Vince Gill

Picker's Pinnacle
Picker's Pinnacle

These days, it’s pretty much the best of all worlds for singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Vince Gill. The Norman, Oklahoma, native has seen his career develop to the point where he can taper back just a bit and go at his own pace. That’s particularly important for the award-winning artist as of late, as he and his wife, singer Amy Grant, welcomed a baby daughter in March.

However, Gill’s list of accomplishments – awards, honors, charitable efforts, etc. – is so extensive it would take another article just to cite them. For example, when he met with VG at a Nashville musicians’ storage/rehearsal facility, he was preparing to host the Country Music Association awards show for the 10th time.

We were able to examine and photograph some of Gill’s important instruments (including his primary stage guitar, a ’53 Telecaster), and at one point during our conversation, the superstar pulled a ’25 Gibson F-5 mandolin out of a case sitting next to him and flashed through a dazzling riff. Gill’s first recordings were in the Bluegrass genre, and we started our one-on-one with an inquiry about his early (and minimal) formal musical training (he is self-taught on most stringed instruments).

Vintage Guitar: It might surprise some folks to learn you started out with violin lessons.
Vince Gill: I took violin and piano lessons when I was a kid. But at the same time, I was playing guitar – I always had one strapped around my neck. But I didn’t take any formal guitar lessons until I was 12 or 13, and I only took lessons for a short time.

Starting out self-taught on guitar, did you gravitate toward fingerpicking or flatpicking, and/or oddball tunings?
I never knew anything about oddball tunings; I learned songs, and obviously, you try to emulate the solos in the songs, long before you ever even think about developing your own style. I was just listening to records.

So did you ever try to pick along with records played at a different speed on the turntable.
I never knew it would do that! My math was so bad, I didn’t know that if you slowed the turntable down, it would play in basically the same key, only twice as slow (chuckles). I never figured it out… and I kind of wish I had.

But as I got older, I’d go out and see people play. When I went to Australia for the first time to do some bluegrass dates with Byron Berline, as well as some workshops, some of the local guys would tell me, “You don’t know how important it is to see how you play. It’s different from just hearing you; once we can look at you and see how you do things, it makes a huge difference.” That had been the case for me earlier on – going to concerts and watching television.

Your parents gave you your first electric guitar, a Gibson ES-335, and a Fender Super Reverb amplifier. Why that particular guitar and amp?
I still have both… and I can assure you my dad didn’t know that 10″ speakers might sound better than 12″ speakers, or that a blackface Super Reverb would be a great amplifier to have (chuckles)! Gibson has always had a great tradition in its name; they build great instruments. It also probably had something to do with Chet (Atkins) and my love for the way he played. He played a Gretsch then, of course, but it was a big-bodied guitar. You’d rarely see Telecasters in the hands of country musicians; at least, that was the case for me. You saw Buck Owens and Don Rich playing Telecasters, and Roy Nichols with (Merle) Haggard.

But that 335 was real versatile. And when I was 10, I had no idea what I wanted to play. But what’s so interesting is that a long time afterward, when I was in California, I went to hear Larry Carlton play, and he was playing a 335. I said, “Wow! One of those guitars can sound like that?” I first saw him play around ’77, when I was about 19 or 20. I was mesmerized, and I went straight home and took the trapeze tailpiece off of my 335 and put a stoptail on to get more sustain.

But I don’t think there’s a real reason why I picked a 335. My folks went to the music store. And it was a great, versatile guitar.

In all the years of trying to find good guitars, I’ve only lost two; both were traded in, and I wish I had them back. I don’t remember the model number, but I had a Gibson four-string tenor guitar with one pickup. I bought an old Martin D-28 herringbone in 1975, when I was 18; I traded in a newer D-41 and some cash, and I wish I had that D-41, as well.
Your earliest recordings were with a Bluegrass band called Mountain Smoke. What appealed to you about that genre?
I just stumbled into it. We listened to all kinds of music growing up, and I knew of Flatt and Scruggs on “The Beverly Hillbillies” – that was really my only knowledge of bluegrass music. A family of musicians lived a couple of blocks away; Charlie Clark was the father, and he had two sons, Bobby and Mike, and they both played bluegrass. I knew Charlie could fix banjos, and one day when I was messing around with my dad’s banjo, I broke a string. I was afraid I’d get in trouble, so I took it over to Charlie and asked him to fix it. He told me about his son, Bobby, who was a year younger than me. Bobby was – and is – a brilliant musician. He now plays with Mike Snyder out at the Opry.

