Country Singer-Guitarist Vince Gill Reflects on his Incredible Career

Concert Preview


  • Jim Wright
Vince Gill has a pretty cool highlight reel when you look back at what he’s accomplished during his four decades in the business. Here’s one example — thanks to a stint with country rockers Pure Prairie League in the late ‘70s, he found himself on American Bandstand after years of being a fan.

“That’s a life highlight, straight up,” Gill chuckles during a recent conversation from a tour stop in Michigan. “You’re not going to find many hillbilly singers that can say that they were on American Bandstand with Dick Clark. I watched it as a kid and you saw your favorite bands and you saw him rate a record. That’s a real piece of Americana and those kinds of shows, you know, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, American Bandstand and we were the first band to play on Solid Gold and all of these people had shows, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and Toni Tennille — and we did ‘em all. You go up there and lip sync your song for three minutes and go home. It was great. It was so neat that it happened so early in my life. I was so young in ‘79 or ‘80 and I was in my early 20s and I was just this little knucklehead rocker out there trying to make a name.”

When you take a quick glance at Gill’s career stats, it’s not hard to see that he eventually accomplished that mission, thanks to a lot of hard work. He has a healthy stack of hit singles from across the years, including five that went all of the way to the top of the country music charts. But he also remains firmly grounded when it comes to what’s really important to him personally as an artist, as evidenced by his comments in press materials at the time his 2011 album Guitar Slinger was released.

“I have come to the realization that the results aren’t dictated whether they are number one records and you sell 20 million copies,” he says. “None of the notes change because of it. I don’t think I will ever let the results of something I like or don’t like be dictated to me by how well it does commercially.”

That realization has been a powerful guiding compass for Gill with the work that he does and there’s no shortage of things on tap for the veteran singer/songwriter. He has a couple of albums in the pipeline —- one of which finds him continuing his collaboration with the Nashville-based all-star band the Time Jumpers, the seasoned collective of musicians who, with Gill, hold down a standing weekly hometown club gig on Monday nights at 3rd and Lindsley when they’re home — and it’s popular to the point that they’ve also recently started taking the show on the road.

Gill will be back in the Cleveland area for a solo show with his band at the Wayne County Fair on Sept. 13. We caught up with him to talk about his upcoming activities and he was happy to also share a few stories about working with a few of his own heroes along the way.

You hear from a lot of folks that are fans of your music. It’s got to be pretty cool to find out that a guy like Eric Clapton is one of those fans.
[Laughs] It was amazing. I met Eric for the first time at the Grammys back in the early ‘90s. One year, I was sitting with Bonnie Raitt and Ruth Brown at the Grammys. The lights went down and it was a commercial or something and all of the sudden there’s someone standing in front of me and because it’s dark, I can’t see his face. But he just stuck his hand out and he said, “Vince, I’m a big fan. I just wanted to tell you that I love your playing, so thank you.” Bonnie goes, “Hey, that’s Clapton!” [Laughs] And so of course, I got up and hugged him and all of this stuff. It was pretty neat. All of these years later when he did the first Crossroads Festival in 2004, he called and the phone rings and I pick it up and he says, “Vince, it’s Eric Clapton,” and I said,” Yeah, sure it is!” He started laughing and he goes, “No, it really is!” He said, “I’m doing a guitar festival” and he said the coolest thing to me. He said, “I’m only inviting guitar players that I like and would you come?” I said, “Man, absolutely.” It was kind of a neat time for me. They had kind of [stopped] playing my records on the radio and this and that and one of the greats saw me for who I really was, just a guitar player, you know, just a musician. That was pretty neat. I got to do all of those festivals and he recorded one of my songs on a record [Clapton recorded Gill’s song “One Day on his 2005 album Back Home] and it’s kind of hard to [believe]. Pretty surreal. I’m awful grateful.

