Finding Normal in an Unkind World: An Interview with Vince Gill
Country music superstar Vince Gill talks about his new folky album Okie, how his family provides his inspiration, and staying humble after having played a college campus show with only four people in the audience.
23 August 2019
"I have gifts that I've been given that are special, but that in turn doesn't make me special," explains Vince Gill.
Although he's been one of country music's most successful artists, it doesn't seem to affect him much. After a few decades as a premier solo artist, Gill still enjoys fitting it wherever it works. In 2017 he joined the Eagles to fill in for Glenn Frey. Despite his industry status and his skill on guitar, he was there to sing and to fit into the group.
"Most people that know my career say, 'Oh, what a great fit,'" Gill says. "There are some of my records that sound like the Eagles' record. They were a great inspiration to me over the years. The first song Don [Henley] and Glenn ever wrote was 'Desperado'. The first song they wrote was one of the best songs ever written. I'm beyond flattered that I was the one they called to continue that legacy. Joe [Walsh] was a huge inspiration to me as a guitar player. Even before he joined the Eagles. I played 'Rocky Mountain Way' in my garage bands. What's fun is I've known all this music my whole life. I didn't know all the intricacies of everything, but it's all been extremely familiar to me."
Playing with the Eagles meant taking on a limited role, but Gill finds that sort of work to be comfortable.
"I've been in bands before. I've been a sideman, so I kind of know-how to act in whatever role. They needed a singer. They already had brilliant guitar players in Steuart Smith and Joe Walsh. My guitar playing was not going to be necessary so to speak, so I don't play a lot, but I fill the void that needed to be filled."
Early in his career, Gill played as a session musician, and he could have made a living just doing that. After 21 Grammys and an induction into Country Music Hall of Fame, it seems like he would have stepped away from that sort of recording, but he still speaks passionately about it.
"I'm still doing both," he says. "I still work on a ton of people's records. It's what I loved as a young musician. I loved reading the back of record jackets to see who played on stuff. If one of my favorite guitar players played on a record with some artist I'd never heard of, I'd buy the record just to hear him play. I did a lot of that for people -- maybe over 1,000 artist records over the past 40-plus years. All kinds of music, just being part of the process. I still wanted to be a contributor to other people's passion. I still do it. It's something that makes me the musician I am. It's a different role that you have to play. It's difficult and it's challenging."
Gill's enjoyment in supporting other people in their artistic ventures has deep roots. He's remained humble throughout his career and credits that attitude to his upbringing.
"I watched plenty of people be the opposite," he laughs. "My folks would have kicked my ass if I had acted any other way. That's the way we were raised. You're not going to be a showoff. You're not going to be an arrogant kid. It's natural to me. It's not put on. I'm not trying to be a certain way. That's how I've always been. That's how I choose to want to react. It feels good to me."
This sort of thinking coalesces on Gill's new album Okie. It's a folksy record (it's more suited to coffeeshops than stadiums), and across the disc's dozen tracks, Gill pays tribute to colleagues, heroes, and family members, and he tells stories of characters in difficult situations. One of the most dramatic of these numbers, "Forever Changed", talks about the sexual abuse of a child.
"I see so much of that kind of stuff," Gill notes, "and I know a lot of people shove it down into that place where they don't ever talk about it. We kind of have a history as a culture to suppress truth sometimes -- to bury it and hide from it. I like not being afraid to be a voice for innocent people. I watched a lot of my favorite people stick up for things that were right and that were fair. Those kinds of things happening to innocent people are not fair. They're not kind. All these things I wish we were better at as a culture."
An incident from Gill's childhood helps inform the song.
"I had an experience as a seventh-grade kid where my gym teacher tried to act on me," he says. "I was young, I didn't know what to do, but I had the good fortune and good sense just to run. I would have very easily been molested. I don't know how my life would have turned. Would it have been different? I don't know. I was lucky. I was fortunate that I ran, but a lot of kids didn't. It's horrible. In a sense, it comes from experience, but also it's something I never talked about. I just got past it and said there's nothing happened to there's nothing to get so worked up about. Most people aren't so lucky. You see it all the time: people being cruel to other people. It hurts."
On "What Choice Will You Make", Gill sings of a teenager struggling with an unexpected pregnancy as her 16-year-old boyfriend walks away. The track doesn't offer advice or judgment, but simply describes a situation.
"I've got four daughters," he says of the song's origins. "Thankfully, that never happened, but you just never know. That song is without judgment. That's the most important thing in these songs. They're not trying to tell you how to act or what to do or what the solution is. I'm just having a conversation. It never leaves the moment of that kid finding out what happened. She's sitting on the edge of town. It doesn't say you should keep it or you should not keep it. It just tells the story of that moment. The intention is nonjudgmental. It's a song someone can hear and go, "Hey! They get this! They know I'm struggling.'"
We so often struggle in a difficult world without easy paths ahead of us. Gill's songs enter into that space with understanding.
"We're built to fail in so many ways," he says. "My wife has a way of loving the worst in people. Most people see the worst in people and cast them aside. She finds the goodness even in the worst of folks. It's kind of inspiring."
His wife has had her own remarkable career. Amy Grant became one of Contemporary Christian Music's biggest stars before crossing over to pop success (and the accompanying controversy generated by the move). Her faith and character continue to inspire Gill, as evidenced by the new song "When My Amy Prays".
"Two words come to mind when I think of her," he explains. "One is kindness and one is non-judgmental. She's welcoming of all people, not just faithful people. It's inspiring to watch. It's inspiring to stand beside to somebody that is that caring and that kind."