They had a group that was a lot like New Grass Revival; they’d do Beatle tunes, but they were great students of bluegrass and acoustic music. Charlie said, “You play and sing, don’t you?” And I said I’d played in a rock and roll band a bit in high school, but he invited me to come pick with Bobby. And I did – I put an acoustic guitar in my hands for the first time, as well as mandolins and banjos, and was immediately immersed and in love with acoustic and bluegrass music; it pointed me in a direction that spoke to me.

The cover of the Mountain Smoke album shows you holding a resonator guitar.
I’ve had an interesting career of basically playing what was left over (laughs)! A lot of that is in part because I sang. It was like, “Well, we can get him in the band; he sings great; what instrument’s left over? We’ll let him play that!”
That band wasn’t really serious – it was a bunch of guys who had day jobs and liked goofing off, having a lot of fun, and partying. We traveled around some; played some festivals. It was fun for me because I was the young, “real serious” musician. I was still in high school.

Did you try to learn traditional bluegrass instruments all at once, or did you take them in any particular sequence?
I have no idea what sequence they came in, but I loved the sound of the dobro and the mandolin. I dabbled with fiddle, but was awful. There’s nothing worse than a bad fiddle player – no frets can be pretty mean! A lot of bluegrass musicians can play all of those different instruments. My mother’s favorite sound is me playing the dobro, but I don’t play it much anymore. I play kind of like Jerry Douglas did in his early days – not now, though. He has taken that instrument to an amazing place.

At one point during Mountain Smoke’s history, the band opened for Kiss, of all people.
Well, it was basically a freak of nature. We were a popular local band in Oklahoma City, and we were called at five one afternoon and were asked, “Can you come down to the Civic Center and play tonight? We’ll pay you 1,000 bucks; we don’t have an opening act.” It might have been 500 bucks, but we said we’d play… but they didn’t tell us who we were opening for.

We got down there, and I saw the big Kiss moniker on the marquee, and I said, “We must be playing underneath, at a Shriner’s convention.” But we opened for Kiss, and it was like a scene from Spinal Tap. My most vivid memory is that I played fiddle that night – of all things. Maybe that’s why the audience booed. There were these huge risers, and we came out with our little banjos and mandolins. We lasted for about four songs; they were throwing beer bottles and anything else they could to get us off.

When you finished high school, had you decided that being a full-time musician was going to be your livelihood?
I think so. I don’t think I every really knew what I wanted to do; I just did what unfolded. The last two years of high school, I was totally immersed in music, and I played anyplace that would have me. I’d play clubs; my folks were cool about letting me stay up late if I kept up my grades. I wasn’t a party boy and didn’t get into any trouble.

So I didn’t really plan for college; I was lucky enough to get a call to move to Kentucky and play in a bluegrass band.

You ultimately played with Ricky Skaggs and Byron Berline’s aggregations before hooking up with Pure Prairie League, which was more in the pop/rock/top 40 musical field.
Another freak of nature! I was living in Hermosa Beach in southern California, playing with Byron, and we played a lot, toured a lot, and made good money. I was enjoying playing with the other musicians in the band; to me, bluegrass didn’t get much better than that; I was comfortable and confident. But then, a friend of mine told me he was going to audition for Pure Prairie League, and asked if I wanted to go. I’d opened a concert for them when I was in high school, and wondered if they’d remember me.

So I went to his audition, introduced myself, and they said, “You’re the kid from Oklahoma who plays all the instruments! We’re lookin’ for a lead singer and guitar player. Interested?”

I said “No,” but they told me to bring my stuff and just jam, to see if I’d even like it. I hadn’t played in a rock band since high school.

So I took my stuff to their rehearsal, turned way up, and had a ball! Then I told them I’d go on the road for a while, and we made some records. I wrote songs with them, too. Mostly, I played a 335 and a Les Paul, and there were a couple of songs where I got to play banjo, mandolin, and dobro. But the majority of the time, I was trying to play like Larry Carlton or Robben Ford; a “sweet” 335 sound.

I did three albums with those guys (note: Gill sang lead on “Let Me Love You Tonight” and “I’m Almost Ready“). But they were much older than me, and had been doing that for a long time. I was young and enthusiastic about doing a bunch of different things. Plus, my daughter was about to be born, and they toured nonstop – 200 to 250 days a year. I said, “I’ve got a new baby comin’; the last thing I want to do is to be livin’ out of a suitcase, and not get to know this kid.”

So I quit, and I started playing with Rodney Crowell. The band he assembled was the best I’ve ever played in.

