For a polished singer/songwriter who’s recorded 17 albums, ranging from gold to quadruple platinum; scored close to 30 Top Ten Billboard magazine hits, filmed close to 20 videos; and snagged nearly 75 industry awards and special honors, Vince Gill has unquestionably found the right key.
His latest MCA album, The Key, which is available in advance at country.com’s Musicstore, marks his first release in almost a year. What eventually resulted in a nine-month hiatus from the normal studio-radio-concert circuit schedule also turned into a hush-hush marital rumor, a separation and then finally a divorce from his 18-year marriage to singing wife Janis. For the first time in the public’s eye anyway, it seemed that one of Vince’s doors from a personal aspect was becoming more and more difficult to open. An occasional jammed lock, however, doesn’t stop this mastermind.
It was as if the July CMT Showcase Artist was once again able to cradle much of his bittersweet emotional battles to the place that has long been his comfortable nest — his music. From that venture, we’re soon to discover the singing-and-songwriting veteran’s best work ever — a 13-cut album that preheats, bakes and broils every element of true country music traditionalism into a perfect simmering sensation to the ear. Once again for Vince, The Key most certainly works.
Vince, however, is quick to point out that although many of the new disc’s songs could very well relate to his recent personal experiences, it’s not necessarily true.
“Well, I think most people are gonna look at what’s transpired in the last little bit of time and make that conclusion,” explains Vince, “regardless of what the songs might or might not mean. I think sometimes people will take what they see going on and just grab it. I think everybody would like to believe that because of the stressful year that I had that all these songs are about that and they’re not. Some of the songs are old and were written years ago. That’s the neat thing about songs — a great song stays a great song. That doesn’t change. The most poignant song to me is the song about my father that I wrote called ‘The Key To Life.’ That one’s pretty special,” he admits of the new project’s title cut. “Some of the rest are too, but that one’s really the heart-on-the-sleeve of all the songs.
“I don’t know that I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of in-depth looking at my life,” continues Vince about what all went into the making of The Key. “I’m just not that deep,” he laughs. “It’s kind of ironic you know. Now I’m getting ready to go back to work, and I don’t feel like I ever left. That’s the truth of the matter, because I played so much at the Opry and I did the studio record and took five or six months to record that record and just did it in pieces. I did a Christmas record and sang on a bunch of other records, played a bunch of golf and did all the stuff that I’ve always done. I think that the interesting part was the end of the day for this hiatus. It’s nine o’clock and I’m sitting on the couch, and I say ‘Okay, I’ll just watch Springer and eat some popcorn and that’ll be it.’ I didn’t feel myself compelled to go out all the time and go travel. I just hung. It was pretty therapeutic, or ‘therepetic’ as Barney would say.”
With as much personal insight as Vince’s immense fan base across the world may want to believe he put into the album, the artist does admit this record is totally what he’s all about when it comes to music. First-time listeners are quick to say that Vince has gone country — real deep-fried and thickly-battered country.
“I think that I find myself almost afraid to try to explain what the record is,” he first says. “I think I tried to do that with my last record. The first single was kinda bluegrassy, so the world thought I’d made a bluegrass record. So that’s my whole fear — is in trying to say ‘This record is this or this record is that.’ It’s really a very traditional record and in my own mind what I find country music is to me. I don’t think that what’s on the majority of country radio these days is country. And I don’t say that with my fingers crossed behind my back, because I’ve made a lot of records that I don’t think are country music. But the umbrella of country music is not what it was 30 or 40 years ago.
“Me losing my dad made me remember old songs,” he continues. “It made me really remember what I love about country music. It’s not me trying to say that country music has gone way too far. That’s not the exercise of this record in the least. All it is is me personally missing doing it. I miss recording it. I wanted to make a record that never strayed from that. You won’t find that the other singles sound like ‘If You Ever Have Forever In Mind.’ That was kind of a focal point for me to try to find. The records of Ray Price were inspirational in that. But also the records that Ray Charles made in the early 60s were a very beautiful, orchestrated way of doing really traditional country songs — Hank Williams songs, ‘Born To Lose’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’
“The music was pretty and it was beautiful. It wasn’t all edgy and uptempo and all of that. That’s where I started and that’s what I heard in my head. I’m not trying to be ‘retro’ or to be anything than what I’ve ever been. It’s just inspired my music, so I went and made a record that doesn’t stray from my perception of what country music is.”
