Artist-in-Residence: Vince Gill

February 24, 2009

Vince Gill finished the final of three sold-out artist-in-residence performances at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum much as he began them: By peeling away layers of celebrity gloss to expose the down-to-earth stories and relationships behind his climb to stardom.

“I write everybody I love a song,” Gill said near the close of the three-hour concert in front of a sold-out crowd of more than two hundred in the museum’s Ford Theater. As he proved throughout the artist-in-residence series, he also has stories—some poignant, some hilarious—about everybody who has played a significant role in his life.

As immensely gifted a storyteller as he is a singer, songwriter, and guitar picker, Gill spun lengthy, revealing stories about his parents, his brother, his wife Amy Grant, and many of the colleagues and musicians he has encountered over his fifty-one years. For this evening, he focused on many his friends in attendance, including Dobro great Jerry Douglas, guitar tech Benny Garcia, pianist and arranger John Hobbs, music industry executive Mary Martin, songwriter Leslie Satcher, and country star Josh Turner. But the most poignant, and most hilarious, stories concerned his immediate family.

Concocting colorful tales about formative moments from early in his life, Gill repeatedly revealed how close-knit connections helped shape him into the gracious, generous talent he’s become. Gill talked as much as he sang and played, adding real-life weight to his materia, whether it was a heart-tugging ballad or a playful rocker.

With pianist Pete Wasner at his side for most of the night, Gill focused on ballads, but interspersed the evening with spirited uptempo tunes, many of them played on an electric, yellow-bodied Fender Stratocaster. In all, twenty-two songs were performed, including two each by Satcher and Turner. Douglas joined Gill with remarkable Dobro accompaniment for three songs, and Hobbs sat at the piano bench for three more. During the encore, the Oklahoma native brought out Benny Garcia, his longtime guitar tech and a friend since childhood, who banged out a rave-up version of “La Bamba,” trading guitar licks with his boss and buddy.

The evening included two new songs: The ballad “Bread and Water,” written with Leslie Satcher and inspired by Gill’s older brother, Bob, who spent several years wandering the United States, often eating at missions, before his death in 1993; and “Heaven,” a spiritual he co-wrote with his wife Amy Grant, Dillon O’Brian, and Will Owsley.

Throughout, Gill repeatedly paired songs with illuminating life stories. For “The Key to Life,” he talked about his father, J. Stanley Gill, a gruff, three-hundred-pound, chain-smoking lawyer and appellate court judge who, at home, wore overalls without a shirt. “Scariest man I ever met,” Gill said. “I took my sister to see Gran Torino, and about thirty minutes into the movie, she leaned over and said, ‘He’s just like dad!’ Only Clint (Eastwood) weighs about 170 pounds, and my dad weighed over three hundred. He was a badass.”

Gill recalled his first driving lesson with his father, who put him behind the wheel of a pickup truck and led him onto the busiest street in Norman, Oklahoma.  When a guy in a GTO flashed them a middle finger, Gill’s father told his son to catch the guy. “I’m squealing my tires, dodging traffic, going one-hundred miles an hour—first time I’ve ever driven,” Gill said with a laugh. “I’m scared to death, but my old man is yelling, ‘C’mon, step on it! He’s getting away, come on!’”

They finally caught the guy, and Gill’s father barreled out of the passenger side of the truck, jerking open the driver’s door of the GTO. “The guy piles out of the car and has a tire tool,” Gill said. “My dad said, ‘Hey fella, you gonna use that tire tool in this fight?’ He goes, ‘Yep, yea I am.’” Gill’s father replied, “Son, this fight is finished.” He got back in the truck and his son pulled off.

Gill usually tied the stories into his music. His father, he said, taught him his first few guitar chords, and the two regularly watched country stars perform on The Porter Wagoner Show, which led to another hilarious story about taking his father, in his later years, to a recording session with Dolly Parton, Wagoner’s longtime duet partner.

After “When I Call Your Name,” his breakthrough 1990 hit, Gill discussed the six years as a struggling Nashville solo artist that preceded the turning-point song. “As I look back, I’m kind of grateful that we had all those years to struggle,” he said. “I learned so much more in the hard times and the struggling times than I ever did when things were great.”

He also used the song to discuss the importance of picking the right collaborators. Gill had recorded the basic tracks of “When I Call Your Name,” but felt it needed something extra. He brought in Barry Beckett to add a piano part to the song, which, especially in the introduction, provided a rich musical hook; he invited Patty Loveless to sing a harmony part, adding emotional depth to the chorus; and he convinced steel guitarist Paul Franklin to re-do his part, playing it more in the old-school style of Conway Twitty sideman John Hughey.

“That’s the beauty of what the art of making records is all about—the contributions of others,” Gill said. “I think the musicians that make the records in this town, and every other town, deserve so much of the credit.”