I’m hesitant to ask if you “replaced” Albert Lee (VG, March/April ’99) in that band, considering Lee’s talent.
You don’t “replace” someone as gifted as Albert. I started playing and singing in that band, and I was a “plus” because I could sing all of the high parts with Rodney – the same with Roseanne (Cash, Crowell’s wife at the time); she often used the same band. I loved Albert’s playing, so it was a joy for me to play a lot of his solos. He was probably the most influential guitar player who pointed me to a style; it’s very much borrowed from Albert and James Burton; all those guys.

Before you began your solo career, you returned to bluegrass in a combo with David Grisman (VG, April ’97) called Here Today, which seems to have been an appropriate name, since it didn’t last too long.
(laughs) I already knew Emory Gordy Jr. really well – he’d played bass with Rodney and Roseanne. It seemed like it would be fun to play bluegrass with some guys who were as good as it gets, and it happened during a period when I wasn’t doing much. We did a couple of weeks’ worth of shows, but it was never intended to be a band.

To what extent did your instrumental abilities figure into you getting signed as a solo act?
I don’t know if they did at all. I think most people pay attention to my voice first, then they’re surprised that I can play. When I get done with a concert, some people will tell me, “I had no idea you could play!” And that’s okay; I was not signed as an instrumentalist; I was signed as a songwriter and singer and guitar player, and I try not to let any one of those things overtake another.

I’m not a great promoter of myself; it’s uncomfortable for me to be real showy or talk about what I can and can’t do. I just let my songs and playing speak for themselves. And instrumental music certainly doesn’t get played on country radio; the majority of listeners would rather hear the song and the singer – which is not to say anything disparaging, but they don’t care who’s playing on it; they’re not drawn to musicianship, but there’s a small percentage of listeners who are. And I’ve always felt that if I could give that type of audience some decent playing, I could satisfy both groups. Maybe someday I’ll make an instrumental record, though.

And I think what’s more interesting is that I wanted to be much more of a “traditional” artist when I was signed than I wound up becoming for quite a while, because of the status of the record company. I was signed to RCA, which was very pro-contemporary; they didn’t want steel guitars or twin fiddles, so I felt a little misguided for a while.

Your solo career came along around the time videos began to figure into the mix for musicians. How do you feel about having had to address that aspect – visual vs. aural?
It’s fun to see music performed live, but it’s never been a real turn-on for me to see videos. Pure Prairie League did one of the very first videos, back in ’80 or ’81, and I played on it.

Was it a performance-type or conceptual?
It was conceptual, but it was very primitive, too (chuckles). Ours has become a very visual culture, in all ways, not just musically, but I’d still rather listen to a record than “see” the record. And aside from “looking at it” rather than “listening to it,” what’s unfortunate, to me, for the purity of music, is that it becomes about image. And country music never really had as much emphasis on image as it does today. Pop music always has, in some way.

And there isn’t much debate that a lot of what’s heard on country radio stations these days could easily have been heard on top 40 AM radio stations 20-something years ago.
I’ve done a little of both, and I don’t look at it and say, “Here’s what’s wrong with it.” I’m just saying “Here’s what it is.” I mean, look at rock and roll – it doesn’t all sound like Chuck Berry anymore; look at pop music, and it doesn’t sound like the Doobie Brothers or Dionne Warwick anymore. All of it has evolved; all of it has changed. And the thing I find to be the most humorous is when they say, “‘Country’ is really ‘pop’.” It’s not pop! Madonna is pop. Our records may transcend over to somewhere else because people like them, but it’s not because they’re real “pop” records.

Mark Knopfler once asked you (VG, May 2001) to join Dire Straits…
Yeah, about 12 years ago. I’m not sure how he came to know about my playing… I think it was through a mutual friend – Paul Franklin, a steel guitar player.

Mark came to see me play in New York City around ’89 or ’90; I’d just recorded a new record for MCA. I’d been on RCA for seven years, and had made a bunch of records, but not much noise. He said (imitates Knopfler’s accent), “‘Ow would you like to be in the Dire Straits and go on tour for a year and a half?” I said “Golly, if you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have been gone. But I’ve invested so much into country music, and I don’t want to bail. I need to try to make this work.”

As it turned out, it was a wise decision because “When I Call Your Name” came out, and was the big hit that I had to have. But I am honored to know Mark.

