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

  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

Encore

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