I saw you for the first time in 2007 at the Crossroads Festival in the Chicago area. I went straight out and bought your These Days set after seeing you perform “Cowboy Up” at that festival. I have to tell you, that was such a cool set to get, because a box set of four new albums doesn’t feel like something that would happen now. But even in 2006, it felt like a lot of artistic victories had been won bringing that set to the shelves.
Well, you know, I was surprised that they let me do it, to be honest. The real reason that got to come to fruition, I think, is that the record company kind of put their profit margin aside and charged a reasonable amount for the record, so people experimented [and took a chance on buying it]. It was really unique in that it was a box set of all new music. [Laughs] Most people do a box set of all their old stuff, you know? So I think curiosity is what kind of fueled that record more than anything. What was so amazing for me to get to do was all of the different kinds of music that box set represented. It had bluegrass, it was kind of an Americana [thing], it rocked pretty good, it had a jazz duet with Diana Krall [and there] was real traditional country, so I got to go and really honor all of the music that I kind of love that sometimes just being a country artist would be painting outside of the lines a little too much. So it was just a great opportunity to once again, to be a musician.

Was that your first time working with Phil Everly on that set?
Oh, absolutely. And you know, it was a really beautiful thing. It’s one of the last things he ever recorded, I was told. I just adored the Everly Brothers. The last time I was actually in Cleveland was doing that Everly Brothers tribute show.

It was a great night.
Oh God, it was a great night for all of the performers. Everybody got to kind of do stuff with people they probably didn’t normally do stuff with and man, that was certainly the case. What a neat night. And then after that, we sat at a little party at a little bar somewhere and I got to shoot the breeze with Don and that was a beautiful night. The Everly Brothers records are about my favorite of all-time. They really did what I’ve tried to do for all of these other people. You know, I’ve sung on thousands of peoples’ records at this point and that’s all I was trying to do was be Phil on those records and sing the high part seamlessly, you know? 

With things like the Bakersfield album and the These Days set, it seems like you’ve been really fortunate artistically that you’ve been able to really scratch whatever creative itch you might have with the albums that you’ve made. If there’s an idea you have, it seems like you’ve been able to pursue it. What’s still knockin’ around in your head that you’d like to do that you haven’t done project-wise?
There’s plenty actually. I think in my head, I’ve got the next five records mapped out. [Laughs] I want to do another record with Paul and we’ll probably take on, I don’t know who, maybe George Jones and Conway Twitty or Ray Price or Jimmy Dickens, three or four of my favorites. You know, I love turning young people on to great music. Bakersfield is a great example of that, you know, I think it’s a given that people my age and older that knew that music when it first came out and understood it, they’re going to get it and they’re going to love it. But you’ll find a 20 year old kid that didn’t really know who some of those musicians were and some of those West Coast records, you know, it’s a great chance for them [to discover that]. The same thing happened to me as a kid and it took Eric Clapton to teach me who Robert Johnson was and that’s the way you kind of learn your history. Then I want to make a real acoustic-y record of all of the songs that I kind of know are pretty dark with really tough subjects and things like that that I’d love to do. I want to do a real bluegrass record at some point — I think I’ll do that with Stuart Duncan, who is one of my favorite musicians and we’ve been friends since he was 13 years old. So I’ve got everything mapped out, it’s just going to take a while. [Laughs]

You talk about introducing folks to stuff through something like the Bakersfield record, you’re a guy that it’s well-known that you put in a lot of hours before you got the success. So it’s got to be similarly cool to now kind of give some of that knowledge back with the work that you’re doing producing Ashley Monroe and producing your daughter’s record. That must be a lot of fun for you.
It is. You know, at the end of the day since I made the first record that I ever made at 17 with the band that I was in, all I’ve ever tried to do is just be creative and play or contribute to the best of my talents. I always loved being part of the process. I didn’t care if I was just the guitar player or now if I’m producing a record. You know, even the production of a record, you’re not really in charge. It’s not an ego thing, it’s really just kind of circling the wagons and keeping everybody on track and on pace. [Laughs]  It’s still a bunch of creative people doing the same thing that they always do and I enjoy that. I play a little bit when I’m producing and I sing a little bit when I’m producing and the process of it is what is so engaging and still is. I’m 58 and I’m just having the time of my life. I’m out here still on the road, knockin’ around and playing live and I love that, you know, that’s a totally different experience, because you get the conversation back right away. You play a song and the people respond and that’s about is good as it gets right there.

