Vince Gill on Truck Songs, Clapton & Women's 'Unfair' Role in Country

Country statesman sits down with Rolling Stone Country for an intimate, in-depth conversation

Vince Gill
Jim Wright
Vince Gill
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It's Memorial Day in Nashville and Vince Gill isn't enjoying the national holiday with a day off. It's a Monday night, and as is his custom every week, Gill is ambling onto a stage with 10 other musicians to play two sets of Western swing classics and originals for a regularly sold-out crowd at club 3rd and Lindsley. Gill joined the Time Jumpers four years ago, adding one more qualifier to a remarkably full career as a solo artist, guitar ace, songwriter and producer of albums by Ashley Monroe and LeAnn Rimes. At just 57, he's already been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, won 18 Country Music Association Awards and holds the record for most Grammy Award wins — 20 — for a male country artist.

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Later in the evening, the Time Jumpers' de facto leader, fiddler Kenny Sears, will introduce Gill as the "resident superstar" of the group of moonlighting session players. "He's not your usual superstar who knows three chords and has a capo. He's a guitar player," Sears tells Rolling Stone Country. "Vince is one of those guys that could have easily been a studio musician and actually he says that that's what he always wanted to be. He didn't set out to be a star. It just sort of happened. He always wanted to be a guitar player in a really good band."

More specifically, Gill could have been singing about getting his money for nothing and his chicks for free: Mark Knopfler once invited the equally nimble player to join Dire Straits. Gill declined, determined to carve out a spot for himself in country music. Thanks to hits like "When I Call Your Name," "I Still Believe in You" and "Go Rest High on That Mountain," he succeeded, and along the way become the Grail Knight of traditional country music, dedicated to protecting and preserving the treasured sounds of old Nashville.  

"Vince likes what's good, whether it's new or old or in between," Sears says. "I think he really is a torchbearer for protecting what is good."

Two weeks earlier, however, Gill, a native Oklahoman who married pop-gospel singer Amy Grant in 2000, sounds like a bemused observer in the great debate over what is and isn't country music. Wearing a baseball hat with a peace sign emblem and dressed in madras plaid shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops, Gill makes himself comfortable on a couch in the Rolling Stone Country office.

"I'm too much of a musician to lay claim to what is and isn't," he says, reaching into his pocket to unwrap a peppermint candy. "That's the beauty of it. You have to look at a young person today and understand their influences were nothing like mine. I'm almost 60 years old. And so 50 years ago what taught me how to play and sing, it's gone. It's in our history and that's great, and if you go find it and learn it, you'll be better for it. But you take a young kid like Brett Eldredge or Kip Moore, guess who their mentors are? Tim McGraw and Toby Keith, and the biggest people from 15 years ago. So I'm not ever going to be critical of a young person that doesn't know [country's] history. I didn't either."

Yet Gill did extend a challenge to a country music industry bloated with rural clichés and tropes when accepting a career achievement award at the 2012 ACM Honors ceremony in Nashville. "I feel inundated these days with music that's telling me how country it is," he said, his voice full of emotion. "And what I long for, more than anything, is to hear how country it is."

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It's been two years. Has country risen to that challenge?
No. But I think the statement, it borderlines on being that guy that I'm not crazy about either.

Meaning you don't want to be the policeman of country?
No. I don't want to be that guy. I'll do it with what I choose to do, but I don't need to be the mouthpiece. In saying that, all I know is that historically, if you look at [country] throughout its entirety, this has always been going on. It always strays away and then comes back, strays away, comes back. There's no rule to how it has to be, how it should be.

It is ironic though that its lyrical message is beating you about [how country it is], but its musical message is nothing related to it at all. To me, it's a mixed message. I feel like it's fair to have an opinion, it's fair to like what you like. The weird thing is if you make a comment like that, I think that the young generation takes it as criticism. And it doesn't have an ounce of criticism intended. You'll meet some of these kids and you'll think, "This is the greatest guy in the world. How can you not like this guy?" You may not be crazy about his music, and that's fair, but it doesn't need to be personal.

It's just musical criticism.
Well, yeah. I think any time somebody is not nuts about what you do, it's critical, and I get that. But at the same time, I just want to go, 'I'm not being critical, it's just not for me. It is for you, and I'm cheering you on.' I want these kids to live their dreams, want them to be musical, to do what's in their hearts. I don't have anything but a cheerleader brain for young people. I understand how evolution works, how this business works, how it's always worked. And that's the way it's supposed to happen.