Another one-off project was the New Nashville Cats, under the auspices of (fiddle player) Mark O’Connor. “Restless” was a single.
It made perfect sense for a single, because Mark was doing a mostly instrumental record with a couple of guest vocals, and they figured that if he had one with Steve [Wariner], Ricky [Skaggs], and me on there, that one would be [released as a single]. “Restless” is a great old tune, and everybody got to play everything they know (laughs)!

There was also a video for “Restless” that was basically an informal performance; if it hadn’t been for the camera panning around the players, the feeling could have been like you were picking on somebody’s front porch.
Yeah, there’s not an actor amongst us in that foursome! We definitely had to play!

You’ve participated in a lot of collaborations, both singing and playing. Any favorite performances, including these that were the most satisfying or the most fun?
Well, I think the ones that are the biggest “stretch” are the ones that kind of stand out. Just the fact that you get the opportunity to do it – did I ever think I’d get the opportunity to do a duet with Gladys Knight or Barbra Streisand? No! All of those things just kind of happen.

I recently did a tribute to Brian Wilson where I had to learn two of the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn in my life. I was scared to death, but it means the most when you go into a situation and you exceed everybody else’s expectations. Like stepping into the realm of a brilliant vocalist like Gladys Knight; “What’s the white country guy doin’ in there? This is dumb!” But he sings, and Gladys goes “Wow! He’s a soulful guy!”

Everybody in this genre already knows what you do – they know you write, sing, crack jokes, host awards shows. It’s those things you get to do that are “outside the lines” that are always a lot of fun.

But have any of those outside-the-lines efforts been attempts to “cross over?”
I make decisions based on whether or not I want to do it, and they’ve been musical choices. I love singing with people, and I love playing with people, but I’ve turned down a lot of things too.

From an instrumental point of view, guitar players would have been impressed by your work with Steve Wariner (VG, May ’96) on his No More Mr. Nice Guy album.
I used my ’53 Telecaster. The first session I did here was on one of his records, “Midnight Fire,” which was a hit for Steve in the early ’80s. I sang harmony on it, and made a friend for life. He’s a great guy; he loves music and loves the instrument, and in your heart, you believe he does it for the right reasons.

Another intriguing project was your participation on Bad Company’s mid-’90s album, Stories Told and Untold. You played on “Oh, Atlanta,” and the band recorded a cover of “I Still Believe in You.”
Once again, a learning experience. But that one’s a little left-of-center. Allison Krauss and I played on that track, and I loved doing it because I’ve always gotten 80 percent singing calls, 20 percent guitar calls. The guitarist in me says, “Great! I get to play!”

I think my favorite weekend in the last 10 years was the one when Patty Loveless’ guitar player had to rush home for the birth of his child. It was two hours before the show, and Patty said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” and I said (raises hand), “I’ll play!” (chuckles). It was so much fun, because I just played; I didn’t have to talk in between songs. I got to be a musician.

But even when I’m touring, I feel like a sideman. I’m up there with those guys, and everybody’s working together. We get to play longer solos; it’s not just “Here’s the record! Thank you for coming. Goodnight.” It has always had a “band” feel instead of being a singer and his backup band.

One side man role of yours was with an all-star band at the 40th annual Country Music Association awards show. The group was under the direction of Randy Scruggs, and included Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, and Wariner. How was that organized?
I don’t know, but I just feel flattered when I get those calls – I feel like I’m included not because I’m popular as an artist, but because I’m a player and I’m among peers. That’s the highest form of flattery.

Chet Atkins recently passed away, and a few years ago he gave you a guitar on Ralph Emery’s TV show. There’s only one Chet Atkins…

… so for all of the honors you’ve received, to receive something that personal from someone who was such an icon had to be one of the most memorable. What was going through your mind at the time?
I’d met Chet on several occasions, but had never gotten to play music with him. When I was a little boy, the sound he made with his guitar was really the first musical thing I remember; I asked myself “How does that happen?” (chuckles). Now that he’s gone, I can’t even begin to tell you the pride I felt. It was humbling and frightening – both ends of the spectrum.

It was fun to get to know him; I kind of got to know him in a “friendship” way more than our having gotten together to play music. I believe that show might have been the first time I ever played with him, and my hands would not go on the instrument; it was really eery. I was afraid to put my hands on the guitar.

Did getting to know Atkins as a friend first ultimately make playing with him easier, though?
I think so, because we got to play on a few occasions, just sitting around at somebody’s house, at a party. Then it wasn’t about being on television; it was just fun. One night I played mostly mandolin, and one of his best friends was Jethro Burns, so he said, “Man, I like the way you play mandolin – you play it kind of jazzy, like Jethro did.” Any time you got any compliment from Chet, it was like gold.

