“A dose of humility will serve you well,” Vince Gill said with a laugh after trading war stories with Chris Young about their earliest days in the music business, playing for tips — or in Young’s case, quesadillas — to audiences with less members than their bands.
Those eight words of wisdom were among many as the two lounged on a couch in Gill’s cozy Nashville home studio, waxing philosophical on everything from paying dues to playing producer, to making music without eyes full of dollar signs. Rolling Stone Country recruited Gill to interview Young about his new album, I’m Comin’ Over, on which the two collaborate on what is arguably the most intoxicating heartbreak song of Young’s career, “Sober Saturday Night.” Co-written by the singer with brothers Brad and Brett Warren, the track is brought to an emotional climax by a Gill guitar solo, along with the legend’s unmistakable (and unparalleled) harmonies. It was recorded in the same studio where the two sat for this chat — surrounded by dozens of Gill’s guitars, priceless memorabilia (like a doppelgänger bobblehead) and awards, including the guitar-slinger’s 20 Grammys.
While we sat as mere flies on the wall, Gill and Young’s “interview” turned out to be more of just a conversation between friends — and one that spanned more years than Young’s young age of 30. Read below as the two musicians talk about their earliest career challenges, their latest musical epiphanies and why a song’s defining moment can have nothing to do with its singer.
Young: Have you ever written with the Warren Brothers before?
Gill: No, I refuse. They are much too crazy for a man my age. [Laughs] No, I’m kidding.
Young: There are stories I can’t tell right now. [Laughs] That was the first time I’ve written with them, and I’d been a big fan of theirs. We spent 90 percent of that day writing a tempo song that no one will probably ever hear. We had about an hour left before one of them had to pick up their kids. Brad sat down at the piano and was like, “Check this out.” And we decided to write something more serious. We started writing it and wrote it in 45 minutes. Of course, that’s the song we loved, “Sober Saturday Night,” and the other song we spent all day on is just OK.
Gill: That stream of consciousness stuff always winds up being the most meaningful.
Young: When I asked if you would be a part of this song, that was after we’d tracked it all wrong. [Laughs] So I asked if you’d be on it. . .The solo that was there was good but it didn’t really move me like I wanted it to. Now it does what it’s supposed to: it escalates the song to the very end. Your solo made the song. Now it’s one of my favorites on the record, and if I have my say it will be a single.
Gill: Be careful, that could ruin your career. [Laughs] But you’re kind to say that. We talked right when we got started about the definitive moments that happen on records. “When I Call Your Name,” I always go back to that because it was the song that changed my world. But nobody thought much of that song. We tracked it, I sang it and had my part done and then Tony [Brown, Gill’s producer] and I started talking and realized it didn’t have a great intro. So we called Barry Beckett, an incredible piano player, and he came in at probably one or two in the morning and played an intro. And three notes in, you know what song it is. It was magical what he did to that song. He gave it its defining moment.
I’m the guy who loves being in the supporting cast. I’ve always felt like every note of a song is of equal value. Your part as the lead singer isn’t any more important than what the bass player’s playing. I know every note, every little bit of it and I want to. That’s how I was meant to be. Whether I’m making my own record, singing on your record, or playing a guitar part, I want what I do to have an impact.
Young: Well, having you play on this record. . . it just really wouldn’t be the same without it.
Gill: It was my pleasure. That was all I ever aspired to do [play guitar]. I never aspired to be up front. When I was a kid, I didn’t ever look in the mirror with a hairbrush going, “Hey, I’m Elvis!”
Young: You may not have aspired to that, but you inspired me to do it. I saw you in Nashville, one of my first concerts. You sounded better than your record, and I thought, “Man, I want to do that.”
We didn’t have a whole lot of cash growing up. My mom was a single parent for a while before my stepdad came into the picture. But that was one of the few things we could go do — go to [Nashville’s now defunct] Starwood Amphitheatre. I don’t think my mom knew at that point I’d want to do this for a living, but she knew I sang all the time and wouldn’t shut up.
Gill: In the years before I finished high school, I made a record or two and was out traveling and playing. My folks knew the writing was on the wall. My mom said, “What I want is a happy kid, not a rich kid. That’s what I root for.” She saw how much joy I got from playing music, and those years were leaner than lean!
Gill: When I look back, I don’t remember the best of the best. I don’t remember arena shows with 20,000 people. I remember funky little bar gigs where nobody shows up. The weirdest of the weird are what you retain.
