Ten minutes before the Vince Gill celebrity concert got underway Monday night (March 22) at Belmont University’s new Curb Event Center in Nashville, a man dressed in jeans, long-sleeved white T-shirt and a backward-facing baseball cap climbed up through the stands behind the stage and began gesturing for the people seated there to move down onto gym floor for a better view. “Why does he care where they sit?” I wondered, until the guy turned around, and I saw it was Gill himself. When it comes to transforming a hangar-size arena into a cozy living room, nobody does it better than “Vinny.”
The two-hour show was a model of simplicity. Gill perched on a high stool at the front of the small, makeshift stage at the center of the gym and called up his famous friends to sing while he played guitar and sang along. Clearly in his element, Gill joked with the performers and occasionally reminisced about how he first met them. Most of the artists had been playing basketball with him on this same floor a few minutes earlier in the annual fundraiser for Belmont’s music business and athletic departments.
Taking their turns with Gill were Larry Stewart of Restless Heart, Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, Ira Dean and Keith Burns of Trick Pony, Emerson Drive, Dierks Bentley, Jimmy Wayne, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Christian music artist Matthew West, newcomer Julie Roberts, “Best of Belmont” talent winner Jennifer Emerson and Gill’s wife, Amy Grant.
Gill kicked off the evening with his 1991 hit, “Liza Jane,” and then invited Stewart, Rooney and DeMarcus up to do the Restless Heart standard, “I’ll Still Be Loving You.” “Are these the guys from HeDaisy?” Gill cracked, referring to the two from Rascal Flatts. “I mean that with the utmost affection,” he continued, “because I really do love these guys.” (Rascal’s lead singer Gary LeVox was absent because his wife gave birth to their second child the day before.) Recalling the that Rooney and DeMarcus previously worked in Chely Wright’s band, Gill said, “My daughter was about 16 then, and Joe Don kept trying to get her phone number.”
Gill had to resort to a lyric sheet when it came time for him to help the two Rascals sing their signature hit, “I’m Movin’ On.” DeMarcus observed, “I can tell you’ve listened to our record a bunch.”
Remarking on the vicissitudes of being a recording artist, Gill told the crowd, “I’ve been in this business 21 years, and I’ve had a record die at every number on the charts.”
When he brought Roberts to the stage, Gill said, “I remember singing on this girl’s first record, and I really think she’s a talented kid.” A Belmont alum, Roberts reminded Gill she had attended the school on a Vince Gill Scholarship. After she sang her current single, “Break Down Here,” to rapturous applause, Gill proclaimed proudly, “That girl’s going to do some damage.”
Bentley wowed the crowd with “My Last Name” and “What Was I Thinkin’.” Gill said he and his wife had first seen Bentley performing bluegrass with a band at Nashville’s Market Street Brewery. He was so impressed, Gill said, he sat in with them. “Amy had a beer, I had an iced tea, and then we drove home.” He departed from his avuncular demeanor for a moment after Emerson, an attractive blonde, sang her song. “It’s too bad that I have children older than her,” he lamented.
While Gill had nothing but compliments for all the performers, it was Howard’s performance that gave him the most pleasure. When she began hitting the high notes on “Forgive,” Gill leaned back on his stool, threw back his head and pivoted his torso in ecstatic circles. “That’s some singing for you,” he asserted when Howard finished. “There’s only once guy who can follow that.”
That guy was Benson, who bounced onto the stage and immediately put Gill to the test with some torrid guitar picking on “Blackberry Blossom.” Gill rose to the challenge. “I figured he could do anything,” Benson said admiringly after he left the stage. Benson told the crowd that his son had recently spent a semester at Belmont on “a Ray Benson scholarship” but had since returned to Austin to “re-learn how to speak English.”
Dean came to the stage talking on his cell phone. The Trick Pony bassist handed the phone to Gill, explaining that it was his mother on the line and that she was a big fan. “Your son took his pants off in front of a big crowd,” Gill informed mama, “but he was wearing his BVDs.” After the conversation concluded, Dean and Burns sang, “Just What I Do,” which, they explained, was one of the few songs they could do without lead singer Heidi Newfeld.
“I’m from Canada,” Johnson explained to the audience when her turn came, “and I wanted to go to this school so bad. … Then I looked at the price [of tuition] and said, ‘No.’” Grant was the last performer up. “I had to save her for last,” said Gill. “She’s my ride home.” She sang “After the Fire,” a song she’d written for Gill, and followed it with “House of Love.”
Taking a serious turn, Gill said, “I wrote a song for my father after he was gone, and I wrote a song for my brother after he was gone. I wanted to write this one before somebody else is gone.” With that, he launched into his current single, the pensive, “These Last Few Days.” He concluded the evening with a sing-along of “Amie,” from his days with Pure Prairie League. “I used to sing this one for a living,” he said.
It wasn’t a full house Monday night, but it appeared to be a fulfilled one.
Larry Stewart, Joe Don Rooney, Jay DeMarcus, Gill
“I’ll Still Be Loving You”
Rooney, DeMarcus, Gill
“I’m Movin’ On”
Julie Roberts, Gill
“Break Down Here
Dierks Bentley, Gill
“My Last Name”
“What Was I Thinkin’”
Jennifer Emerson, Gill
“I Want to Remember”
Emerson Drive, Gill
“Fall Into Me”
Rebecca Lynn Howard, Gill
Ray Benson, Gill
Jimmy Wayne, Gill
“New Level, New Devil”
Ira Dean, Keith Burns, Gill
“Just What I Do”
Carolyn Dawn Johnson
“I Don’t Want You to Go”
Amy Grant, Gill
“After the Fire”
“House of Love”
“These Last Few Days”
Gill, Grant, Johnson, Emerson