At May's All 4 the Hall benefit concert, which you co-hosted with Keith Urban, some truly classic songs were performed in a night dedicated to the stories behind them. Deana Carter talked about "Strawberry Wine," Lee Ann Womack sang "Little Past Little Rock" and Ronnie Milsap did "Smoky Mountain Rain." Where did an artist like Brantley Gilbert, who performed the hip-hop-influenced "Bottoms Up," fit in there? He seemed a bit like the odd man out.
He [was] a better fit last year, with the rebels and outlaws [theme]. But what's fun for me is to watch how the people respond to him. He had the Number One song in the country going on, and you watch them all out there, they know all the words. That's very telling.

You and Keith were the house band, but he had his producer Dann Huff with him on guitar.
Yeah, he was afraid me and Keith couldn't play that song. [Laughs]

But I get that. I do get that. And younger artists especially, they're not as adaptable. I've done this for 40 years, and jumped onstage and played with anybody and everybody, and I'm a decent musician so I can kind of plug in anywhere and make my way. But a lot of people can't — and that's not a knock at all. But they like the comfort of knowing what's going to be around them, and I totally get that. But I think [pauses]…on one side of it you wish they would be more amenable to it being loose and be a little messed up. That's the point of the evening. It's not, 'Let's go be perfect. Let's go do perfect performances that sound just like the record.' Let's go have a fun time, and it's going to be a little bit different because different guys are playing your stuff. But once again, I understand that security factor of [wanting your] guy being up there because he knows what [you're] doing.

So what's your take on the "bro country" phenomenon?
I don't like it very much... But everybody wants to knock all these songs, and, yeah, they're a lot the same, but go back to the early Sixties and there were songs about trucks then too.

Eighteen-wheeler songs by Red Sovine.
Yeah, they were trucks with CB radios in them! [Laughs] I don’t think it does anybody any good to bash anything that is going on. That doesn’t serve much of a purpose. I had a visit with an executive who runs a record company. He was bemoaning yadda yadda, and I looked at him and said, "Don't you get it? It's your fault." He said, "What do you mean?" "Everything you're saying you don't like, you're signing, you're recording. Just do your part." If you don't like it, quit jumping on the apple cart because you think it will work.

But you know what I do like about that generation? How much they like each other. How much camaraderie they have. My generation didn't have it.

No?
Not like that. Their compatibility, their willingness to embrace each other, be friends, all of that stuff. They're very inclusive of all things and everything. And I admire the hell out of that. I wish my generation had more of that. But of the people who were really knocking it out of the park, it didn't. If you want to take that core of artists throughout the Eighties and Nineties, do I go pal around with Garth or Alan or George? No. But the generation before me, Jimmy Dickens was going fishing with Porter Wagoner, and Mel Tillis was taking so and so… They had that.

Why wasn't that prevalent in the Nineties then?
There was so much at stake. It was the biggest era of country. There was this wealth of record sales and attention, and all the TV things. Everything fired on all cylinders. And it was the biggest-selling period of all. No one wanted to upset that applecart.

Our current era is big too, but…
It pales in comparison. In just the straight numbers. Taylor Swift might sell 4 million records and Shania Twain sold 40. It's that meteoric kind of success, that the whole world knows, every radio station, pop and country, are playing those records. Hold them side by side and it's night and day.

Vince Gill
Vince Gill (Photo: Jim Wright)

What has you excited for country's future?
I think the women in general are making the most intriguing records, the most intriguing songs.

It seems they can't catch a break on radio though. Why do you think that is?
I don't know. Why is radio so completely opposed? Look at the history. Look at that poster [points to a Rolling Stone cover from 1980 with Dolly Parton], look at the history that women have provided this music. It's every bit as important as anything the men have done. It's grossly unfair, and grossly one-sided. But there still have been periods of time in country music's history where it was very one-sided. You go back to the Fifties and Kitty Wells was a lone ranger. And then along comes Dolly and Loretta and Patsy Cline and it blows up a little more…. I think it's a double-edged sword. I had a really great conversation with Lee Ann Womack one time. She was trying so hard to do the music that really wasn't her. She's such a brilliant country singer. She said, "Well, I can't get on the radio if I don't." I said, "Well, you might get on the radio a little bit, but you're getting on the radio with something that is certainly not your heart. Go be what makes you great."