Young: I’ve got a bunch of those. I played a funeral convention once. York Casket Company pays well, in case anyone’s wondering! [Laughs] My standing gig in college was playing the El Chico patio on Murfreesboro Road. I got $100, tips and free quesadillas.
Gill: My first gig, this lady said she’d pay $100 to play at her bar. There were three or four of us, and when we got done with the show she said, “I’m not paying you.” So I said, “My dad’s a lawyer, so I’ll see you in court!” I filed charges against her. . . at 15 years old. And the judge told me she was counter-suing me for slander, libel and defamation of character. He said, “Want some advice, kid? Chalk this one up to experience.”
Then the first time I ever played in front of anyone was second or third grade, they let me bring my guitar to school. I played “House of the Rising Sun” to a bunch of third graders — a story about hookers! [Laughs] So, I had a grand start.
Young: The first thing I learned as a kid was [Randy Travis’] “Diggin’ Up Bones.” Kinda morbid for a kid!
Grand Ole Flub
Young: Do you remember hanging me out to dry on stage at the Opry? It was Hank [Williams] Sr. night at the Ryman. I sang two songs and came off, and then you brought me back and asked if I knew “Hey Good Lookin’,” and I said sure. We got up there, you did a verse and I did a verse and we came back in, and I completely blanked on the lyric. So I pointed at you. And you just made up something on the spot.
Gill: I rewrote Hank Sr.? That takes nerves.
Young: If that had been me, people would’ve crushed me!
Gill: But it endears you to people to see you fallible, to see you mess up. It’s so much more interesting when you’re human. I hate making mistakes, but I’m not afraid of ’em.
Young: You just have to laugh at yourself.
Gill: I’ve always been the high harmony singer. It’s never my job to know the verses! But I know the chorus of every song ever made. [Laughs] But I’m getting to the age now where I’ll use a teleprompter.
Young: There’s one really sentimental song everybody always asks for and I can never remember it all, so I hang it on one of the guys on my band. I’ll say, “I don’t think Mason knows how to play that on keys, sorry.”
Gill: I had a woman request a song once and I said, “M’am, I know I wrote that song, but you could put a gun to my head right now and I wouldn’t know how it starts or even one word of it.”
Gill: It’s amazing to me how much power [radio programmers] have. The first time I went on one of those radio tours, I was going to meet this guy in Seattle who was known as one of the toughest guys in the industry. You can’t get him to play anything. I heard him on the phone with a guy from a label saying, “I hate that song. I’ll never play that guy.” And I’m sitting in his office in shock. It was life changing. He hung up and said, “What’s your story?” I said, “I’m a new artist on RCA and I made this record. I hope you’ll listen to it — and if you like it, play it. If you don’t, fine.” And I walked out. That guy played every record I ever made.
Young: A guy named Nate Deaton out in San Jose was notorious for being hard on new artists. They warned me, when another guy on my label played a song acoustic in his office he said, “I hate that; I’m not going to play that.” So I was nervous, but I was prepared. The first thing I played him was my third single because my first two didn’t work. [Laughs] This was my last shot at radio. We played him “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song),” and he goes, “I’ll be honest, I don’t like that. I’m not going to say I’m not going to play it, but if I do it’ll be late. I just don’t think it’s a hit.” Well, it goes Number One. And we went back and he said, “I just want to let you know, it’s the Number One testing song in our market. I was wrong.”
Gill: A lot of young artists get beaten because it doesn’t happen as quickly as they hope. But I figured when they did [play a song], I was grateful, and when they didn’t, I was OK. After 40 years of hoping you made a record that people enjoy, it never changes. You need them, and they need you. It’s neat to have so many relationships with those guys [in radio]. It’s pretty awesome with what they have the ability to do.
Just a Number
Young: My first two singles didn’t work. I’ve had a 37, a 52 and a 37 [on the country singles charts].
Gill: I’ve had every number!
“I don’t want to impress somebody, I want to move somebody.”
Young: I’ve had 37 twice, so I hate that number. Every time I have a song that goes above 37, I call the office and say, “Guess what! We’re kicking ass!”
Gill: It would be fun to go back and see where all my songs stopped, because I think I’d have every number in the top 100. It never ceases to amaze me. It still hurts when one doesn’t work, because you put your heart and soul into it. But you’ve gotta just run another up the flagpole. That’s the beauty of it, they’re never gonna run me off.
