Vince Gill is the 'Guitar Slinger' on first album in five years
Over his 30-plus year recording career, Vince Gill has proved himself a prolific and astute songwriter, a highly regarded guitarist and one of country music’s most award-laden singers. He’s landed multiple song-of-the-year honors from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, along with two Grammy Awards -- among his overall Grammy total of 20 -- for best country song for “I Still Believe in You” and “Go Rest High on That Mountain” in 1992 and 1995, respectively.
This week, the 54-year-old musician is releasing “Guitar Slinger,” his first studio album in five years. While he was in Los Angeles recently to host the annual Country Music Hall of Fame benefit concert, Calendar asked Gill, who also plays the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Nov. 16, to talk about how he writes songs, what characterizes his favorite songs by other writers and how the new album came together.
Musicians often say there are two kinds of songs: those they consider “gifts” that arrive virtually fully formed, and those that are carefully and sometimes laboriously crafted from the germ of an idea or a musical riff that springs to mind. Is there a common thread you see?
I think first lines of songs are immensely important. It’s your first chance to pull somebody in. Like [the George Jones classic] “He Stopped Loving Her Today”: The first line is, “He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die’.” I’m in. [He laughs] It never ceases to amaze me how many great first lines of songs there are.
What examples from the new album can you point to?
On “Bread and Water,” that’s what I did. I said that first line: “One night he wandered into that old mission” — and it hit me like a ton of bricks, because it reminded me of my brother. [His older brother, Bob, died of a heart attack in 1993 after spending the last years of his life struggling with homelessness and mental illness following a car accident.] Right off the bat, I knew I had a place to take that.
Another song on there, “If I Die,” to me is really a unique song, because in a sense it’s four different vignettes, and each verse is somewhat different. I remember singing the song at church. A friend of mine is pastor of a church in Nashville, and the first verse is about drinking: “If I die drinking….” The second verse is, “If I die cheating…,” and I was watching him, with humor, I was watching him squirm because he didn’t know where it was going, and I could see he was thinking, ‘What is he doing singing this in church?’
It ends with, “If I die praying, everyone I’ve ever loved will be there waiting for me.” It’s all about when we don’t see [death] coming. How that song came about was with Ashley [Monroe, with whom he co-wrote it]. She had that idea in the first bit, “If I die drinking.”
What about some of the other ways a song comes into being?
Certain songs are born out of a feel. On [the song] “Guitar Slinger,” it was a riff, I was just playing that groove. Certain things just point you where to go…. I’m sure that [Jimi Hendrix’s] “Purple Haze” was written around that guitar riff at the start. “Liza Jane,” an old song of mine, was written out of that groove, that little lick. Sometimes a lick can be the memorable thing, the hooky thing that defines something. I think most records are defined before the singer starts to sing. Musicians don’t get enough credit for making records definable.
You do a lot of guitar-playing on this record, which I suspect is the inspiration for the title. How did that come about?
There’s a song called “Guitar Slinger,” and actually, it was [his manager] Larry Fitzgerald’s idea to call it this. This record’s a little more free for me as a guitar player. I went ahead and played, maybe a lot more than I usually do. There are some two- and three-minute fades on the ends of songs [with extended guitar solos]. He heard that song and liked the humorous side of that song. Half the record’s pretty guitar-driven, half of it’s not.
I don’t know — I never know. It’s hard to describe this stuff. It’s hard to talk about what you mean or what you were thinking. I just try to do what I always do: I play something, then I try to see how can I massage that to say a little bit more or a little bit less. I experiment; go into the subtleties of the sound of the instrument, the tone of the guitar.
It’s been five years since you released “These Days,” your four-CD set with all new material, which was unprecedented, and which also earned you another Grammy Award for country album of the year. Did it take long after that outpouring to feel motivated to return to the recording studio again?
It was a lot of things. One of the biggest reasons was my dear friend John Hughey passed away, who’d been playing steel guitar on my records since 1990 until 2006. I knew it was going to be difficult to record without him there. It’s very sad. That was one reason. Also, I started to build a studio in my house, and it wound up taking so much longer than I thought. Once we eventually got started, we had more problems because [engineer] Justin Niebank, who is one of the busiest guys in town, was mixing our record. I want him to be a part of everything I do. So it just took a long time to get it finished.
Are you a perfectionist — someone who can never stop tinkering with a track until somebody rips it out of your hands?
It’s so funny -- you can have a record from so many years ago and you’ll go, “I wish I could go in and sing it today, because now I could sing it better.” I don’t think you can ever really let go.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Vince Gill at the 2011 All for the Hall benefit concert at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Credit: Michael Robinson-Chavez / Los Angeles Times.