No country artist has done more for the venerable Grand Ole Opry in the last 10 years than Vince Gill . Saturday night (Aug. 18), when the Opry moves TV homes, from TNN to CMT, Gill will mark his 10th anniversary as a member of the show’s cast.
Even as he was racking up industry awards and selling millions of albums, Gill made frequent appearances on the long-running radio and TV show. In interviews, he spoke frequently of how important the Opry and its history are to him.
Gill joined the company on Aug. 10, 1991. In one of the more memorable inductions in recent history, late Opry patriarch Roy Acuff welcomed him into membership and stood by, a tear in his eye, as Gill did a command performance of Acuff’s favorite Gill tune, “When I Call Your Name.”
Saturday night (Aug. 18), Gill will host an hour-long segment (8 p.m. ET, repeated at 11 p.m. ET and at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday) in which he will perform “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” with Little Jimmy Dickens and “Table for Two” with Loretta Lynn . Brad Paisley and Steve Wariner , also staunch supporters of the Opry, will be part of the segment, and Sonya Isaacs, a young artist whom Gill has produced and written songs for, will join him for a number.
“They want this to be a neat hour of television for ‘em,” Gill says during an interview this week. “They asked if I’d do a few different things during the hour.”
Having 20 or 30 country music stars in the same place, week in and week out, means that, at the Opry, the potential always exists to “do a few different things,” Gill feels.
“That’s when the Opry gets special,” he says. “It gets stagnant if everybody just goes out and does their one song, and then the next guy comes out. [The fans] enjoy seeing people singing with different people and playing with different people, something that’s not the norm.”
Backstage, there are similar possibilities, as young artists mix and mingle with an earlier generation of country stars. The exposure offers a great chance to learn, Gill contends.
“The opportunity to sit and have Roy Acuff tell me war stories from the road from 40 or 50 years ago was priceless,” he says. “To grieve with people, to grieve with their families, to sing a little bit with Jimmy Dickens, to record some with Hank Locklin , to sit around and talk golf with Charlie Walker and to write a song or two with Bill Anderson — that’s what being out there has brought me.”
This week’s move to CMT, Gill reasons, will be a great shot in the arm for the Opry and for country music. The transformation of TNN from The Nashville Network to the pop-oriented The National Network was in part responsible for the decline in country’s popularity and sales figures, he feels.
“They’re taking a big bite out of our opportunity to be seen and heard in country music,” he says of TNN’s change. “Obviously, the CMT audience base is going to be much more about hearing some music.”
Gill has been outspoken about his wish that more of his peers might take advantage of the chance to perform at the Opry. He says he understands how economic and personal circumstances sometimes preclude Opry visits by stars trying to take advantage of their earning power at its peak, working numerous dates.
“I can totally sympathize,” he admits. “If you’ve been out there, working 120 shows and you get a weekend off, do you really want to go out and play again? You can’t fault a guy for [not wanting to], and I don’t. I’m not finger-pointing and I’m not jumping up and down. All I’ve said is, if they could, it’d be neat if they’d come out. It would be great.”
He has criticized administrative decisions from time to time, most notably when several veteran bandmembers were let go in 1999, but Gill also credits management with trying to infuse the 75-year-old institution with new vitality. He understands that replenishing the talent pool is crucial.
“If there’s no new blood, if there are no new artists you want to pass that torch to, then it’s eventually going to go away,” he says. “It needs all those kids out there getting to do what I’ve done the last 10 years, go get to know some of those people before they’re gone, to know how special they are.”