It is quite ironic, however, that Vince has in recent months, stepped up to a much higher platform than most, with wide-open arms to country music’s back-and-forth sway of vintage traditionalism. His numerous performances at the Grand Ole Opry during the past year have been critically praised, as well as responsible for reeling in much needed support and attention to the Opry. Vince’s regular Opry performances and candid remarks regarding some artists’ lack of appreciation and devotion has launched awareness from both the public and other fellow Opry members, who have in the past often regarded repeat visits to the Mother Church as back-burner gigs, compared to normal concert dates. Vince is not, however, carrying any sort of torch.
“All I can do is what moves me and do what I feel like I need to do. I’m not out to be the new Roy Acuff,” he firmly states. “I’m not out to save the Opry. I think that if you’ll look in the past eight years since I’ve been a member that I’ve been a regular supporter of the Opry. I don’t think that me hanging out with Little Jimmy Dickens and Jeanne Pruett and those folks have made me go ‘Okay, I want to make a country record now.’ I kinda had it in mind to make this record for a long time, but I also had the luxury of having nine months off, so I went out there every weekend. And I got just as much out of it as they did by having me there. I just have a great deal of reverence for what has come before me — not only in music but most other things, too. It’s just my way. I’m not out there trying to rally the world to come and embrace the Opry. I can’t do that. All I can do is do what I do, and that’s my example to lead by. If some of the other younger artists feel compelled to come out there, (great), but I’m certainly not out there going ‘You should think like I do.’ That’s pointless. I’m not out to say ‘Here’s the definition as you should hear it!’ It’s me.”
It’s Vince, plus an entire guest lineup, including Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans and newcomer Sonya Isaacs, featured on The Key.
“I don’t think I’ve ever operated under the theory of ‘If you sing own my record, then I get to come sing on yours.'” Vince proclaims. “It’s never been about that. I did it for a living — that’s the difference to me. A lot of folks that wind up singing on other people’s records don’t do it for a living. That’s not what they did. I was one of those people that was a session musician. I played on everybody’s records and sang on everybody’s records. I got called a lot to do that. So I feel like I’m still getting called to do that because that’s what I have some talent to do, not because I’ve become famous as a singer. It’s not name value. I can guarantee you that from the perspective of when I make my records, I’m not trying to get market value on them. I love these people’s voices and it’s as simple as that. I know what Patty Loveless’ voice is going to sound like with mine on a certain song. I heard Sara Evans sing on the CMA Awards with Travis Tritt and I said ‘Man, she sings great.’ And Shelby Lynne. There’s a new girl named Sonya Isaacs that sang on a couple of songs. And Lee Ann Womack — I just love her voice, so we did a song that was really really hard-core. I’m telling people that it will make Alan Jackson sound like Madonna that it’s so country. All I try to do is cast the voices that I hear in my head — not famous voices — just voices.”
Having invited such select voices for his new album has also been a part of the door-opening process for other separate projects for Vince. He was a guest of Faith Hill’s on her recent CMT special; he’ll soon be producing gospel-bluegrass singer/songwriter and upcoming tour back-up vocalist Sonya Isaacs’ debut country album for Lyric Street Records; and his duet, “My Kind Of Woman/My Kind Of Man,” with Loveless could even inspire a fully-loaded Gill-Loveless duets album.
“What’s interesting is that it’s a duet where the song was written strictly as a duet, lyrically and everything,” Vince explains. “I sing and she sings. The song is called ‘My Kind Of Woman/My Kind Of Man’…a match made in heaven by God’s gentle hands. It’s really neat because of the fact that it’s not just somebody coming and singing harmony and saying it’s a duet. It was conceived as a duet and written melodically as a duet. It’s very reminiscent of a Conway and Loretta duet with steel guitars, fiddles and strings. It was a song that I wrote seven or eight years ago.
“We’ve talked about doing a duet record before — a whole album full of duets,” he continues. “It didn’t work out and we didn’t get to do that. It still could happen. With the way everything works today, it’s difficult with all the time schedules and everything.”