That led to a story about Hughey before Gill’s performance of the traditional ballad “Look at Us.” Hughey, who died in November 2007, had played pedal steel guitar with Gill since 1990. Acknowledging Hughey’s widow Jean and daughter Cheryl in the audience, Gill explained how he started off rooming with the older steel guitarist on the road and detailed the close relationship that developed, both personally and creatively.

“I loved him like I loved my daddy,” Gill said. “I miss him. It’s really going to be hard for me to make a new record without John. He’s played on seventeen years of my music and really gave it a validation and a sound that is as identifiable as my songs and my singing.”

After mentioning Satcher—“she writes some of my favorite songs”—Gill performed two songs they co-wrote, “Oklahoma Dust” and “The Rock of Your Love.” He then persuaded Satcher to the stage, where she performed “When I’m Good and Gone” and “Gypsy Boots,” the latter co-written with Terri Clark and Jon Randall.

Before inviting Turner to join him, Gill recalled how Turner asked him to be the star who inducted him into the Grand Ole Opry on his big night. “That just meant the world to me,” Gill said. The deep-voiced Turner sang the catchy “You’re So Not My Baby” and his first hit, “Long Black Train.”

Turner, for his part, thanked Gill for helping him at a crucial point in his career. One morning at breakfast at the Pancake Pantry in Nashville, a record label executive pressured Turner to cut a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and release it as a single. Turner resisted. The label executive spotted Gill at a nearby table and called him over to get his opinion. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Gill said firmly. “I think Josh needs to put out his own song.” The label followed Gill’s advice and released “Long Black Train” instead.

In calling up Hobbs, whom Gill first met in Los Angeles in 1977, the star recalled how the two devoted a year and a half to the creation of the four-disc album These Days. “We went into it not thinking we were going to do all that,” Gill said. “We just thought we were going to cut some tracks and finish a normal record. We were having so much fun, it turned into four records.”

The two of them played “Faint of Heart,” a jazz-influenced song from These Days that featured Diana Krall in a duet with Gill on the original recording. They also performed a moody ballad, “Which Way Will You Go,” from the same album. Hobbs stayed to play “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind,” which Gill described as being influenced by the Ray Charles country recordings from the early 1960s.

Gill first met Douglas when both were young bucks on the bluegrass scene in 1976. “I’ll never forget the first time I heard him play the Dobro,” Gill said. “I was mesmerized. He recreated an instrument in a way that it had never been played before. To watch him grow into the genius musician he’s become has been a lot of fun.”

Matching Gill’s knack for witty storytelling, Douglas recalled how he convinced Boone Creek, a bluegrass band that also featured Ricky Skaggs, to hire Gill as a member. But the newcomer never found his place in the group, and the other members voted to fire him, only to see him quickly go on to prominence as the new singer and guitarist for the pop-country band Pure Prairie League.

“I’ve been here in this town for thirty-some years, and I’ve had a lot of great friends who hit the top—just creamed it,” Douglas said. “Things change. You start doing things differently, you’re very protected, you don’t go out in public and do all the things you used to do. But Vince Gill has not changed.”

The two, with help from Wasner on piano, then played a fiery version of Gill’s “One More Last Chance,” a touching “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” then closed out with another rollicking tune, “Little Liza Jane,” that let them both show off their musicianship.

For an encore, Gill chose “Take This Country Back,” about returning country music to its roots. He selected it, he said, because the lyrics cite “Cowboy Jack,” a reference to producer, songwriter, and musician Jack Clement, the first artist- in- residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in 2003.

Gill ended his residency by calling out his childhood friend Benny Garcia, his longtime guitar tech, who sat down and played “La Bamba” with Gill. The singer then dedicated “Little Brother,” a song he wrote for Garcia, to his longtime buddy and colleague.

The song provided an appropriate cap to a concert series that constantly highlighted heartfelt connections and intimate relationships—and how they nourish an artist’s career and life.

 

—Michael McCall

Set List
Encore

  1. When I Call Your Name
  2. Pretty Little Adriana
  3. Look at Us
  4. What the Cowgirls Do
  5. Oklahoma Dust
  6. The Rock of Your Love
  7. When I’m Good and Gone (Leslie Satcher)
  8. Gypsy Boots (Leslie Satcher)
  9. Bread and Water
  10. You’re So Not My Baby (Josh Turner)
  11. Long Black Train (Josh Turner)
  12. Faint of Heart
  13. Which Way Will You Go?
  14. If You Ever Have Forever in Mind
  15. Pocket Full of Gold
  16. The Key to Life
  17. One More Last Chance
  18. Go Rest High on That Mountain
  19. Little Liza Jane

    20.  Take This Country Back      
    21.  La Bamba
    22.  Little Brother


February 17, 2009

Vince Gill’s only plan going into his second performance as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s artist-in-residence was to offer up a different batch of songs from his previous show.

