Gill started out playing bluegrass, including a stint with Ricky Skaggs' Boone Creek Band back in the '70s. He was also at the forefront of country-rock's genesis as a member of Pure Prairie League in the late '70s and early '80s. He quickly established himself as one of the top mainstream country performers, winning a gluttony of CMA Awards, including Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994.
Gill has been instrumental in raising funds for All for the Hall concerts that raise money for the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is where we caught up with him. His 2013 album, Bakersfield, pays tribute to the legacy left by two of Bakersfield's best, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
Vince Gill: Well, I learned that Buck's songwriting was generally pointed towards love songs, loss and broken hearts - he liked sad songs.
With Merle, you know, they always called him the poet of the common man, but I don't know if that's even enough justice for how good he is. What I learned about listening to his songs is the truth. I think that's what's most apparent in those songs: because they're so truthful, you see all those pictures he's painting, and you see how everybody can relate to them because they're true. I think country music and country songs maybe got painted as simple, but they're really about the truth.
Take a Hank Williams song, like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and read the words of that song. That's as beautiful as you'll ever want to hear the English language put out. And same with Merle, same with Buck. They told the truth in a very simplistic way. It doesn't have to be extremely difficult to understand or comprehend. I think most people like things that are relatable and they're simple and easy to understand.
Songfacts: Can you think of any of the songs that you've written that were inspired by what you heard out of Bakersfield?
Gill: Oh gosh, there's a lot. A lot of Buck's songs were shuffles - 4/4 country shuffles - and I've had several shuffles. "Take Your Memory With You" is an early hit for me that was straight out of a Buck Owens shuffle song or Harlan Howard or Ray Price or any of those guys. And I've recorded several others over the years and loved those.
Songfacts: So you've got more of the feel of his music?
Gill: Uh huh. Probably more so. And as much as both of them really mentored me and taught me, I don't necessarily feel like as you look back at my career, you go, "Well, you can tell he was coppin' Buck and Merle and all." Because there's not really tons of that. I tried to find my own way to do it, to say it, to write it.
And there was one record I made a couple of years ago where I really got emotional because it was the first time I've made a record that I felt like I really seeped into Merle Haggard. It was a song called "Billy Paul." The sound of the record, everything about it was Merle. It was a true story about a friend of mine that unfortunately killed a woman and then took his own life. So it's a dark subject. But in listening to it, I said, "Now that sounds like something Merle Haggard would do."
Songfacts: Even though you didn't intentionally try to do that. It's just in you.
Gill: Yeah. I think you can listen to a lot of artists' records and pick things up.
This doesn't have anything to do with Buck or Merle, but another of my favorite songwriters is Guy Clark, who I think is one of the best poets that ever lived. I had a song on my last record called "Old Lucky Diamond Motel," which I wrote by myself. And one of the best compliments I ever got was when somebody asked me if I wrote it with Guy. I just said, "Man, you couldn't have paid me a better compliment in your life than that."
I feel like as I get older I get better at writing songs. I'm finding better ways to write and I'm more willing to edit myself a little bit more. I'm more willing to be patient to wait for the right thing to come, the right words to come.
It's interesting, because I listen to a lot of my earlier songs and shake my head and go, "Boy, you had a lot to learn." [Laughs]
"Threaten Me With Heaven" is the most overtly religious song Gill and Grant have partnered on. It's sung from the perspective of one facing imminent death, where the sobering question, "Death, where is thy sting?" is put into practical application. "What's the worst that they can do?" asks this dying man, "threaten me with heaven, it's all they can do."
In most other cases, Gill/Grant spiritual song co-writes have been much more generalized. A good example of this softened approach is "Look What Love's Revealing," where the chorus begins: "Look what love's revealing, something to believe in." The "love" it speaks of can be interpreted as God, but that interpretation is ultimately left up to the listener. Amy Grant may be one of the most popular artists on the contemporary Christian music circuit, but when it comes to writing songs as a couple, these two are far from preachy.
Gill: Oh, gosh. I think she speaks in great truth. She operates all of her life in the most truthful way of anybody I've ever seen. I'm not as knowledgeable about the history of Christianity or the Bible or that stuff like she is. Every now and then I'd write a song that was pointed in that direction, and I'd have to go ask her, "Is this right?" [Laughing] "Am I close?"
Songfacts: So you ask her theological questions?
Gill: Yes. I lean on her hard for that. But she's a great fan of music. She's more accepting of all things than I am. I listen more with a critical ear.
Songfacts: And she's looking for what's good?
Gill: Yes. Always. And it's pretty engaging to be around. Helps me a lot.
Songfacts: Well, I just want to kind of wind things up by asking you about what you're most excited about tonight. For example, when I talked to Emmylou Harris, she said that she was going to sing with Heart. Are there any collaborations you have planned tonight?
Gill: Well, I think these things just kind of unfold. And I think they're much better unrehearsed. I've never met Jason Mraz before. So on one hand I've got the friend I've had for 38 years that was a mentor to me, and then I meet this kid who sings his brains out. He's a wickedly good singer. So I've got the best of both worlds. Loving an old friend and making a new one. This is good times.
May 2, 2014
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