Artist-in-Residence: Vince Gill

February 3, 2009
Vince Gill lowered his voice to a whisper as he spoke of the song he wrote after his brother Bob’s death in 1993. “I wrote this song, and I didn’t have any idea if anybody would want to hear it, or like it,” Gill said of “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” “All I wanted to do was grieve for him and celebrate his life. That’s how I always process grief—sit down with a guitar and make something up. Turns out that if anybody remembers any of my songs, it’ll be this one.”

The touching story fulfilled a promise Gill made at the beginning of his first concert as the 2009 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A few years earlier, he had seen James Taylor perform accompanied only by a pianist, and it struck Gill that, after seeing the intimate performance, he felt he knew Taylor better as a person and as a singer and songwriter. So Gill chose to open his artist-in-residence series by performing while seated on a stool surrounded by the small combo of Mike Bub on acoustic bass, Billy Thomas on cajon (a wooden-box percussion instrument), and Pete Wasner on electric piano.

“We’re at your mercy,” Gill said before a two-and-a-half-hour program, without intermission. “We’ll play what you request, if we know it. We have no set list; we have no plan.”

The Oklahoma native even encouraged the crowd to pepper him with requests and to feel free to venture beyond his many well-known hits, because he’d loaded a teleprompter with older songs he’d recorded but rarely performed. He introduced each song with a background story, several of them running longer than the song itself. By the end of the evening, he’d told stories that were, by turns, funny, ribald, poignant, and, most of all, personally revealing.

The stories covered all aspects of Gill’s life, from childhood memories to leaving home at eighteen to join a bluegrass band, to his arrival in Nashville in 1984 and those who helped him during his rise to stardom. There were moving moments about family and deceased friends, and hilarious tales about the road and about colleagues and collaborators, including details from a recording session with Barbra Streisand, who lived up to her reputation as an exacting and temperamental diva.

As usual, Gill mixed laughter with tear-inducing tugs at the heart. “I need a haircut,” Gill quipped at one point while pushing his bangs back off his forehead. “I’m starting to look like the governor of Illinois.”

As memorable as the stories were, the music served as the reason behind his success—and where the famously multi-talented member of the Country Music Hall of Fame best expressed himself. What Gill revealed, once again, was how natural yet flawless he is as a composer, a guitarist, and a vocalist. Whether singing a hard-country ballad like his first top hit, “When I Call Your Name,” or a guitar-driven scorcher like “Liza Jane,” Gill hit every note with feeling.

In all, Gill performed eighteen songs, from obscurities like “Kindly Keep It Country” to major hits like “Never Knew Lonely” and the recent “What You Give Away.” He also performed two new songs, “Bread and Water,” co-written with Leslie Satcher, and “Buttermilk John,” a tribute to the late steel guitarist John Hughey.

“John played on every one of my records for the last seventeen years,” Gill explained. “He played with Conway Twitty on his records for twenty years. I’m not really looking forward to making a new record without him.”

Gill also surprised two audience members with impromptu requests to join him onstage. Singer-songwriter Danny Flowers was pulled from his second row seat to perform “Tulsa Time,” a rare classic song that’s been a hit in both country, for Don Williams, and in rock, for Eric Clapton. “That’s one of those songs everybody knows,” Gill said as Flowers ended. “I got to play that one with Eric Clapton last summer. That was the song we played together.”

Later, he asked fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmy Fortune, the tenor voice in the latter years of the Statler Brothers, to come up and sing. Fortune asked for a request, then fulfilled it with a beautiful take on “Elizabeth,” a Statlers #1 hit in 1984 that Fortune wrote.

Such surprises are commonplace at the  artist-in-residence performances, which have gained a reputation not only for the intimacy of the performances in the museum’s Ford Theater, but also because audiences never know what to expect, whether it be unannounced special guests or unexpected accompanists. Each of the annual series of performances has taken on a personality completely different than the others. The six previous artists-in-residence have been Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, and Jerry Douglas.

