Vince Gill has already won 18 Grammys — and he’s not ashamed to admit that he wants some more. It just might happen, too, Sunday night (Feb. 10) in Los Angeles. These Days, his ambitious four-CD boxed set, is nominated for album of the year among all genres, as well as in the country category.
“You know the old story of how it’s just great to be nominated? That’s a crock,” Gill says with a laugh. “Everybody wants to win. It’s human nature, and it’s why we are the way we are. It’s why we’re the country we are. It’s why this whole place works the way it does. It’s a competition, but I’ve always felt competition is within myself and with myself. If somebody else wins, I’ll be fine. But I can’t help but say I’d sure like to. I think they’d tell you the same thing.”
During an interview with CMT Insider, the Country Music Hall of Fame member talks about the personal history that eventually led him to the awards show podium and why he resorts to humor every time he accepts a trophy.
CMT: Where did your love of country music begin?
Vince Gill: Well, I think that my love for country music was there for a long time. All I know is … that was the music I heard as a small child. I didn’t get to pick the radio stations in the car when I was riding with the old man and my mom. The records they had were the records I was privileged to get to listen to. … I’ve recently taken that record collection from my mom, and I’m bowled over by who they are. I realized that those things were put in me like some sort of microchip or something. They’re in there, and it’s always felt familiar, and I’ve always been drawn to it. I think probably even before that, I started hearing hymns in church, hearing my grandmother play the piano.
As I turned into a teenager and wanted girls to like me, I started turning my guitar up a little bit louder and playing songs by the rock ’n’ roll groups that were popular when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. I’ve always been somewhat of a sponge musically, but country music was where I always knew I’d wind up somehow. I played bluegrass for a long time. I played in a pop band, a rock ’n’ roll band, for a long time. And then when it was time for me to make my own records, I knew who I loved. The kind of artist I wanted to be were those people that really had such a big part of instilling in me what it was that I loved.
Country music feels like my hair. It feels like my sight. It feels like my hearing. It’s all those things. I don’t fancy myself wanting to accomplish something in country music and then move on to something else. I like being known as a country singer and a musician.
Let’s talk about that signature voice. Is it just completely natural?
Yeah, I think. I mean, I was not trained. I was not taught how to sing. It came naturally. Somebody told me that a very prominent vocal coach told one of her students, “If you want to know how to sing, watch the way Vince Gill sings.” But I don’t know what it is that I do that would be construed as a proper way to sing, because I was not trained. I think my ears are really the gift more than my voice, and more than my hands, because my ears tell me how to sing. My ears tell me what to sing, they tell me how to phrase, how to pitch — all those things.
There are a lot of great singers, but there’s more to singing than just singing on the beat and singing in tune. There has to be something that’s engaging about the voice, and there has to be something memorable about the voice. When you go look at all the people that you revere, or let’s say all the people in the Country Music Hall of Fame, you name them and you know exactly what they sound like. Johnny Cash may not be perceived as the greatest voice that ever graced a country music song, but, my God, the character of his voice, the command of his voice… When I heard Rodney Crowell talk about him, he said, “I remember the first time I heard Johnny Cash sing, it was like he reached through the speakers and said, ’Listen to me.'” That’s what art is, whether you see it or whether you hear it. It’s something that is compelling and unique. …
I knew early on that if I wanted to have a great career, my voice was going to be what it was that made that happen. Somebody would say, “Well, why don’t you play more on your records?” I said, “They’re not going to play a bunch of guitar music on the radio these days. They want to hear singers and they want to hear songs.”… I knew if I was going to be a country music singer that people would find out over the years that I can play. But I’m not going to fill up records with an awful lot of guitar playing. If I had to say, hands down, what’s the best you do, I’d say singing. There are plenty of guys that can play great. A lot of great songwriters, but the great singer is probably the rarest.
When you win an award, and you hear your name called, what is it like to walk to the podium?
There’s nothing rehearsed. I don’t have a plan. I’ve never made a list out, and I have to come straight from an honest place. I never know where that’s going to be. A lot of times, I’m trying to be funny because I know that humor will get me through something that might otherwise be emotional. It’s really hard for me, believe it or not, to talk in front of people in that particular situation. … I just walk out there and I have to tell two or three jokes or I’m going to be a basket case because I’m pretty emotional. I always have been. When is something’s funny, I laugh. I can’t help it, I laugh from my toes. If something is sad, I weep like a baby. If something’s emotional, it’s just the way I am. My intent is never to be irreverent or to be a smart ass. It’s really, “OK, I’ve gotta get through this, so think of something before you fall apart.”