Behind the Board
Young: [Making I’m Comin’ Over] is the first time I’ve really been involved in the pre-production stuff. I’d always give my opinion, but this was the first time I’ve gone from blank sheet of paper to album turned in. I know everything that happened to it and guided it to get there. It’s a little more ownership and really more of a different side of things. I’m just as proud of the music I made before, but I really fell in love with the process this time around.
Gill: I’ve never been in the studio where it felt like I didn’t have a voice. Whether I was co-producing or producing by myself, this community is the one place where I really see democracy at its purest. I’ve never been around heavy-handed people. Everything I’ve done feels like I’m just as much a part of it as if I was the producer. It’s still the same job: all of us together figuring out the common good for a song. That’s the only thing that matters. It’s not like, “I’m the boss, and I’m gonna tell you what to play.”
I produced a record on Sonya Isaacs, one of the greatest singers on the planet, and I made it a point not to play. It was so enlightening. When you’re playing, you’re so focused on doing your part. So with Sonya, that was the first time in the studio where I could really hear everything. I have only one objective: to honor what this is before me. It was really powerful.
Young: I’ve been asked the question about what’s different, producing it versus when I haven’t been part of that. We did so much pre-production that I already had scratch vocals done. I wasn’t actually in the booth, not being able to hear what everybody’s doing. I was sitting out front seeing what was right, what needed to be changed. That was something that in the past I haven’t been able to do, because I was always in the booth.
Gill: I was always playing, concentrating on doing my part just as well as these other cats who are all world-class. You don’t want to be that guy who stinks it up.
Young: [Laughs] I love that you’re acting like you’d ever be that guy.
Gill: I am that guy, trust me! The level of musicianship that goes on around here is staggering. People have no idea. They only hear this snippet of a record and don’t really dive into the depth of what that is.
Music is like having a conversation. All musicians inspire each other, and they’re all geared to play something that matters. A lot of people play to impress, but the really gifted ones play to move. That’s the greatest point of ever doing this. I don’t want to impress somebody, I want to move somebody. Say the most with the least.
Young: It’s amazing to me how often the answer to making something sound better is to play something less. We have at least one track on the new record where we just muted a couple things. Let’s have less instruments.
Young: There are no rules about songwriting and no rules in the studio either. Going in and co-producing with Corey [Crowder] was kinda scary. When it originally came up, I loved sonically what he was doing with building tracks and me coming back with changes. There are dumb recordings of me singing guitar licks. So I realized I’d like for us to be in the studio together going through all this. I wanted to be more invested in that part of it. I had a lot of really good stuff happen in the last few albums, but I thought this was the time to do it.
I told the label, “Let us go in and do it the way we want to do it, and if you hate it I’ll pay for it.” And when we were in the studio, we knew we had something good. . . but are they gonna hear what we hear? And they loved it.
Gill: We all get caught up in the process, especially when you have a wave of success. But to me, being creative is not about rehashing everything you’ve done over and over. It’s to continue to grow, continue to get better. I’m 58 years old and I sing better now than I did 30 years ago. So the only logical place to point is next.
When you ask a songwriter, “What’s your favorite song?” he goes, “The next one.” At the end of the day, all people want to do is hear a great singer sing a great song. They don’t care about what vocal changes it went through. You can’t screw up a great song and a great singer.
Young: But music is so subjective. You hope everyone hears what you hear – that right track, that right guitar lick. There are 100 things on one song that will end up [provoking] emotion in somebody.
Gill: Another thing is, we’re all so pointed by the results of something. I had this conversation with Terri Clark years ago. She had made a bunch of records and had a lot of success. And she said, “I wanted to do something my way and make this really creative, introspective record. So I took that leap of faith, and it didn’t do anything.” And I said, “Well, when you finished it, did you like it?” She said, “Yeah, I did.” I said, “Well that’s all you can do.” You can’t let the results be the barometer of what that was. I let the results go a long time ago.
Young: There are a lot of things I’m glad we did on this project that weren’t necessarily aimed at being successful. It was more like, “I wanna cut this because I love the song.” One of two songs on this project I didn’t write was written by two guys who’ve never had a cut before, and it’s a ballad waltz.
Gill: That’s my career, dude. [Laughs] That saved my ass, a ballad waltz back in 1989. “When I Call Your Name” was a four-and-a-half minute waltz that was so slow, no one could ever play. But it struck a nerve. I don’t chase what everyone else is looking for. Being creative is all about you.