This year is the 20th anniversary of your album When Love Finds You, which featured arguably your most heart-wrenching piece of art, "Go Rest High on That Mountain." How do you view that song now?
It's become about the most used funeral song in the country, and that blows my mind. I wrote it right after my brother died [Gill's half-brother Bob died in 1993]. I wasn't going to record it, I didn't want to. But [When Love Finds You producer] Tony Brown talked me into it. He said, "You should get this sentiment on record" and we did. One of the promotion men who helped work it just passed away, David Haley, and God, we worked so hard to promote that. Because nobody really wanted to play it. It sounds very, very sad, but the lyric is very uplifting. I don’t think anybody grasped that. They just hear the sadness in it and the intent.

You sang it at George Jones' funeral in 2013.
Yeah, tried to. I fell apart like a three-year-old. There are times that the emotion of that song destroys me. It's a gift to get to sing it, but sometimes it's very hard to have to.

I went off the stage one night after a really brutal version of it, and a friend of mine had just lost his son, and I couldn't get through it. I was so sick of singing this song in a way. Because there are times that it just kills me. That'll be the song that I'm remembered for. It wasn't the biggest hit, the biggest seller, all those things. But 20 years later, it has this whole different purpose. It has a different purpose than a hit song. It's not even comparable. It's like a modern day "Amazing Grace." When people are hurting the most, in the worst place they can be, they're reaching out to that. To that song. And that means way more to me than where it landed on the charts.

Your last solo album was three years ago now, 2011's Guitar Slinger. Are you working on a follow-up?
Yeah, I'm trying. At the end of last year, I reached the point that I wanted to get off the bus. I figured I'd been running for 40 years. I made my first record in '74, my second record in '75, here in Nashville, and I hadn't thought about slowing down since. I thought, "I don’t know if I'm doing myself more harm out here or more good." I was worried a little bit about my health. I have a hard time controlling my food intake on that stupid bus. I don't do that at home. At 11:30, I don't say, "Hey, let's get four pizzas and bring them over to the house."

In what direction is the new album headed?
I want to make a record of all these songs I've written that are darker than they should be. Subjects that most people go, "Oh, I don't really want to hear a song about abused children…" But some of these things, I think they need to be talked about and put out there. I did this song I wrote some time ago, about sexual abuse, and I sang it at sound check, and one of the girls that was traveling with me at the time just fell apart and lost it. She said, "That was my life. How'd you know?" I said, "I don't know that I did." The song is called "Forever Changed": "because of you, she's forever changed." I'm really drawn to serious and melancholy and sad and emotional.

How much of your own experience did you draw on for "Forever Changed"?
Oh, none. I was not abused as a child. But I had a basketball teacher, a gym teacher, that tried. It was seventh grade and it turns out he was a little wrong, a little ill-thinking. He tried to make a move on me. All of a sudden, his hand was on my leg and I thought there is something about this that is really wrong. I just got up and I ran .In seventh grade I didn't know anything about sex. That's the most disturbing of all when you prey on a child. It's the most uncool thoughtless thing.

In September of last year, you got into a confrontation with members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church outside of your show in Kansas City. The incident is clearly not out of your system, because this past March, right after church leader Fred Phelps died, you were performing "Long Tall Texan" with the Time Jumpers and changed the lyrics to poke fun at Phelps.
I took a couple shots at him. [Laughs]

So what happened there?
I was in Kansas City and their church is in Topeka. When I first married Amy, we played a Christmas show, probably 2000 or 2001, in Oklahoma City, my hometown. And I got picketed for marrying Amy, [with signs that read] "adulteress" and "divorce is bad." [Gill and Grant were both married previously.] There were a bunch out there picketing. After my run-in with them 13 years later, it finally became so clear to me that they were the ones who were at my show in Oklahoma City. I saw the signs and I thought, "Well, hell, that's those clowns." All this time, I had a chip on my shoulder, because I was so pissed off that my hometown picketed me. And it wasn't my hometown at all.

