Country Radio Seminar (CRS) isn’t usually the kind of place for grand statements — if anything, the annual gathering of country radio programmers in Nashville is a time when artists play it safe in hopes of scoring some eventual airtime. You strum your single, you crack a joke. You offend no one. But, once in a while, a moment happens.
Two years ago, it wasn’t an up-and-coming indie voice that broke the usual mold for how things are supposed to go at CRS. It was Vince Gill, one of country’s most revered working artists and a paragon of organic talent and grace. During Universal’s annual Team UMG event at the Ryman Auditorium, Gill performed “Forever Changed,” a song he’d written some years earlier that was inspired by a moment in middle school when a gym teacher touched him inappropriately. The incident left a scar, as they always do. In the middle of the #MeToo movement and just a month after Rolling Stone published an exposé on sexual harassment in country radio, Gill bared his scar to the genre and beyond, in hopes that it might help others heal theirs. His new record Okie, where the track finally appears, is a record of healing, too.
“There is so much shame,” says Gill, calling from home in between tour stops. “If you speak out, you are persecuted. I wanted to speak out for innocence.”
Persecution for speaking out is not uncommon in country music, but Gill — Grand Ole Opry member, Time Jumper, occasional Eagle, Hall of Famer, Grammy winner — decided that now was no time to resist singing about matters that drive the world around us. Okie, out last Friday, is a public clearing of Gill’s conscience, a platform for discussion, and a celebration of love and devotion. Gill tackles sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, race, and our incessant desire to be right with emotional fortitude but without judgment.
“My life has never been political,” says Gill. “I’ve never been out there saying endorse this candidate, or that one. But I’m not afraid to have a decent conversation about some of this stuff. We could solve so many things by being fair-minded. Workers wouldn’t need to unionize if whoever we worked for treated us fairly, and equal. And people are always screaming about immigration, but hey, we’re all immigrants. I’d like to think there are solutions, but it has to do with people being more fair-minded, and kind.”
Gill, who has never sent a text or posted on social media (“I’m not arguing with people about what they ought to do and think,” he says. “Life’s too short for that”), knows that almost every issue in the current public consciousness tends to be deconstructed and polarized, but he also knows ignoring the issues only leads to more problems. And when it comes to something like sexual abuse or discrimination, he’s one of the few men to engage in the conversation. “These are all things I probably shouldn’t be talking about,” he says, laughing.
Gill started “Forever Changed” years back, even talking to Rolling Stone about the song in 2014, and he understood that releasing it in the context of #MeToo would bring even more spotlight than usual, along with more questions to answer. That sort of pressure might be enough to motivate another artist to table the track, but Gill wanted to step right into the storm. And though its inspiration is personal, the story is from a woman’s perspective: pure Gill empathy.
“My basketball coach in seventh grade tried to act on me,” Gill says, speaking with little hesitation. “His hand got further and further up my leg and I jumped up and I ran. I was lucky and I escaped. I know a lot of kids who didn’t. Probably went to my school. A friend of mine, a gay man, recently heard the song and said, ‘Man, I am on the floor crying my eyes out because nobody ever talks about this stuff.’ My hope is that it will help people deal and heal.”
“If I had my way, ‘Forever Changed’ would already be going for adds [at country radio],” says Charlie Worsham, who has toured with Gill and co-wrote a pivotal track on Okie, “Black and White.” “The more people who hear it, the more conversations are going to be had. Anyone who listens is going to have a reaction. Regardless of how many spins it gets, I hope the music grows.”
Equally powerful is Okie‘s “What Choice Will You Make,” about a teenage girl who ends up pregnant — Gill never offers the outcome, nor shares whether she decides to have the baby, have an abortion, or put the child up for adoption. Nor does he give his view on which one he thinks she should do. Instead he focuses on the emotional impact of having to make that choice and indicating that there is indeed a choice to be made. “I’m not over here saying, ‘This is what you should do.’ There is none of that in there,” he says. “The song never leaves that moment of her sitting there, with such a worried mind.”
Though most of Okie consists of songs written by Gill alone, he’s joined by Worsham on “Black and White”, which also serves as a subtle rebuttal to the notion that life was somehow better back in the old days. Gill doesn’t say it, but it’s hard not to think of “Make America Great Again.” “Were we better off in black and white?” Gill sings. “Some days yes, some days not quite.”
“It reminds me of an old Merle Haggard song, ‘Are the Good Times Really Over,'” says Gill. “The most important thing is to have hope. If we don’t have any hope then we are pretty lost. That’s what I liked about this song. Were we better off? Some days yes, some days not. I still believe in people, and I’m not going to throw in the towel even though a lot of times we get lost.”
There’s a line toward the end of “Black and White” that stings further: “Being kind means more than being right.” This isn’t Gill motioning for us to ignore the truth — he’s suggesting that there are important lessons to be learned in mistakes, and in sacrificing ego for growth. “We are so compelled by being right, and what does that accomplish?” Gill asks. “That’s where I learned my greatest lessons, from the mistakes I’ve made. We destroy people for their mistakes and I tell my kids, ‘You’re going to screw some stuff up, but just learn from it.'”
“Just to hear someone from Vince’s generation and background say the things that he says in that song is so special, and needed right now,” says Worsham. “It’s one thing for a kid on the scene to say something, and it’s another for an elder statesman to speak truth to power.”
On Okie, Gill also speaks truth to love — to his devotion to wife Amy Grant, to his mother, and to his idols, and what it means to lose the ones we love and admire. One titled “Nothin’ Like a Guy Clark Song” was penned for the late great songwriter and another was written for Haggard, one of Gill’s most revered icons. “He was my greatest inspiration, the reason why I sing the blues,” he sings on the track, “A World Without Haggard,” which Gill emotionally played at the country legend’s tribute.
“He liked that there was a younger generation that had an old soul,” Gill says about his friendship with Haggard. “When you find a younger person that has an appreciation for some of the things you did, it ties you to the next generation in a neat way. We had a lot of great conversations in the last years of his life.”
Gill finds that kinship with Worsham, and also admires Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton (“they’re authentic,” he says). But he also rejects the idea that, once again, he needs to take a polarized stand on where country music is headed.
“Everyone tries to get me to rag on the new music of today, and I’m not going to do that,” he says. “Those kids are loving what they are doing, and they don’t have to have my blessing. At some point the real chestnuts of the era will stand the test of time. You need some mediocrity, to let the really special things surface. Grab the ones you like.”