Recording Academy Salutes 20-Time Grammy Winner Vince Gill

Steve Martin, Brad Paisley, Alison Krauss, Michael McDonald Join Tribute

The Grammys came to Nashville Wednesday night (Sept. 9) to salute country music generally and honor Vince Gill specifically.

Gill was radiant throughout the evening, evidently more from his joy in the music being performed than pride in the award he was about to receive.

Held before a music industry crowd at the Loveless Barn, a casual new entertainment venue in the city’s western suburbs, the ceremony featured performances by Michael McDonald, Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley, Amy Grant (Gill’s wife), Steve Martin, Jenny Gill (Gill’s recently engaged daughter) and, finally, the man of the hour himself.

Grammys are awarded by the Recording Academy, and this was the latest in a series of the organization’s salutes to particular musical formats. Gill has won 20 Grammys over the past 19 years. He is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.

“It’s such a joy to see him share his talent with other people,” said Grant of her husband as she assumed the role of mistress of ceremonies. She related that Gill always returned from the Grammy awards with good stories, such as hanging out with Diana Krall or Herbie Hancock, artists he might have otherwise never encountered.

At one Grammy show, Grant said, Gill spotted Eric Clapton but couldn’t summon up the courage to approach the great guitarist to say how much he appreciated his work. It was then that Clapton came over to him and said, “I always look forward to getting your next recording. I love to hear you play.”

During the course of her introductions, Grant explained how Gill had first met the performers who were there to honor him by singing songs he had written.

She said he met McDonald in 1980 at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado when Gill was the new lead vocalist for Pure Prairie League and McDonald was with the Doobie Brothers.

Gill’s first encounter with Krauss occurred at Station Inn, Nashville’s fabled bluegrass oasis. (“During my drinking days,” Gill shouted from the front row). At the time, Krauss was still a relatively unknown teenager.

He was so bowled over by her voice and fiddling, Grant said, he approached her after the show and told her Emmylou Harris was looking for a harmony singer. As Gill recalls, Krauss responded, “I’m not interested.”

Paisley was a tender 11-year-old when he initially crossed paths with Gill. The place was Twitty City, the late Conway Twitty‘s kitschy music park just outside of Nashville. Paisley was there, said Grant, to see “his hero,” Steve Wariner, for whom Gill was opening. After watching Gill play, the youngster added another hero to his list.

Arriving onstage to a standing ovation, McDonald proclaimed, “This is a big deal tonight.” He described “When I Call Your Name,” his opening song, as “one of those perfect records.” (It also yielded Gill his first Grammy for best male country vocal performance.)

A five-time Grammy-winner himself, McDonald concluded his portion of the show with the mournful “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

All the performers were backed by Gill’s band: keyboardist John Hobbs, acoustic guitarist Jeff White, electric guitarist Tom Britt, drummer Billy Thomas, bassist David Hungate and vocalist Dawn Sears.

Before she called Krauss forward, Grant told the crowd that it was an ordeal attending concerts with Gill because he is always so intent on the music. “He rarely smiles because he’s analyzing everything the whole night,” she said.

Krauss, who has swept 26 Grammys, bowed with “Whenever You Come Around” and ended with “These Days,” also earning a standing ovation. “That is about as tender as it gets,” said Grant of Krauss’ spun-gold interpretation of the latter song.

Always ready with a quip, three-time Grammy winner Paisley said that preparing to play a Vince Gill song for Vince Gill was “like going through a pre-flight check for a kamikaze mission.”

“I hope nobody’s recording this,” he added.

Paisley needn’t have worried. He had the crowd — and Gill — solidly in his pocket from the opening notes of “Trying to Get Over You.”

“I remember my first time hearing Vince Gill — in my crib,” he joked after the applause died down. But he quickly struck a more respectful note, asserting, “Vince Gill shatters the notion of ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’” citing him as a masterful singer, songwriter and guitarist and a consummate humanitarian.

Then, warning that he was going to attempt something “even more foolish than the last song,” he told Gill, “This is one of my favorite guitar songs you’ve ever done. Don’t judge me.” With that he ripped into a breakneck treatment of “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he ended with a dazzling electric guitar solo.

Paisley’s performance netted the loudest and most sustained applause of the evening.

At this point, the band left the stage and Grant returned. She said “music, golf, food and laughing” are her husband’s chief passions and that no one had brought him more laughter than Steve Martin (although she did concede that Richard Pryor was a close second).

Gill met Martin, she said, when the two played during a tribute to Earl Scruggs on the Late Show With David Letterman.

Martin came to the stage in his best professorial fashion. Wearing a dark suit and clutching notes, he ignored the microphone at center stage and instead took his place at the lectern Grant had just vacated.

There are men, he told the audience, who are generous, kind, well-loved and about whom nothing bad can be said. “It would be so much easier,” he deadpanned, “if we were honoring a man like that.”

