From Mama to Murder Ballads, Vince Gill Gets Personal on 'Okie'

New Album Shows a Vulnerable Side

Vince Gill has made one of the most eloquent albums of his career with Okie, which frames his sterling tenor among low-key, acoustic arrangements. It's hard to pin the project down to one musical genre, and that's OK with Gill.

“I like stretching where it itches,” he tells CMT Hot 20 Countdown. “I have a lot of music that’s inside of me. I don’t just want to be a traditional country singer. I don’t just want to be a bluegrass singer. I don’t just want to be a singer-songwriter. I’m going to be all these things.”

Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown airs at 9/8c Saturday and Sunday mornings.

CMT: Would you describe Okie as a personal singer-songwriter album?

Vince Gill: I think so. I think even more than that, it’s a reflection of how old I am and how long I’ve been doing this, and how my life is these days. I didn’t want to make a record that’s trying, necessarily, to get on the radio -- big, hooky choruses and electric guitars. But I wanted to sing some songs that were special to me.

Red Headed Stranger [Willie Nelson’s 1975 classic album] was a neat thing to remember. That was a neat record for the time, in that it was so simply done. And that’s what I wanted to do with this record. I didn’t play any electric guitar on here. There’s no big choruses with lots of vocals. It’s just the songs. And I never wanted anything to distract from the songs, so the music is very sparse and to the point.

There’s just a couple solos on the record and they’re minimal at best. So it’s not going to be a record that you’re gonna go listen to, to hear a bunch of musicians show off. It’s gonna be a reflective record of some pretty neat songs about some really truthful, meaningful, and deep subjects.

Sounds like you’ve made a record for adults to me.

Well, I would say that’s correct, but at the same time, it’s like when you have the opportunity to impose some life lessons to a young person, whether it’s your kid or what have you. Experience is valuable and I think you can also inspire a young person to realize it’s OK to make a mistake, to screw something up, and to be regretful about some things, to be forgiving about some things, even in yourself.

That’s one of the hardest things we have to do is to forgive ourselves. And it’s powerful when you can own your own mess. In a sense, that’s what these songs are. They are the truth, in my experience. Some are personal and some of them are just stories, but they’re stories on tough subjects.

There’s a song on here about abuse, sexual abuse. There’s a song on here about a young girl that gets pregnant and the whole premise of the song is not to cast any judgment. None of the songs have any judgment to them, saying you should feel this way or think this way. It’s just posing what the scenario is. It’s telling the story without judgment and that’s what’s beautiful about that song. It never tells what the girl should or shouldn’t do. It’s just, what choice would you make?

Some are personal, some aren’t, but these are all relatable topics.

Yeah, it’s a very personal type of topic, and unfortunately people probably have a hard time talking about that type of stuff. It is a tough subject. Once again, not a story being done with judgment, but with compassion.

Once as a young kid, I was acted upon by my basketball and gym teacher -- and the fortunate thing was I jumped up and ran. In seventh grade, no one knows what the hell your body does or what it’s supposed to do, or any of that mess. And all I knew is that it felt completely wrong and I jumped up and I ran out of the room and I was spared. But a lot of other kids weren’t -- in that same situation, in that same school, with that same guy. So there’s no telling how much damage he did to kids in those years.

But it’s hard sometimes to put yourself in a vulnerable position in the way you choose to write a song. I mean, “When My Amy Prays” is a beautiful song, a tribute to my sweet wife, Amy, but it’s also a vulnerable song for me because it tells the truth. I didn’t have the church life that Amy had growing up. I’m not like she is. People assume I am, because we’re married, and so things like that are a little tough to throw out there and be willing to admit some things that are true.

I watched Merle Haggard one time in an interview say, just tell the truth. It’s out there, it’s over, and you don’t have anything to defend, and it’s powerful. So I’m trying to take those words to heart.

I’m curious about the song “That Old Man of Mine.”

You can’t have a good country record without a murder ballad. We need another “Long Black Veil” out there for people to hear these days. … If you’re a songwriter, you gotta be able to not have to tell the truth every time all the time. It’s got its own element of truth in it, in very small doses, but what makes a great song -- it’s a great story. You paint great pictures, hopefully, with songs.

The guy kills his own dad to protect his family -- protect his mom, protect his sister. … I like those kinds of songs, always have since my bluegrass days. We call them the morbid murder ballads. I think they are a great part of our history. I like things that are dark. I like subjects that are hard. I like music that’s melancholy. I like things to stir up emotions. I’m moved by music and sometimes the darkest story is deserving to be told.

You seem as satisfied as you have ever been, if not more so.

I’ve always been satisfied. I’ve always been pretty happy. It’s like what my mom always said. When somebody asked her if she wished I would have gone to school and gotten a real job, she’d go, “Nah, he’s happy. I didn’t care about having a rich kid. I wanted a happy kid.”

So at all those junctions -- when I was 18, living in an attic in a house for 15 dollars a month -- I felt happy and I felt successful, because I could pay that rent and live on making music. And that’s never changed, whether it was the leanest years, the most successful year, and now some more lean years, and now a new gig [in the Eagles] -- it’s changed everything once again. I just live in the moment and I’m grateful every time.

What did your mom say the first time you played “A Letter to My Mama” for her?

I put some headphones on her and she teared up. It was really a sweet moment. … I think it was late last year I played in Oklahoma City in the Civic Center, which was the very first place I ever heard live music. I think that was the first place I heard the symphony play as a little boy. And I go to play that song in front of a full house – “A Letter to My Mama” with her in the audience -- and she was more than pleased.

I played a dobro solo on that song and I never play the dobro much anymore. I did when I was younger and playing in bluegrass. I was pretty good, but when the guys showed up that play really great, I was like, “Why do I play the dobro when I can get that guy to do it?” But my mom said at one point after I had tons of success, “You’ve done a lot of neat things, but my favorite thing you ever did was when you played the dobro. That’s my favorite.” So I was like, I have to play a dobro solo on this song, so its full circle.

Why did you choose to close Okie with your tribute to Merle Haggard?

I think more than anything because it’s the countriest thing on the record. I have another song about Guy Clark on this record and I didn’t want them back to back. So all of a sudden you hear a song honoring my friend Guy, and then you hear one honoring Merle. It was a little too disconcerting, so I separated those two.

It just felt like the right thing to end the record with. He’s my favorite. I always point to Merle Haggard as my favorite artist and the way he played, the way he sang, the way he wrote songs, the way he led a band, the way his band played, and the way the records were made. That was right in my wheelhouse. So I thought the last nod had to be to my fave.

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