Another song featured on The Key disc almost called in yet another vocalist that Vince is quite fond of — that of his 16-year-old daughter Jenny, who now has her driver’s license and is cruising in a used truck previously owned by Dad. The song entitled “Let Her In” perhaps helps clarify what Vince has recently experienced with Jenny during he and Janis’ divorce.
“There’s a song on there that I wrote about her (Jenny),” he explains. “It’s kind of a neat song. It was written from a father’s perspective to his daughter. It’s called ‘Let Her In.’ I think a lot of times kids are very hesitant to let their dad like somebody else. So that’s the basic theory in that song. ‘I know it’s hard and this and that, but let her in.’ I was gonna have her sing on it, but it’s a little tricky, and I didn’t want her to get in there over her head. You have to wear two hats. I gotta wear the hat as a father that doesn’t want her to get into something that she couldn’t handle or cause her any harm or embarrassment in the studio. At the same time, I have to be true to the art and make it as good as I can make it. So I opted not to have her voice on it. But it’s as if she’s there singing.”
Making it as good as he can has long been a priority for Vince — dating back to his late 1970s debut as a lead vocalist with the more pop-rock-edged band, Pure Prairie League. Today, Vince abides by the same devotion, as well as holds true to his country roots. It’s those same country roots that the singer latched on to that will hopefully be there for him in the future–not straying away from the heart of country music, in Vince’s opinion, will help ensure that.
“The bottom line is it’s as simple as supply and demand. People are gonna buy what they want to. You can’t change that. At the same time, country music is not really really popular because people aren’t recording country music. I just think you have to look at the exposure that it’s received over the last ever how many years. A certain artist or two will come along at the right time and do huge things and let a whole lot of people see country music that wouldn’t. But if you’ll look at the history of country music, you’ll always find that it’s fragmented out in different ways. When you look at the records of the 50s, it was pretty string-band oriented. With Roy Acuff, it was still fiddles and dobros and those kinds of things. Then along came that whole cosmopolitan thing and it got ‘lush’ and you had Ray Price doing records with strings and Eddy Arnold appealing to everybody. I’m sure that in its day, it was like ‘What is this — its got orchestras and all these kind of things on there?’
“Then it took Buck Owens,” he continues, “to come along with that real clean (sound) with great songs and the drums up. And I’m sure that in its infancy, it felt very rebellious just like Waylon did. Now you can look back and say ‘Yeah, Buck Owens was really really country,’ but in that day, was he really? He was very much different from what the norm was — bringing drums to the Opry and bringing electric instruments into country music. All those things have always been a change and it’s always been that fragmentation of going outside the realm a little bit. It’s way outside the realm now, but at the same time, there’s still that core that won’t ever go away. It will take a record like Randy Travis’ in the mid 80s that brought everybody back, and it’s going to keep continuing to happen. We have such an ability to focus on this era and see everything and analyze everything. Then in 20 years, you’ll remember what the real chestnuts of this period were. There’s been a backlash in the past few years. It couldn’t possibly sustain the sales figures that it did for a while for everybody. There’s still a handful that’s going to continue to sell huge numbers, but everybody else’s have kinda slid back a little bit. You might want to say that maybe there’s not a lot of depth in what’s been recorded in the past few years.”
Vince continues to stick to his guns when it comes to how country music appeals to the younger generation. “If you’ll listen to what I said and a lot of people said five or six years ago — I was thinking ‘Hey, everybody be careful. Everybody’s gonna jump on the band wagon and you’re going to really rely on the youth and they’re going to go away.’ That demographic has never really been a part of country music until probably the last ten years,” he admits. “Now it has been and you see what’s happening. I’m not going to hang my hat on a 17-year-old kid and have them be my focal point for my future. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Once again, are they leaving because they’re fickle or because the records are not any good. Sometimes you have to point that finger in the mirror and look at yourself and quit passing the buck and blaming everybody else. Great records are remembered and some of them now will remain timeless.
Talking about country music is serious to Vince, as well as the future he hopes to continue having by making it. Talking shop, however, still falls second to another true love of Vince’s.
“You know me — the sun is out and it’s 90. You know where I’d rather be.”
Undeniably, a par-for-the-course answer.