Vince Gill: The Soul of a Sideman

Time Jumpers Album Could Add to His Collection of Grammys

Vince Gill, a 20-time Grammy winner, continues to play well with others.

If you don’t believe it, visit AllMusic.com and check out the extensive list of recordings he’s made as a sideman. In the past two years alone, he’s played or sung on projects for Don Henley, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Aaron Lewis, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ashley Monroe, Asleep at the Wheel, Chris Young and, of course, Gill’s wife Amy Grant.

At Sunday’s (Feb. 12) Grammy Awards, his work with Nashville’s most celebrated traditional country band, the Time Jumpers, resulted in a best Americana album nomination for Kid Sister, a tribute to their late bandmate Dawn Sears. Gill also wrote the title track, which is up for best American roots song.

During an interview last year leading up to the release of his most recent solo album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, Gill talked about the creative process and why he thrives on being in the background onstage and in the studio.

CMT.com: In the current landscape of mainstream country music, it seems like a lot of artists fall into a safe formula and stick with it, but you can tell they’re capable of creating something more substantial. What advice would you give to a younger person who wants to be a serious artist?

Gill: You have to be, more than anything, willing to try to get better. I think we all fall into somewhat of a trap. If you find something that works, you can wear that out. There’s no harm in that, but there’s also no growth in it. I’m a different musician today than I was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, whatever era you want to pick. What you really learn is how to not waste your time with stuff that you know doesn’t matter. I think I’m finally at that place where I realize that I don’t have as much time left as I’ve had to get to this point. So it matters more. It’s more serious. It’s all these that you want to get out and accomplish.

When your solo deal with MCA Records ended a couple of years ago, I thought you’d go to a smaller, independent label where you might have additional artistic freedom. But you renewed your relationship with MCA.

I’ll hear from the artists’ point of view sometimes: “I finally got away from the big label.” I often marvel at the artist who says, “I can finally do what I wanted to do.” And I want to go, “Weren’t you doing that in your big stretch of success?’ Because in my experience, I was. I was doing what I wanted to do. I was playing what I wanted to play, singing what I wanted to sing and writing the songs I wanted to write. I never felt the big hand holding me that I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that.

Do you think those hands at the big labels are getting bigger and stronger these days?

No. For me, they never existed. My point is that I never felt anybody holding me down or telling what I should or shouldn’t do. I went through a period in my years of struggling where I was asked not to record any of my own songs. That was a pretty tough pill to swallow. So rather than swallowing the pill, I left. I said, “I have to do my own songs, or I don’t want to do this.”

That was when you were signed to RCA?

Yeah. And I don’t blame them. It’s not like I quit them because I had sour grapes. I don’t blame them one bit. It’s a business, and I was not delivering for them. So I get their point and respect it. But, to me, whether I succeed or if I fail, I need to do it on my terms. I respected the people the most who wrote their own songs. I didn’t want to be an interpreter of songs in my career. So I stuck with it, and some good songs came along, and I had a nice stretch.

You genuinely seem to enjoy playing music, and you’ve helped out a lot of singers and musicians onstage and in the studio.

I wish it did more for people. When I was young, I was the kind of kid that read the back of record covers. I bought a lot of records in my life by people I’d never heard of just because of the musicians who played on them. I thought I might learn something if [guitarist] Larry Carlton was playing on this record or Robben Ford was playing or Albert Lee or James Burton. So I would experiment with records by artists I never heard of and found some great music that way.

That’s what I wanted to do more than anything when I was a 17 or 18-year-old kid. I wanted to be one of those session players. I wanted to be a musician. I was given enough talent to be able to do that and did a lot of that. It’s how I paid the bills. I loved doing it. I love being part of the supporting cast because it’s harder. It’s a more difficult role to fill than being the leader and doing everything you want and asking everybody to follow you. That, to me, is a better testament of my talent than me as the artist. So I never quit doing that. I never lost sight of who I was.

When I was a kid, I saw James Burton backing Johnny Rivers in concert. At the end of the night, I realized he did everything he could onstage to make Johnny Rivers sound the best he possibly could.

Exactly. I think in my career, you can find 600 or 800 artists I’ve played with and sung with and done that for. To me, that rounded me more into what I wanted to be more than the knucklehead up front singing the songs. Even when I was the knucklehead up front singing the songs, it was still a band, and I was just the guy who sang the songs. It was important.

What was a really great testament that maybe I’d accomplished that was in 2003 or 2004, I got a call from Eric Clapton, and he asked me if I’d play his Crossroads festival. He said, “I’m only inviting guitar players I like.” That validation was huge for me. He saw me as who I really had always intended to be, and that meant the world to me.

What’s it like playing with somebody like Clapton onstage?

Terrifying. It’s pretty nerve-wracking. But I think when you get out of your comfort zone is when you stand the best chance to really rise.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.