In the title song of Vince Gill’s most recent album, Guitar Slinger, he sings about “a funky, low-down guitar slinger…trained in honky tonk and western swing.” Apparently autobiographical, the tune is an ode to the kind of rule-breaking, chicken picker celebrated in John Sebastian’s “Nashville Cats,” a man whose time as a hit-maker has passed, at least according to the decision makers in Nashville and on country music radio.
Gill (who’s scheduled to play at the Tivoli Theatre on Friday, October 26) has long since accepted that younger players are taking over the spotlight, but he can’t help but be saddened by the low-rent rubbish that passes for country music these days. “For me (country music) has lost its traditional bent pretty severely,” he told a reporter for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I would love to hear someone write a song like [the 1981 George Jones ballad] ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ rather than ‘You’re hot. I’m hot. We’re in a truck.’”
That might sound like the grousing of an older musician who’s been elbowed aside, but Gill—a traditionalist who feels that talent should be rewarded—finds himself in a world where iPhone “fart noises” sell for the same price as one of his songs on iTunes. Luckily, he’s in a position these days to ignore the dictates of the marketplace. Gill’s won more Country Music Association (CMA) awards (including Entertainer of The Year in 1993 and 1994) than anyone else—and he’s picked up more Grammys than any other male country artist. He doesn’t have to prove anything. So when he laments the state of the art these days, it’s not just sour grapes.
“Vince Gill is quite simply a living prism refracting all that is good in country music,” said Kyle Young, when he inducted Gill into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. It was a particularly apt metaphor. Gill is a consummate musician with the chops to play almost anything with almost anyone. And in the past 35 years he has.
He came to prominence as the lead singer with Pure Prairie League in the late 1970’s. He was the singer on the band’s only top-10 single, “Let Me Love You Tonight.” He left Pure Prairie League to join Rodney Crowell’s Notorious Cherry Bombs. Crowell had been part of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band in the 70’s. When Crowell left to go solo in the early 1980’s he wanted his own hot-shot, rockabilly band. He called Gill and together they put together a band.
The song, “Guitar Slinger” fits Crowell as well as it does Gill and that title song is only one of the colors in Gill’s prism. On the album Gill assays everything from a lazily swinging, Basie-style gospel-shaded blues, “When The Lady Sings The Blues” to the classic country ballad, “Bread and Water.”
Listening to the album, it’s easy to understand why Mark Knopfler wanted Gill to join Dire Straits in the late 80’s. Gill’s approach is informed by the same sources as Knopfler’s. His often languid tenor voice and stinging Telecaster leads sound like nothing so much as vintage Dire Straits. But Gill turned Knopfler down to continue chasing the country music chart success that had eluded him for more than a decade. In 1990 “When I Call Your Name” went to number two on the Billboard Country charts and made CMA’s Single of the Year. The following year he was named CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, a title he held for the next five years. Gill’s Tivoli gig is a benefit concert for The Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County. As he told a reporter at Merlefest, “I don’t have a foundation that I only do one thing for…it never really mattered what it was for….sick kids or healthy kids or big kids…you know, everybody needs a hand up once in a while.”
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.