“One of the good things about being old is you’ve got a lot of songs,” said Gill.  “A lot of young rich kids can only play you about three songs and that’s it.”

In one of three sold-out artist-in-residence performances in the museum’s Ford Theater, Gill once again juxtaposed stirring performances with personal ruminations and witty storytelling. The evening also included guest appearances by old friends and past collaborators. Seated alone onstage, surrounded by vintage acoustic guitars, Gill reveled in the intimate setting and spoke honestly about the evening’s spontaneity.   

“That’s the way I’ve operated most of my life … I never know what the hell I’m going to do. It makes it more fun. Everything’s always a surprise.” 

Gill’s warm voice and rich, acoustic picking rang crisp and clear throughout the 213-seat theater, the impeccable sound courtesy of long-time engineer Hugh Johnson. A friend counseled Gill twenty years ago that Johnson would serve him well: “Chain him to your leg.” Johnson had lost his father just days before this performance, so Gill dedicated the set opener, “The Key to Life,” to Johnson. Gill wrote the song originally as a memorial to his own father.

During the more than two-hour set, audience members occasionally shouted requests and interacted with Gill. The lively, informal evening included both a bucketful of deep cuts and several newer compositions, among them “Lucky Diamond Motel,” “Heaven,” and “Forever Changed.”  

Said Gill about his songs, “Some of them are the truth, some are autobiographical, and some are big fat lies. It’s fun to watch y’all try and figure it out.”

Gill’s amiable and magnetic personality captivated the standing-room-only audience, who seemed delighted to hear the Country Music Hall of Fame member tell jokes and give insight into his songwriting.  During an impromptu question-and-answer session, Gill elaborated on his guitar collection, which boasts more than a hundred pieces; his golf handicap and collection of clubs; and his hatred of TV commercials for erectile dysfunction, which he said seem to air exclusively during golf tournaments or when he watches with his daughters.

Dobro specialist Jerry Douglas, the museum’s 2008 artist-in-residence and Gill’s long-time friend, was in attendance. After a fun, sarcastic exchange between the two, Gill expressed his admiration for Douglas as “one of the finest musicians to ever walk this earth.”

In fact, Gill showered many of his musical friends in attendance with praise, including legendary songwriter, singer, and Texas cult hero Guy Clark. Clark held the same stage for an artist-in-residence stint in 2006 and is one of Gill’s primary songwriting influences.

“I love the way Guy Clark writes songs, because you see every picture with every line he writes—you see the words,” said Gill as he invited Clark onstage.

Clark was excited to perform two brand-new songs, “Some Days the Song Writes You” and “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” with Gill softly humming along and providing backing guitar.

Clark lobbed kind words right back at Gill. “I think the world is a better place with Vince being in it,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s just all I have to say about that.”

Songwriter, singer, and Texas native Gary Nicholson also joined Gill onstage for a pair of songs. Nicholson has co-written songs with Gill and Clark, both. One of the biggest laughs of the night came as Nicholson played the opening guitar intro to “A Better Word for Love,” which sounded eerily similar to a certain guitar figure made popular by the Animals in 1964. Without missing a beat, Gill exclaimed, “I didn’t know you wrote ‘House of the Rising Sun’!  I had no idea!” 

Gill closed the show on a heartfelt note, explaining why the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is so near and dear to his heart. He serves as president of the museum’s Board of Officers and Trustees.

“This place really, really matters,” he said. “Everybody gets caught up in what’s hot right now or what’s popular. That’s the beauty of this place: it houses all of that—every note of it.  It’s the most important thing to me.”

Gill’s final song, “What You Give Away,” reflected the generous spirit that prompts many of his close friends to call him “Benefit.” It perfectly capped an evening of give-and-take with audience members. Gill sang, “No matter what you make, all that you take is what you give away.”

Each year, the artist-in-residence series begins as a blank slate, and the chosen artist is encouraged to paint their own musical masterpiece.  Vince Gill’s painting, although not yet complete, balances a deep well of enduring songs with an open, honest and instinctive delivery.  The beauty lies in what comes next, something that even Gill himself seems eager to find out. 

--Jeremy Rush           

Set list:

 
Encore

  1. The Key to Life
  2. Some Things Never Get Old
  3. Young Man’s Town
  4. Jenny Dreamed of Trains
  5. Whenever You Come Around
  6. Lucky Diamond Motel
  7. Some Days the Song Writes You (Guy Clark)
  8. Hemingway’s Whiskey (Guy Clark)
  9. A Better Word for Love (Gary Nicholson)
  10. Bag of Bones (Gary Nicholson)
  11. Heaven
  12. Sweet Thing
  13. Whippoorwill River
  14. Little Brother
  15. Rocky Top
  16. Forever Changed
  17. This Old Guitar and Me

    18.  Till I Gain Control Again
    19.  What You Give Away


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