Sure, there were fireworks. But it was the crackle of sweet memories that resonated through Vince Gill’s mind during the recent Fourth of July weekend as he stood onstage, singing with his musical idol, James Taylor.
Gill and his wife, pop and gospel singer Amy Grant, were Taylor’s personally-invited guests at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., on July 3-4. Each show drew a sold-out crowd of 18,000 fans.
“It was a magical couple of nights,” says Gill, who, despite his reputation for having recorded with virtually everybody else in the universe, had never worked with Taylor before.
“The first night we went out there [I told him], ’I’ve got to say thank you for letting me cross this off my bucket list. My big sister brought your first record into the house. I’ll never forget it. I can remember her sitting there in her room and listening to that record even 40-some years later.”
That album was Sweet Baby James, which came out in 1970 and instantly established Taylor as a major talent.
Taylor’s invitation was unexpected, Gill says, even though he and Grant had been scheduled to perform in a tribute to Taylor at Carnegie Hall in April. They were forced to cancel their appearance when Grant’s mother became gravely ill.
“I don’t think this had anything to do with it,” Gill says. “I think it was just last-minute. He called me a week and a-half or two weeks before that performance and said, ’Hey, I’m taking a long shot here, but if you’re not doing anything July the Fourth weekend, we’re playing up here, and I wondered if you or you and Amy or any combination thereof would come up.’
“It was perfect. We didn’t have anything going on. So we jumped up there and had the trip of a lifetime. It was unbelievable.”
Gill says his and Grant’s parts in the shows required little rehearsal or preparation. “His band is world class. They charted everything out and had it nailed. It couldn’t have been better.”
One of Taylor’s band members is fiddler Andrea Zonn, who years ago toured with Gill.
“I got to tell James’ wife, Kim, the story of when Andrea called me [about working with Taylor],” Gill says.
The essence of that story is that Zonn phoned Gill and told him Taylor had asked her to go on the road with him but that she had turned him down in favor of staying with Gill.
Gill says his reaction to Zonn’s display of loyalty was quick and decisive.
“I said, ’You knucklehead! Call him back. You’ve got to do that. This is the chance of a lifetime. Don’t blow this.'”
Zonn did call back, and she’s been with Taylor ever since.
“That was the cool part of this weekend — the emotional tie for her. It was really fun to be a part of it.”
On the second night’s show, Taylor asked Gill to sing “Sweet Baby James” with him.
“That was a big old highlight right there,” Gill says with a chuckle.
Among the songs Gill and Grant performed from their catalogs of recording, either separately, together or with Taylor, were the Grant hits “House of Love,” “Baby Baby” and “Better Than a Hallelujah” and Gill’s classic “Pretty Little Adriana” and “Whenever You Come Around.”
“He’s Beatle-like to me,” Gill says of Taylor’s musical impact. “He’s the singer-songwriter that gave me the greatest place to shoot for.”
It’s shaping up to be a musically varied summer for Gill, who will bow his own album, Guitar Slinger, this fall.
On July 28-29, he’ll play bluegrass shows at the famed Birchmere performance center in Alexandria, Va., a nod to his earliest musical roots.
“I don’t envision doing what Ricky [Skaggs] has done — leaving country music behind and playing only bluegrass,” he says. “I don’t think I would ever do that. … But I’ve never stopped loving bluegrass. I don’t get to play it as much as I used to — not by choice but by circumstance.”
As usual, Gill’s been busy recording on other projects. He’s on the upcoming tribute album to Guy Clark and has lately done guest turns on albums by Johnny Winter, Alice Cooper and the Celtic group Cherish the Ladies. He reports he’s been putting finishing touches on his part of a new album by the Time Jumpers, the ad hoc band of superpickers that performs each Monday night at Nashville’s bluegrass mecca, the Station Inn.
Besides all this, he’s producing an album on his daughter and frequent singing partner, Jenny.
Gill played to an entirely new audience recently when the National Public Radio show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! came to Nashville. On it, he was persuaded to play “Not My Job,” a game which involves guessing at answers on a subject one knows nothing about, in this case another man named Vince — the late actor Vincent Price.
Despite Gill’s vowed ignorance of the topic, he racked up a perfect score. So he must be a fan of the show, right?
“I can honestly say I’d never heard it before,” he confesses. “That’s not my cup of tea so much, not because of content but because of lifestyle. I’m out playing golf. I’m not a radio bug or computer bug, and I’m less and less a TV junkie. It was fun, though. There’s a bunch of braniacs there, so I was a little cautious.”
Despite his multiple-Grammy winning voice and stellar guitar picking, Gill has always taken the most pride in his songwriting, a pride endorsed by his 2005 election into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Not surprisingly, he co-wrote all the songs on Guitar Slinger.
“I’m probably crossing over to writing more than just for a record now,” he says. “For the longest time, when I was really busy and on the radio — all the way immersed in it — I wrote just for the record because there wasn’t enough time [to write for its own sake].
“But now, I find myself sitting down and poking around with a few different ideas. I wrote a really neat story song the other day. I don’t know where it came from or whatever. But it’s dark and pretty edgy. This is probably the most creative space I’ve ever been in. I put a studio in at the house. So there’s music at home all the time.”