Vince Gill had a story for every song he sang — and both forms were riveting. On Tuesday evening (Feb. 3), Gill gave the first of three public performances at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as his part in the institution’s annual artist-in-residence series.
Held in the 213-seat Ford Theater, the series is designed to allow the featured artist to perform favorite songs and talk informally about his career. Artists spotlighted earlier were Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Douglas.
Gill stepped through the curtain promptly at 7 p.m. to greet the full and enthusiastic house, a crowd that included his fellow Country Music Hall of Fame members Harold Bradley, Jim Foglesong, Jo Walker-Meador and Jimmy Fortune (of the Statler Brothers).
Taking a center-stage seat that was bracketed by six guitars (three acoustic, three electric), Gill set the tone for the evening by declaring, “I just ate. High notes could be a problem.”
He was backed by Pete Wasner on keyboards, Mike Bubb on upright bass and Billy Thomas on percussion (which consisted of a box he sat on and played with a gloved hand and a drum brush).
Assuring the audience that he was open to requests, Gill opened the show with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slipping Away,” his No. 1 single from 1992. He recalled going to a James Taylor concert at which Taylor had performed with only one accompanist and talked about his songs. “I felt like I knew James Taylor better [after that],” he said.
One of his best-known songs, Gill recounted, grew out of his friendship with the late songwriter Harlan Howard (also a Hall of Fame member). Gill said that after he moved to Nashville, he recorded demos for Howard, knowing that doing so would ensure that his voice would be heard in all the right places.
“You know, kid,” Howard observed to him one day, “there’s not been a good death song written in a long time.” Gill said he and Howard agreed that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was the last best song written in that doleful genre.
In an attempt to correct the deficiency, Gill went home and wrote “Tryin’ to Get Over You,” which has the foreboding line, “It’ll take dyin’ to get it done.” The song became a hit for him in 1994.
When someone in the audience called out for a particular song, Gill declined on the grounds that it would sound too much like the song he’d just finished. “I keep writing the same songs,” he admitted. “It worked for a while.”
Leading into another selection, Gill told the crowd he was a big fan of John Denver and that the earliest specimen he has of himself singing on tape is of him and his father chiming along to a Denver record.
Denver’s “This Old Guitar” was a particular favorite, Gill continued. “All my favorite songwriters write songs about their guitar,” he explained. Then, after telling how he had acquired his precious 1942 Martin instrument, he swung into his own salute “This Old Guitar and Me.”
Gill talked a lot about his father, whom he described as “a lawyer by trade and a redneck by choice.” His father, Gill said, was an “imposing man” who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed over 300 pounds. “He was Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and [General George] Patton rolled into one,” Gill marveled.
A no-nonsense figure who was quick and harsh with his discipline, as his son remembers him, the elder Gill died in 1997. Years later, Gill would take an idea his dad had for a song and, with the help of Rodney Crowell, turn it into the left-field lament, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.”
After explaining to his skeptical wife, singer-songwriter Amy Grant, that “It’s Hard to Kiss” was not a slam at her, Gill said he had an epiphany: “Sadly, it dawned on me that the song must have been about my mother.”
His next song, the serene “These Days” (from his album of that title), was a tribute to his wife and to the contentment he’s found with her, Gill said.
Pausing to brush his hand through his long tousled locks, Gill mused, “I need a haircut, don’t I? I’m starting to look like the governor of Illinois.”
At this point, Gill called singer-songwriter Danny Flowers from the audience, inviting him to sing his classic composition, “Tulsa Time.” When Gill got up to relinquish both his seat and his guitar, Flowers asked, “What are you gonna do?” To which the famously ravenous singer replied, “There are finger sandwiches in the back.”
Gill did not go munching, however. Instead, he discreetly sat behind Flowers and accompanied him on guitar. Flowers finished his song to uproarious applause, and Gill, returning to his seat, announced, “I got to play that [song] with Eric Clapton last summer.”
Noting that he first heard “Tulsa Time” from Don Williams, Gill added that Williams “should be in this place,” referring to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Responding to several shouted requests, Gill sang “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” a tribute to his older brother who died in 1993. “That’s how I process grief,” he said. “I sit down with a guitar and write something.”
Next came “Buttermilk John,” the song Gill wrote to memorialize his steel guitar player of 17 years, John Hughey. Then it was on to the raucous “One More Last Chance” and the mock plaintive “Kindly Keep It Country.” Gill said the latter song was based on a fictional radio station the band members came up with when he was touring with Pure Prairie League. Their creation was station KKIC, whose motto was “Kindly Keep It Country.”
Gill dedicated “When I Call Your Name,” his first big hit, to fabled record executive Fred Foster, who was in the audience. He said Foster had taken him under his wing when he first came to Nashville, played golf with him and introduced him to Chet Atkins.
“We used to sit and wonder if I’d ever have a hit song,” Gill recalled. “And we thought probably not.”
When he was still scrambling for recognition in the early ’80s, Gill said he and his band were booked at a college. Finally, he thought, they would have an audience young enough to appreciate his music. But once on campus, they saw no sign of student life. That’s when they discovered they’d been scheduled during spring break.
Chastened but not defeated, they set up and began playing to an audience of just seven people. They were not far into their set, Gill said, when a couple got up and started to leave. Gill tried to persuade them to stay, but as they headed for the exit, he told them they couldn’t get out, that all the doors were locked. To this, the male member of the couple snapped with obvious determination, “Oh, we’ll get out.” So much for cultivating new fields.
Gill next brought Jimmy Fortune to the stage. Fortune was the high-tenor singer for the Statler Brothers and one of the group’s standout songwriters. “Don’t look at me to get the high part,” Gill warned as Fortune plugged in his guitar and strummed the opening chords of one of his biggest hits, “Elizabeth.” Gill beamed every time Fortune struck one of his distinctive stratospheric notes.