While acknowledging that Gill is worthy of some praise, he maintained, “This seems neither the time nor place.” Noting that the world was familiar with Gill’s skill as a puppeteer, Martin added, “But we know so little about your work in aerodynamics.”

“I remember when I bought my first Vince Gill album,” Martin droned on. “It should arrive in two days.”

And there were more savory jabs: “When you mention Vince Gill, one word comes to mind — ‘tantrums.’ … Vince, ‘genius’ is not a word I throw around. I thought I’d mention that. … You do it all. You’re a performer, you’re a writer. And that’s it.”

But Martin didn’t play it all for laughs. He spoke of hearing a voice he loved singing “I Can’t Tell You Why” on the 1993 tribute album, Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles, but said he took no notice of who it was.

When it finally occurred to him years later that the voice was probably Gill’s (which it was), he said he was reluctant to mention it to Gill for fear it might be a case of mistaken identity, a situation he has experienced himself.

“People come up to me and say, ‘I loved you in Airplane!” Martin said, “and I have to explain that it wasn’t me. It was Leslie Nielsen.”

He said he was amazed at the care and passion, Gill and Dolly Parton brought to their work in the studio when they sang together on Martin’s new bluegrass album, The Crow.

As a parting shot, Martin declared, “It was a pleasure to fly in here [for this] — at great expense.”

Recording Academy president Neil Portnow followed Martin to the stage to present Gill his award.

“I think the least we can do is ask Steve if he’d like to host the Grammys next year,” he said. “What do you think of that?” The crowd seemed to agree.

“Steve, I loved you in Airplane!” said Gill when it came his turn in the spotlight.

“It’s interesting how many years are tied up in the room,” he mused, alluding to the many people backstage and in the audience with whom his career had intersected. He said it was the first time he’d gotten to see his band play from an audience perspective. “These cats can go!” he marveled.

“Just getting time to stay with musical people [early in my career] was enough,” he continued. “I just wanted to be part of it. I didn’t have to be the center.”

He recalled being too broke to pay his rent but still feeling euphoric because he was surrounded by music. “The joy was being willing to embrace the moment,” he explained.

As a youngster, Gill said, he would buy albums simply because he spotted the name of a guitarist he admired in the liner credits. “It’s interesting what can happen if you just look on the back of a record jacket.”

He said he bought a copy of Linda Ronstadt’s 1974 album, Heart Like a Wheel, and was so transfixed by the pure, soaring voice of Ronstadt’s harmony singer that he was sure it was Dolly Parton, even though the album credits listed a name that sounded somewhat phony to him — Emmylou Harris. He even assured his friends that it was Dolly singing under an assumed name. After he discovered an Emmylou Harris album in a record bin, he said he “stalked” her.

Gill lavished praise on the three performers who had preceded him, calling Krauss’ voice “holy,” lauding Paisley for both his musicianship and sense of humor and describing McDonald’s voice as “the rarest of the rare.”

To Grant, a prize-winning contemporary Christian and pop singer, he said, “You are the kindest thing I’ve even gotten to experience. Thank you for being here tonight. I know it’s church night. I tell people I’m married to a Spice girl … Bible Spice.

“If I’m going on too long here,” he said, “tough shit. … This night is much more about all of us than it is about me. Now, I think I have to sing for my award.”

With his band back behind him, Gill said, “Here’s a song I stole from Eric Clapton. It’s good to be honest.” The song, with which he then rocked the rafters, was “Liza Jane,” his top 10 hit from 1991.

Next he invited Grant to sing with him on “Faint of Heart,” a bluesy selection from his Grammy-winning best country album, These Days. They ended the song with a kiss, much to the crowd’s approval.

Gill then introduced a new — and disturbing — song he said he’d written “after listening to one too many stories about people doing awful things to kids.” He titled it “Forever Changed,” and his daughter, Jenny, sang the bitter lyrics about child molestation.

Alluding to his penchant for collaboration, Gill said, “I have won 20 Grammys, but more than half of them were with other people.” He invited Martin and his banjo to the stage to lead the band in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a collaboration that won both men a Grammy for best country instrumental performance. It was the only song of the evening that Gill had no hand in writing.

Gill ended his set with another new song, “Heaven, ” which he co-wrote with Grant and two others. His exit was brief, though, as the crowd insistently called him back. He returned with Paisley for a scorching rendition of “Give Me One More Last Chance.”

Finally, Gill and McDonald brought down the curtain with the wistful “I Still Believe in You.”

Spotted in the crowd that streamed out of the room past gigantic black-and-white photos of Gill that lined the walls were Wynonna, Grand Ole Opry star Jim Ed Brown and Country Music Hall of Fame member Ralph Emery.

Guests lingered after the show at a lavish VIP party.

View photos from the Grammy tribute to Vince Gill.