It's a part of Gill and Grant's story that she's taken heat for her divorce and even for her single "Baby, Baby".
"It has been staggering to watch," Gill continues. "It's common that we try to build somebody up and then try to tear them down. Somehow -- and I don't know how -- people enjoy it. It's sad to me."
With Okie, Gill addresses our culture's lack of kindness and its polarization. It's not a political album unless its warmth and hope for reconciliation (as on "The Price of Regret") translates to better public dialogue.
"You can't see people have a decent conversation anymore," he says of the context from which this album came. "If you disagree with this or that, you're a racist. If you disagree with this or that, you're a communist. That's a long leap for a generalization of somebody. That's where we've gotten to. It's crazy to me. It's not me writing songs telling you how you should feel. It's me telling stories out of my truth, out of a place of not being judgmental. I know the intent of what I'm writing these songs about. It's not to convince you to think like I think. That's what everybody's out there doing. I want to go, 'Every issue's different.' I don't want to be a conservative guy that has to adhere to all of what conservatism is. Each issue is its own issue. When you blanket this entirety over a side that you take, it doesn't make any sense to me."
That solution starts not with our leaders, but with ourselves.
"It'd be really easy to take this conversation political. People are the ones who will solve this if they treat each other right. Not politicians. We're the ones that have all the answers and all the solutions. Take that mirror out once in a while."
Gill has been able to apply these concerns to his industry. As female artists struggle to find equal (or even comparable) airplay on country music radio, it's worth considering what's going on and how it can be fixed. [Hint: play more women artists].
"I would like women artists as much or sometimes better," he says. "What women are doing is compelling. I don't know that [the industry bias] is any different than it's ever been. They play so few current records now, and it looks like there are a lot fewer women. When they played 40 or 50 country records, there was the appearance of lots more women in the genre. My era had, my golly... I could name you 15 or 20. Now you take 25 artists out of the mix of being able to be on the current country charts of airplay, if you're only playing 12 or 15 records, it kind of cuts it for everyone. A lot of people are going to die on the vine and slip through the cracks. I wish it were fairer. They know I'm on their side. I'm a champion of great music -- it doesn't matter where it comes from."
Although Gill hasn't slowed down, his use of the phrase "my era" is telling. He's starting to transition into that a new phase. Okie contains songs honoring Guy Clark and Merle Haggard, both of whom passed away fairly recently. As a previous generation departs, Gill could find himself stepping into some big shoes, but he laughs at the idea that he could follow artists like Clark and Haggard.
"With a straight face, you can't ever claim to be as good as your heroes, your mentors," he says. "Time's going to make me the old guy at some point. I'm going to be one of the elder statesmen. I get that. It's just the calendar doing what the calendar does. [Clark and Haggard] were a couple of guys who were so inspired. I talk about Merle Haggard all the time because he was my favorite. What gave him the greatness that he had was that he went to prison and knew what it felt like to have his freedom taken away. He sang with an angst and a hope that was different than most people. That might be why he spoke to me the way he did. I met Guy when I was 19. I played some of his songs in the band I was in in high school. We became friends and collaborators. He was like a big brother, a mentor. He painted characters and pictures in songs that were so real to me and familiar to me. I grew up in Oklahoma, and I spent a lot of time in beer joints and pool halls with my big brother and my grandad. I shot pool. My dad was a bit of hustler -- he called it a misspent youth."
As he moves into that sort of role, Gill makes sure to mentor some of the younger guys coming behind him.
"I try to champion a lot of young kids coming along. There are two guys in my band that I think the world of. One Jedd Hughes, who is about to put a new record out. He's a world-class guitar player who was a first-call session player, and he decided he wanted to be an artist again, so he's out with me playing again. I'm cheering him on. The other kid in the band is Charlie Worsham, who's made two records on Warner Brothers. It's beyond me why he hasn't hit the big home run. He's so talented. Maybe more than anything, show them what not to do."
Of, course, Gill certainly has the experience to know what not to do, and he laughs thinking about some of the worst and weirdest shows he's played.
"They're just the ones you remember," he says. "The ones that went horribly wrong. You don't remember every night of playing a sold-out arena. I played a little bit of everything. I got booked at a college one. We showed up, and the guy said, 'I'm so sorry -- we booked you during spring break, and there's nobody at school.' I think four people came to the show and we played anyway. I played 'casuals.' You might make 20 bucks playing a night with a band playing a bunch of standards. I was in LA at the time, and we played this gay bar in North Hollywood called Rawhide, and we had to play 'Stand By Your Man' three or four times and I loved it. I really did love it. It was a blast. You're playing music for people that loved it. You remember all those crazy gigs."
Equally, though, Gill has learned the right things to do, an he remains attentive to his growth as an artist. He says that some of his best lessons are "understanding gravity, being willing to edit yourself, not trying to sing to much or play too much and just trying to get the emotion out of what it is you're doing.
"I like moving an audience more than I do impressing an audience," he continues. "It feels better. It feels deeper, more connected. It's fun to look back and say I did a lot of neat things in 62 years. I feel like I'm at the top of my game right now. I don't feel like I sang better 20 years ago. I think I sing my best right now. I play my best right now. I'm writing more important songs than I ever have. It's progress. That's the best feeling you can ever hope to have if you're trying to be creative, that you're getting better."
But after four decades of music, an absurd number of awards, and a perpetual striving both for self-improvement for encouragement to those around him, Gill still comes back to an unlikely perspective.
"I like normal," he says. "It feels comfortable to me just being normal."
When asked if he actually is normal, he laughs again and says, "Some would say no." Joking aside, it's hard not to see Gill as something a little different than normal, but in all the right ways.