While he was on the subject to “high singing” vocalists, Gill noted that he spent one of the best weeks of his life opening for Roy Orbison.
Although he warned the person who requested it that he would probably screw it up, Gill agreed to sing “When Love Finds You,” his Grammy-winning hit from 1994. It has since become a popular wedding song, and Gill recalled two especially painful weddings at which he had performed it.
One was for Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus. Set up to sing it with an orchestral backing, Gill said he simply forgot the words. “I completely butchered his wedding,” he groaned.
The other wedding, which took place in Hawaii, was for one of Gill’s golfing friends. When it came time for him to sing, the minister, who didn’t recognize him, simply introduced him as “Here’s Gill.” This time, his performance was right on the money — so much that the minister approached him after the ceremony and suggested they market themselves as a package for wedding ceremonies. Gill begged off, explaining to the ambitious divine that he wasn’t “local.”
Forgetting words to songs he ought to know has been an abiding curse, Gill told the audience. In the early ’90s, he was invited to sing the national anthem at a World Series game. Long a baseball enthusiast, Gill jumped at the opportunity.
The iffy thing was that he was asked to sing it at the fifth game. One team had already won three games in a row, and had it won the fourth, Gill knew he was out. So on the night of the fourth game, he took a TV on stage, determined to discover as quickly as possible if he’d be star-spangling or not. “I thought if the other team won the fourth game, I’d end the show early and hop an early flight to Atlanta.” And that’s what he did.
The next day, the limousine in which he was hastening to the stadium broke down two blocks away. Frantic to get there, Gill hopped out with the other passengers and began pushing the limo. When they got to the assigned gate, Gill rushed up and told the guard he had to get in to sing the anthem. “Yeah, right,” said the unimpressed sentinel, “I just saw you pushing a limousine.”
Ultimately, Gill talked his way in. He said he had gotten only to the opening two words — “Oh, say …” — when he heard his voice echoing around the stadium. This disoriented him so much that he once more forgot the words. Then came the miracle. He spied “a fat guy with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other” expressively mouthing each word of the lyrics. Gill said he sang word-for-word with his savior until just at the end of the song when the guy took a big bite of his hot dog.
Gill said that after he’d had some chart success, songwriter Max D. Barnes asked if he’d like to come to Barnes’ house and write some songs together. Since Barnes had penned such hits as “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “Don’t Take It Away” and “Storms of Life,” Gill was more than glad to oblige him.
To prepare for the session, Gill came up with a song idea he was sure Barnes would like. But when he presented it, his host proclaimed that it was “too sad.”
“Too sad?” Gill said incredulously. “You wrote ’Chiseled in Stone!'”
But Barnes would not be moved. He told Vince to look around at the palatial dwelling his songs had earned him. “You might want to listen to me,” Barnes intoned. “Make it positive.”
And that’s what they did together. They wrote the reassuring “Look at Us,” which, in 1992, won the Country Music Association’s song of the year award. Then Gill sang the song to great applause to the audience at the Hall of Fame.
Like every other veteran performer, Gill had a stock of road stories to share. Once, while he was touring with Patty Loveless, the two bands and crews had a day off between shows. With nothing better to do, Gill said they decided to take over a Holiday Inn bar on karaoke night.
While the band and crew embarked on their various diversions, Gill sat at the bar beside an African-American woman who thought he looked familiar. When she asked him his name, he told her it was “Willis” and that he was an auto parts salesman.
As the evening aged, Gill’s companion decided it would be fun for the two of them to go up to the karaoke machine and sing a duet. Gill assured her that he “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket” and begged off. This only made her more insistent.
Finally Gill gave in. His companion picked a Motown standard, and Gill said he absolutely murdered the first verse, singing off key and missing lyrics. The lady looked at him with a mixture of alarm and disgust. On the next verse, his voice got appreciably better and by the third verse he was channeling Stevie Wonder.
As they went back to the bar, his partner said, “You know, Willis, once you got over being nervous, you got a lot better.” In the end, Gill told her who he really was and gave her tickets to the next show. “She’s been coming to our shows now for 15 years,” he said.
Gill said that recording his 1991 duet with Barbra Streisand, “If You Ever Leave Me,” was the “longest day” of his life. He had already recorded his parts and, at the producer’s insistence, some of hers when she finally made it into the studio, several hours and a leisurely late dinner after she was scheduled to be there.
It was while he was sat beside her at dinner, Gill said, that he realized she didn’t even know who he was, that it was her producer — not Streisand — who dreamed up their duet. After they returned to the studio and she listened to the playback, she turned to him and said, “You’re pretty damn good. I just have one question, why do you say ’muh’? The word is ’my.'”
Instead of singing the Streisand tune, Gill fulfilled another request with “What You Give Away.” “I know that one,” he said proudly.
Gill treated the crowd to a new song he had written with Leslie Satcher. Called “Bread and Water” and chronicling the last hours of a homeless man, Gill said the song was also inspired by his brother, who followed a downward trajectory after a near fatal car wreck and months in a coma.
Jovially warning the audience that they had better leave before the hockey game in the arena next door was over, Gill attempted to end his two-hour set with a blazing romp through “Liza Jane.”
But the crowd demanded more. When he returned to the stage, he treated them to “Never Knew Lonely,” which he said he wrote for his daughter Jenny while he was away from her in Europe, “Pocket Full of Gold” and “Oklahoma Borderline.” The show wrapped up at 9:25.
“I’ll race you all to the Taco Bell,” Gill said by way of farewell.
He will continue his artist-in-residence performances on Feb. 17 and 24.