(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
You only have to go back in recent history to the 1970s, when a young Vince Gill was a journeyman instrumentalist in such bluegrass bands as Mountain Smoke, Boone Creek and the group Byron Berline & Sundance, to catch a glimpse of the promise of the impact the young Oklahoman would one day have on the world of country music. He learned his chops on the road with such hustling groups and later as a member of the Eagle-esque group Pure Prairie League and Rodney Crowell’s ace road band the Cherry Bombs.
I think that today Gill is overwhelmingly country music’s most valuable player. In the overall scheme of things — especially considering the many roles he has played in the music — it would be hard to name anyone else more important to the music. As an artist, entertainer, songwriter, musician, sideman, show host, mentor to young artists and man-about-town Belmont University basketball fan. Currently, as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, he serves as oral historian, passing on the history and the biographies of past Opry members to upcoming new artists. He thinks teaching the music’s history to new generations is important. And I applaud that.
As the affable, wisecracking longtime host of the CMA Awards show, Gill was invaluable for many years in promoting the image of country music around the world. And, I might add, a very positive image it was, indeed.
He also is one of the few artists in country music who can provide true show-stopping moments. If you’ve ever seen him performing live his spine-tingling “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” then you know what I mean. I have seen entire arenas full of workers stop whatever they were doing at a rehearsal and just freeze at attention when Vince sang even snippets of that song or his great “When I Call Your Name.” His producer, Tony Brown, once told me Vince’s secret is that his voice floats above all the instruments. And above everything else. How do you do that? Ask God.
As for guitar-slinging, can you name anyone else in country music who would have been the first country guitar picker to be called by Eric Clapton to play at one of his legendary guitar jams? Who else among country pickers would have been invited to join the British group Dire Straits? Guess who, in both cases.
I still think his greatest accomplishment lies in successfully recording and releasing four wildly different albums at once in the same package. And then being awarded a Grammy for country album of the year as a reward for taking such a risk.
The work in question was These Days in 2006. Its music ranges from straight country to ballads to bluegrass to jazz to acoustic to honky-tonk. In other words, it contains a little bit of everything he’s done throughout his long career. Gill can call upon almost any artist within or without country music for collaboration, and on These Days, there was a long list of guest artists, ranging from jazz stylist Diana Krall to Alison Krauss to Del McCoury and Sheryl Crow. The boxed set yielded three singles, two of which charted low and one of which didn’t chart at all. The set sold slowly (to this date, its sales total is 380,000, according to Nielsen Soundscan).These days, that sort of commercial performance has usually resulted in country artists of a certain age and uncertain commercial viability being dropped from major Nashville record labels. To Universal Music Group Nashville’s credit, it maintained and still maintains faith in Vince Gill and keeps him as a staunch member of its artist roster.
I still wonder how many people to this date have listened to every cut on These Days and how often they listen. Still, it worked. And it still works — for the dedicated listener. And for the music seeker. It’s a work that stands up to the test of time.
His latest album, Guitar Slinger, will, I hope, fare better. It’s got no dirt road, beer-drinking, small town, pickup truck, beer joint, fishing hole, skanky chick, good-ol’-boy anthems. Thankfully. There’s just some solid music there that is resonating with listeners, songs such as the poignant “Bread and Water.”
He will be on CMT Crossroads with the British artist Sting on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24).