Do you primarily compose your songs on acoustic guitar?
Pretty much; I still think it’s fun to use capos or drop-tunings; all kinds of weird things with an acoustic just to find a little “out there” place. But I’ve written a lot of songs on electric guitar, too, just because you play the instrument in a different way. I used to love to go onstage at soundcheck and play some “feel.”

What about specific licks or riffs that are written for certain songs? An example might be the introduction of “Feels Like Love” on your latest album, Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye. It starts on piano, then doubled with a nylon-string guitar.
Michael Omartian came up with that theme, and that’s the beauty of making records – letting guys like that be creative with your songs.

But when you compose songs on your own, do you necessarily think about signature guitar lines?
Yeah. I think that’s part of what makes good records; on one of those you wouldn’t just start playing it. There’s a song from a few records back called “You and You Alone,” and I wrote it from the signature thing at the top. That song was written around that riff; others are not. Another thing about making a record is that when you write a song, you don’t always come up with all of the little lines and hooks, but those musicians can put in some invaluable parts.

Presumably an instrumental break in the middle of a song is more “fair game” concerning improvising what’s heard.
I think so, and as the years go by, I think that as a veteran musician, sometimes I might be able to say more with less. You can always tell a young player, because he plays everything he knows, but the guys who’ve been around for awhile try to say as much as they can with as little as they can.

A lot of solos on things like ballads are centered around the melody, and believe it or not, now and then a melody can be very pretty. Chet always found different ways to play the melody, with different inversions and different positions. I was playing at a jam session one time and we were playing a song that was a standard, and for my solo, I played the melody. Everybody else said, “Wow, what a concept!” (laughs).

“Look What Love’s Revealed” (from Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye) has some intriguing jazz-like octave notes on the intro. Why’d you go for that type of sound?
I don’t know, but I thought it was pretty neat. The feel of that song was probably different from anything I’ve ever done. I try to think of what will work on a song in “honest” terms – I wouldn’t put a mandolin on that song, for example; it’d sound awkward.

Have you ever done a live album or concert video?
The only thing that was ever shown as a live show was an episode of “The Road,” a TV show that used to be in production. We did a thing at the Ryman called “Souvenirs,” which was a concert video that was a pared-down acoustic presentation. I just think that once you get tuned in to how good studio sounds can get, it’s hard to come up with the something that’ll sound that good live.

Do you want to cite some of the instruments in your collection?
I have several old Martins – two herringbones; a ’49 D-28 and a mid-’50s D-28. I have a little 000-21 that I love. There’s a 1925 (Gibson) F-5 mandolin; it’s probably a Loar, and they say they’re just not signed by him. It’s got all of his specs. I own a 1928 spruce-top Dobro square-neck, which is very rare.

Is there anything you’re still seeking?
I still may stumble into things, but the prices have gotten pretty ridiculous. A while back I bought two ’52 Telecasters and paid a lot of money for them. But all in all, I think the prices of vintage instruments are insane. I can understand a guy wanting a guitar as a piece of history, but I’ve always felt like instruments were made to be played. People ask me if I still take my old instruments on the road, and I say, “Yeah! Why not?”

But at the same time, a true lover of instruments may be like a lover of art. Some guitars are beautiful, but I’d still rather hear them being played than look at them (chuckles).

In the booklet of the latest CD, you’re seen playing a modern Danelectro Convertible.
It was the engineer’s guitar. If there’s a guitar laying around, I’m gonna grab it and plunk on it (chuckles).

You recently became a father again. How has that changed any plans for your career?
I’m not going to work as much, but I think that’s natural. I’ve got most of my work behind me, and it’s a luxury that I can not work a lot of days out of the year. I’m doing 15 to 20 shows this year, and Amy and I are going to do a Christmas tour for two or three weeks. On the dates I’ve already done, Amy and the baby have gone with me.

Next year, I don’t know… I don’t want to miss much of my child’s life. Family has always had a priority, but what’s interesting is that for anyone who wants to get into the workplace and achieve something in a career or a job – your first 20 years, the “apprenticeship” of whatever you do, is when you’re going to have to work the hardest. That’s the way it evolves, and even if we hadn’t had a baby, this feels natural. The decisions aren’t made just because of family; it’s the way a career works. It’s time to settle in a bit.

Only in his mid 40s, Vince Gill has racked up enough success where he can indeed take things a bit easier if he so desires. He’s earned the right, and the inclinations toward his family can be respected by musicians and fans alike, just as his music is.

Photo: Ken Settle.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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