What prompted you to go outside to meet the protestors in Kansas City?
I went out there to stick up for decency, to stick up for human kindness. It's unthinkable that you can be that cruel to a soldier, to a soldier's family that has died, that your own interest can dish out that much human cruelty. That's the thing about them that has always sickened me the most: their hatred, their disdain for gay and lesbians, or if you served in our military, or if you've made a mistake. If you've had an upheaval in your life, we're going to eat you for it. I don't give a rip what they say about me. Not one. But call Amy the names they call her?

I didn't go out there to confront them. And I did not confront them. They confronted me. I just wanted to see what their sign said. If one of them boys had had a sign with the wrong words on it, it would have ended much differently. [Laughs] I've got just enough Okie in me that there would have been a poster enema involved.

Words were exchanged though.
They said, "What are you doing out here?" I said, "Well, I just wanted to see what hate looked like in the face." It's really sad to me, it's pitiful that you could be, as a human being, that cruel to another person you don't even know.

In the video of the confrontation that circulated on YouTube, you used some harsh language for Vince Gill, "the nicest guy in Nashville."
Oh, I've always had bad language, that's nothing new. I play golf, so I cuss a lot.

How about a lighter subject?
Please! [Laughs]

Do you ever daydream about what it'd have been like had you accepted Mark Knopfler's offer to join Dire Straits?
Oh gosh, yeah. But that's life. You're presented with choices all the time. Hell, you don't know what's going to turn up. You can look back and say, "Oh, I should have done this or should have done that," but… I also believe you don't learn much until you make a mistake. I think the biggest reason I didn't [say yes to Knopfler] was because it was the sure thing. It was what financially would have stabilized my life. But the element that turned me away from it was admitting to myself that I was not going to make it as a country music singer/songwriter.

That was more important than being a rock star?
Admitting failure is not really in the cards, you know? At some point, yeah, guess what, we all do. But at that time it just felt like my ears don't lie. I know the reason why a whole lot of those records of mine didn't work in the early Eighties — they weren't very good. And that's OK. The songs weren't great. But my ears told me that I was good enough. So I wasn't going to quit. I wasn't going to give up. But the musician in me, that killed me to not go [play with Knopfler]. Because I adore the way he plays and sings.

How'd he find you?
I don't know. I'm sure it was just through singing and playing.

You've credited Eric Clapton for turning you on to Robert Johnson. How did you two cross paths?
I met Eric for the first time at the Grammys, probably 20 years ago. I was sitting with Bonnie Raitt and Ruth Brown, and we were having this great experience watching the Grammys. There was a commercial and all of a sudden it was dark, and there was someone standing in front of me. I'm seated, and he sticks his hand out and says, "I just want to meet you." And it was Eric. "I'm a great fan of your playing…." What, really? I was an awestruck kid like I should be. We met then, and some years later the phone rings and he says, "Vince, it's Eric Clapton." Yeah, sure it is. Who's yanking my chain? And he started laughing and said, "No, it really is." I said, "Whatever you want, the answer is yes." He said he was going to do a guitar festival. This was 2004 and a period where I was kind of falling out of favor with radio, they weren't playing my records, and I was kind of in no man's land, wondering what my future was. He said, "I'm having this festival and I just wanted to invite guitar players that I really like. And you're one of them." You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Those were the Crossroads Guitar Festivals. And you've played every one of them. Do you have a favorite anecdote?
He had another festival in '07, 2010 and 2013. And he may be done. I don't know if he'll do another one. But my favorite story of those was the first one. I was petrified, sandwiched in between Joe Walsh and James Taylor — not a fun place to be. And Amy was with me and she knew I was pretty uptight. She said, "I'm going to go out in the crowd and watch this, and really experience this."

Joe finishes and I went out there and the first thing I played was "Oklahoma Borderline." Amy said it was really funny to watch. Everybody was filing for the exits to get a hot dog or a beer. En masse. [Laughs] But she said then I started playing, ripping the solo up, and they all stopped. And they all turned around and started listening. And en masse, they came back in. That's a favorite memory for me. It's an interesting thing being a really serious musician out of the country world, versus the rock & roll world. [Rock] musicians can be gods because of the way they play, but in country music, that doesn't really happen.

Did you get a chance to talk with Keith Richards at last year's festival?
No. But I had met him a little bit before. We had done a George Jones record together back in the Nineties. George did a bunch of duets with all kinds of people, and he didn't know much about Keith. He didn't realize how big the Rolling Stones were. [Laughs] George was like, "That guy's famous? Not that good a singer."