What’s the next record that we’re going to hear from you? I know that you’ve been working on a solo record and I know that I’ve heard word of a Time Jumpers record too.
Yeah, both of them are finished, they just need to be mixed. I would think that my record will probably come out the first of the year, maybe in January or February. I don’t know about the Time Jumpers record. We’ve got to talk to Rounder to see what’s a good time slot for them. You know, the Time Jumpers record was a real emotional record, because Dawn Sears passed away, who was really the fire engine that ran that band. She didn’t get to be a part of this record. We did it at a couple of different stages. We started it when she was just starting to lose her voice and the cancer was getting her, so we never did get around to getting her to sing several songs for this record. So then we stopped and picked it back up many months after she passed and it kind of wasn’t the same, but there’s a real beauty in this record, a real tenderness that I think is really compelling. My record, you know, once again I just write these songs and see what turns up and I’m at the mercy of what songs turn up. [Laughs]

The Time Jumpers thing, that seems like that’s been a really fun thing for you to get into. How did you first get into that?
Well, I used to sub. Because several of the people in that band, I’ve known forever. One of the guitar players might miss a Monday and they just played every Monday and said, “Do you want to come down and sub?” and I said, “Sure.” So I’d sub and I’d go down occasionally and sit in and a couple of people quit and they said, “Do you want to be in the band?” and I said, “Sure, sounds like fun!”

Was it a big deal, the first time that Vince Gill walks out on that stage in Nashville?
Not really. You know, it’s pretty commonplace for me. I’m always pretty accessible. You know, Chet Atkins used to have a standing weekly gig in Nashville in his later years and that was pretty neat. It’s just a town full of people that love to play and I was never to afraid to get out and play and have fun.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, you spoke about how at the end of the previous year, you had reached the point where you wanted to “get off the bus” and slow things down a bit after 40 years. How successful have you been at finding a better balance at this point?
Oh, probably not very good. [Laughs] You know, the best laid plans…. It’s in a pretty good place and it’s in a pretty good balance. I don’t know, I’m probably going to still do….you know, when I joined the Time Jumpers, I didn’t anticipate that band going on the road. But now I’m in the band and there’s somebody that could sell a few tickets if somebody goes out and plays, so we get to go out and play live and do some gigs and tour around. So we’re doing about 30 gigs a year on the road with them and then easily about 50, 60 or 70 shows for me and I’m still having a pretty full year. [Laughs]

We proudly claim Joe Walsh as one of our own here in Northeast Ohio. What’s the story behind the recent picture of you and Joe and Steve Jordan on Sheryl Crow’s Facebook page?
Oh man, he has long been one of my favorite humans. You know, I was a kid and I sat in my room and played “Rocky Mountain Way” and James Gang songs. I would hesitate to say that he’s underrated, but when people talk about the greats, I think he should be up there near the top and sometimes he’s not. He’s always been one of the coolest players ever. We just got to be friends over the years and Steve is producing Sheryl’s new record and Sheryl said, “I just want people I love on this record,” so Joe and I, we got to play together on one of the tracks on Sheryl’s record. That was great fun. You know, straight up, this is one of those things that I’m looking over and I’m going, “This really happened?” [Laughs] You know, I’ve got my heroes, I’ve got my people that I like and was crazy about and all of these years later, I look up and I go, “How did this work out?” I’m like a kid in a candy shop when that kind of stuff gets to happen.

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