Vince Gill -- singer, songwriter, guitarist, golfer, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, husband of Amy Grant and Grand Ole Opry member -- was on the phone from Nashville bright and early with a ready laugh and ample self-deprecating humor.
The night before, Mr. Gill, who performs at Greensburg's Palace Theatre Sunday, appeared at the Country Music Hall of Fame's "All for the Hall" fundraising concert. His role was a departure. He co-led the show's backup band with fellow guitar wiz Keith Urban. Among those Mr. Gill accompanied was longtime hero Merle Haggard.
"It was a blast," he says. "I think what's fun, especially for Keith and myself, is we just get to be the guitar players in the band. We spend the night bein' musicians. When you have a night like that, where you step out of your persona of a well-known country singer or pop singer, you get to be one of the guys."
Despite the one-of-the-guys amiability that's made Mr. Gill beloved in Nashville, his track record is formidable. Since his first charted single in 1984, the Oklahoma native and former Pure Prairie League member earned 18 CMA Awards and 19 Grammys for solo and collaborative recordings. In 20 years recording for MCA Nashville, 23 of 38 singles went Top 10, five to No. 1. Seven albums earned platinum status, including "These Days," an unprecedented 43-song four CD box set of originals released in 2005.
Asked why five years elapsed between it and last year's "Guitar Slinger," he says, laughing, "It took five years to listen to (the box set)."
Few contemporary singers have so boldly incorporated personal tragedies into their music. "Guitar Slinger" included the Grammy-nominated "Threaten Me With Heaven" more poignant for Mr. Gill after his co-writer Will Owsley committed suicide. "Billy Paul" chronicled a real-life friend who killed a woman, then himself. "Buttermilk John" mourned his longtime steel guitarist John Hughey, who died in 2007.
Writing about such adversity, he reflects, is "easy in that it means so much to you. It's really a part of who you are and it's painful telling those stories. But I just love the truth and I'm not afraid to sing about it. My heroes were never afraid to. I'm proud those songs aren't afraid to delve all the way in--the darkest of the dark."
2012 finds Mr. Gill, who turned 55 April 12, in transition. His MCA contract lapsed last year and he's realistic about his place in the scheme of things. "I still want to have hit records," he admits. "You never get that out of your system. But in some sense," he says with amusement, "I have been shown the door." He has his issues with today's country, where fashion and gimmicky songs often trump the truth he reveres. "For me, it's lost its traditional bent pretty severely," he says. "I would love to hear someone write a song like (the 1981 George Jones hit) 'He Stopped Loving Her Today' rather than 'You're hot. I'm hot. We're in a truck.' It's just mind-numbing to me."
That isn't Music City's only new normal. "Income streams are dwindling. Record sales aren't what they used to be. The devaluation of music and what it's now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That's what a (single) cost in 1960. On my phone, I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises -- the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some would say the fart app is more important. It's an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated."
Mr. Gill's creativity, however, seems alive and well. He now hopes to focus on long-deferred bluegrass and instrumental albums and his membership in the Time Jumpers, Nashville's premiere western swing band. They have a new album coming in August of original tunes in the classic Texas-Oklahoma Bob Wills style. "I'm from Oklahoma," he says. "That stuff is like drinkin' water to me." Of frequent invitations to guest on others' records, he reflects, "What means the most is you're being invited not because you're famous, but because you're talented. And that always feels better."
Nashville's 2010 floods largely decimated Mr. Gill's vast guitar collection. Not only has he reconstituted it, he's in permanent acquisition mode. "That's never gonna stop," he laughs. "Everyone's calling me the Guitar Whisperer! I find these great instruments and bring them home, straighten them up, play 'em on records and [onstage]. I have a great collection, but everything gets used."
As for his concert repertoire, he explains, "Night to night it varies. I always try to do a little bit of everything. Some gigs you get to play for only 75 minutes, or an hour and a half. Some you get to play for three hours. I'm always trying to make it interesting. What I try to do is serve the song. I really feel like the gift of being a great musician is playing what's appropriate -- and with the right guitar and the right sound, the right everything. That's most important to me. Serving the song the best way possible. Let everybody shine, everybody play -- makes it fun."
Rich Kienzle blogs about music at http://communityvoices.sites.post-gazette.com/index.php/arts-entertainment-living/get-rhythm. First Published May 3, 2012 7:30 PM