Vince Gill is standing patiently, decked out in a retro turquoise suit, as dozens of crew members adjust the lights above him. He’s been on the set of his latest video, “Next Big Thing,” for 20 minutes already without the first scene being filmed. Being in front of the camera is not his favorite part of being a star.
“I don’t enjoy the process that much,” Gill freely admits to CMT News. “My weight has fluctuated my whole life — since I’ve become an adult and discovered butter.”
He may have trouble with music videos, but he certainly hasn’t had any trouble with his music. A recording artist for 28 years, Gill has gone from bluegrass picker to headlining superstar. In today’s music industry, that kind of alpine climb means he knows what makes Nashville tick and even allows him to mock it.
“I’ve always felt like I could laugh at the goofy things in this business, in this industry and myself included,” Gill says of the title track for his just-released album. “I’ve been doing it for 25, almost 30 years now. I’m 45 years old, so it’s fun to look back and kind of watch the young artists going through the things that you’ve been through a hundred times. And it’s fun to be in this position.”
Gill’s current position puts him above the clamoring hopefuls he describes in his new single. His talent as a singer, writer and musician has solidified his place in country music history, but he takes it all in stride. “I’ve had a great run and a lot of success. And as time goes on, you realize that at some point, it’s probably going to diminish. It has for every single person who has ever done this. You just don’t know when.”
That reflection can be found throughout the album, from the father-daughter chat in “You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody” to the melancholy “Young Man’s Town.” But Gill is quick to dismiss any association with wisdom. “I sat down, and these songs came the way they came, you know. And it was not a conscious effort of me saying, ‘It’s time to give advice’ because I don’t give advice. And even songs that feel like they have wisdom in them, they do from just a point of view.”
His new music includes several songs he wrote himself. One track, “Real Mean Bottle,” evolved into a tribute to one of his musical heroes. Like hundreds of songs, it began as hearsay. The title stemmed from a tidbit of conversation relayed to Gill from session guitar legend Harold Bradley.
“He told me he was doing a session with Hank Williams Sr. years ago, and it was one of those rip-your-heart-out sad songs like Hank wrote. And he [Bradley] said, ‘God Hank, that might have been the saddest song I ever heard.’ And Hank said, ‘Son, it was a real mean bottle that wrote that song.’”
But as Gill explains, the song isn’t about the legendary Williams. “I didn’t know Hank Williams growing up. I had to discover Hank Williams. When I was growing up, Merle Haggard , to me, was the deal. The last verse [of “Real Mean Bottle”] talks about ‘you spent most all your life among strangers.’ And if you don’t know his music and know that his band is called the Strangers, you won’t get it. It’s my way of saying, ‘Thanks Hag, for being so cool.’”
The story behind “She Doesn’t Make Me Cry” is one Gill is quick to establish. “I think most people are going to hear that song and interpret my life. And think that’s about what’s going on in my life today.” Gill is referring to his divorce from Janis Oliver (half of Sweethearts of the Rodeo) and very public marriage to Christian-pop singer Amy Grant in 2000. “That’s one case where it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says, shaking his head. The idea actually came from a line of dialogue in the 2001 movie Ocean’s Eleven.
The autobiographical song “This Old Guitar and Me” tells of Gill’s life through the companionship of his first six-string. “I was playing bluegrass. And it was an old pre-war Martin D-28 herringbone guitar that was the greatest guitar you could have for playing bluegrass. So I spent all my money I’d saved and that my folks had given me for college and what not, and spent it all on this guitar and moved away and started this career. It’s basically the story of my life from the day that I acquired this guitar.”
Gill paid his dues with that old D-28, playing with bygone bands such as Bluegrass Alliance and Ricky Skaggs ’ Boone Creek. But he looks back at those bare-bone days with his usual warmth.
“The beauty of a long career of all these years of not only good times, but really hard times, struggling, playing for next to nothing … all those years are just as important as the years when the arenas are full. You’ll remember the goofiest, craziest, funkiest gigs that you played.”
Smiling, he recalls some of his more memorable shows. “This one gig we booked at a college and we didn’t realize it was during their spring break, so there was not a living soul at the school.” Laughing, he throws his hands up, “We’ve got this big show and six people came. And I’ll never forget the story of [when] we opened a restaurant in California and it was a real small little bandstand. It was so much fun because everybody was just on top of each other. And I was standing there next to Wynnona and I said, ‘These are the greatest gigs in the world when you get to play these small places like this.’”
Gill’s love for the small venue is the foundation of his new Back 2 Basics tour, which runs through October. In each city, he’ll play locations seating no more than 1,000 people, a strategy unheard of in today’s era of super-sized shows.
“I feel the urge to play music for music’s sake,” Gill explains. “And not to be trying to play the biggest places where you can get the most people in. I want to have fun. I want the people to feel like they can come to this show and come hear a bunch of new songs and feel somewhat intimate with it. The musician in me is really looking forward to being a musician.”