Vince Gill may be pushing 50, but these days the Oklahoma-born singer remains as busy as ever: In the past year, Gill has not only released Bakersfield, a faithful tribute to California country music, he's also worked with talented newcomers like Ashley Monroe and Charlie Worsham, played guitar for Brad Paisley, contributed to excellent late-career records by Sara Evans and Julie Roberts and sang harmonies on Ray Price's final, posthumous Beauty Is…, released last week on AmeriMonte. Shortly before the album hit stores, Gill talked to us about his involvement, his memories of Ray and what sort of country music is being overlooked today.
I saw that you had a feature spots on Beauty Is... the collection of songs Ray Price recorded in his final sessions. Can you talk about your involvement in that album?
Oh, I did some harmony singing with Ray. I'm grateful to get to do it. I knew it was gonna be his last record, and it meant the world to me that he wanted me to sing on it. And his producer Fred Foster and I are great friends and have been for 30 years. And the neat thing about the artistry of somebody like Ray, the harmony singer was a big deal on a lot of his records, so it meant a lot to me that it wasn't just background singing, but it was good harmony singing, what I love to do.
Where you aware he might want to collaborate?
Yeah, we've been friends for a long time. And I'd sung a little bit on some previous records that he made over the years. He was one of those guys that obviously wasn't crazy about the changing direction of country music and whatnot. And he knew that I had a lot of tradition enlisted in my heart and soul and some of the records I've made. And we sat together at the award show and had a great time cracking jokes. He had a great sense of humor. And I just thought the world of Ray Price.
Were you in the studio together at all?
Unfortunately not, no. He was battling his health issues, and I did my part separate. He'd already done his. I didn't get to have that luxury.
When was this when you were recording?
Good question – I wish I knew. Just in the last year – I don't know when that project started and at what point my part was added to the process in the schedule, so just probably somewhere between the last year and now.
When did you first encounter Ray's music?
Oh man, as a little kid. He was a mainstay, you know? And I was born in '57. A little bit before that he was really going in his heyday. And I knew all those songs and learned all those songs as a kid. And he goes back with a long great history of friendship with Hank Williams, and so he's really one of the great patriarchs of country music. And he's credited with creating a certain brand or style with that shuffle and those records. He was a great crooner. He was one of those guys that could do both. He was just a legit singer, a really fine singer, not unlike someone like Tony Bennett, but yet had that honky tonk in him and sang those great old country shuffles. And then he could do those big ballads once the Sixties came along and he became more of a crooner.
Man, what an amazing career. And he's one of those guys that never lost a step with his voice – even well into the end of his life, he was still singing great. You can hear that on the record: It's not manipulated, it's the real deal. Very few singers get to keep their voice intact like that their whole lives.
Why do you think his stayed?
Well, because he knew how to sing. He sang properly. He was a trained singer and knew how to use it and knew how to breathe and push air and all those things. He was, like I said, a real, legit singer, not just a barroom singer.
Changing subjects, last year you and Paul Franklin collaborated on a Bakersfield tribute album, and I think you were involved in the Country Music Hall of Fame's Bakersfield exhibit. How have people responded to those projects?
Oh, cool. Yeah, I think a lot of people really enjoyed that exhibit. And a lot of people have enjoyed that record I made with Paul. So yeah, it's a tribute to a great era of country music. That West Coast, California sound that came in when it did was vastly different than what was going on here, a little more barroom-ish. It's my favorite.
What do you think it means for Nashville to embrace that sound and legacy?
Oh I don't know, I think it's healthy. It's a great tribute to being open and welcoming to anything that's done well because of where it comes from. There's no denying how great that stuff was. And I was even watching some old clips from some of the old award shows and whatnot – Merle [Haggard] was winning everything in his heyday. So it didn't go unnoticed by Nashville.
Do you think there's a Bakersfield of today, in the sense of a scene that's doing something progressive but being ignored by the establishment?
Probably. Probably in different pockets even here in Nashville, it's probably true. Texas would be a great testament to some great music that's being made – Austin loves its achievements and its place. I used to live in L.A. When I was young, when I was 19, I moved out there. And there was a great era of that country rock that I was part of with Emmy[lou Harris] and Rodney [Crowell] and those folks and the Pure Prairie League – that was kind of a country band. And running around with Poco and the Eagles and bands like that. That era too, even after Bakersfield, had a big impact on country music. I wouldn't know now so much if there is too much of that, but it seems the majority of it centers from here.