival in Texas, alongside B.B. King, Carlos Santana and others. Gill, who had turned down Mark Knopfler's invitation to join Dire Straits in 1989, hadn't had much opportunity to strut his stuff on his slicker Nashville recordings because "country music has never been the right format for guitar gods."

So Gill was deeply gratified to be selected by the British six-string deity. "He said he only was asking guitarists he admired," he recounts with pride.

On "These Days" ($29.95 for the set, whose CDs are not available individually), Gill finally gets to stretch out. Especially on the CD "Workin' on a Big Chill," the swamp-rock collection whose highlights include "Cowboy Up," a duet with Gretchen Wilson; "Sweet Thing," an ode to a departing girlfriend inspired by a blue Richard Pryor comedy piece ("I could recite his routines for hours," Gill says, laughing); and "Nothin' for a Broken Heart," a burner that's one of 12 songs cowritten with Anderson.

"He's so full of talent," says Anderson, who has given up a 20-year moratorium on touring to go on the road with Gill, talking Wednesday on the way to an appearance on Martha Stewart's TV show. ("I'm going to teach her how to make a souffle," Big Al quipped.)

But seriously: "When I started writing songs in Nashville (in 1991), I thought: No way am I going to get to write with Vince Gill. He's one of the top guys. Great guitar player, great writer, great singer ...These days, we have all these nice-looking guys out there who don't bring a lot to the party. He's a throwback."

Gill is such an easygoing presence that even when he's stretching to impress he makes (sometimes too-) pleasant, pretty music. But "These Days" contains many estimable moments of authentic genre hopping, such as the stripped-down blues "Molly Brown," an interracial love song on the not-strictly bluegrass "Little Brother" CD.

Gill acknowledges that releasing four CDs at once "reeks of arrogance." But the guitarist - who dislikes being a front man because "I hate telling other people what to play" - will put his trademark humility aside for the moment.

"My ears don't lie to me," he says. "And they tell me that I'm better than I've ever been. I play better, write better, sing better. And it's ironic that sometimes your best stuff comes after your run is over.

"The last thing I want to do is be a guy who's crying sour grapes," he goes on. "I'm never going to be a bitcher and a moaner, because I detest that in other people ... But I wanted to show something to myself. I want to keep getting better."

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