Museum Director Kyle Young, in his introduction, explained that Gill would continue the off-the-cuff nature of the performance series, saying that even he had no idea what Gill had in store for the evening. “We suspect that only his hairdresser, and maybe his golf caddy, knows for sure what he plans to do up here tonight,” Young said. “So I’m in the same boat. Like you, I can’t wait to find out.”

Gill opened with the grooving “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away,”  and the first cavalcade of requests came after the second song, “Tryin’ to Get over You”—inspired by the late Harlan Howard’s challenge to Gill to write a good song about death.  Gill weeded through the requests, saying he’d hold “Never Knew Lonely” for later because “it’s almost exactly like the last one.”>

He settled on the more obscure “This Old Guitar and Me,” an album cut from 2003’s  Next Big Thing that Gill said was inspired by John Denver, a favorite from his childhood. “All my favorite songwriters write a song about their guitar,” he said. “I’m no exception.”

For the next request, the ribald “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” Gill told the first of several stories about his father, whom Gill described as “a lawyer by trade and a redneck by birth.” His father gave him the song’s title, which Gill carried with him until he shared the phrase with Rodney Crowell, who insisted they write it together./p>

Gill recalled how his father would wear a suit and tie during the day, then come home and change into overalls with ball cap and no shirt, a pack of cigarettes in every overall pocket. “My dad was an imposing man,” he added, describing him as a combination of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and General George Patton. “He was six-foot-three and weighed over three hundred pounds, and when I was a little kid, I was scared like hell of him.”

Another request fulfilled came with “These Days,” the title song from Gill’s Grammy-winning, four-CD set from 2006. “I wrote this about my wife Amy (Grant), and how grateful I was to have some peace at the end of the day,”

Gill dedicated “When I Call Your Name,” his breakthrough hit when released in 1990, to legendary Nashville producer and record label owner Fred Foster, present in the audience, who befriended Gill when he arrived in town. In the 1980s, Foster used to chide his golfing friend Gill about not achieving a hit. But six years after his first country recording, Gill said, “This song turned up, and, amazingly, this one hit.”

For the request of “When Love Finds You,” Gill explained that he doesn’t often play the hit, even though it reached #3 on the country charts in 1994. The reason: He once “butchered the wedding” of Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus by forgetting the words while playing it during the ceremony.

Gill recalled writing “Look at Us” with the late songwriter Max D. Barnes and how the older veteran said that the first idea Gill pitched him was too sad. “Too sad?” Gill protested. “You wrote ‘Chiseled in Stone’! You can’t possibly talk about something being too sad!” But Barnes talked him into turning the hard-country ballad into a positive love song. Gill took the advice, and the result, “Look at Us,” reached #4 in 1991.

Gill closed the main set with the rollicking “Liza Jane,” but the standing ovation soon pulled him back for a three-song encore of “Never Knew Lonely,” “Pocket Full of Gold,” and the set-ending “Oklahoma Borderline.”

Before stopping, Gill addressed the idea of the artist-in-residence series. “I think this is one of the coolest things that the Hall of Fame does,” he said. “I’m honored to be asked.” Then he paused, hit a note, and added, “I’ll race you all to Taco Bell.”

Gill is scheduled to perform two more artist-in-residence concerts, on February 17 and 24. Both are sold out.

 —Michael McCall

SET LIST

  1. Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away
  2. Tryin’ to Get over You
  3. This Old Guitar and Me
  4. It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long
  5. These Days
  6. Tulsa Time (Danny Flowers)
  7. Go Rest High on That Mountain
  8. Buttermilk John
  9. One More Last Chance
  10. Kindly Keep It Country
  11. When I Call Your Name
  12. Elizabeth (Jimmy Fortune)
  13. When Love Finds You
  14. Look at Us
  15. What You Give Away
  16. Bread and Water
  17. Liza Jane

ENCORE

  1.  Never Knew Lonely
  2.  Pocket Full of Gold
  3.  Oklahoma Borderline