Originally published in the Feb. 29, 2016 issue of Country Weeklymagazine.
It’s a weekday morning in Nashville, and Vince Gill’s house is filling up with guests.
Two photographers shuffle through the main hallway, their arms loaded down with camera equipment. A member of Vince’s PR team rushes out the front door, greeting the journalists who’ve come to speak with the singer about his new album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, which dropped on Feb. 12. Out on the lawn, the family’s two-year-old cocker spaniel, Okie, runs a series of excited laps across the grass, driven to the brink of hysterics by the possibility of meeting new friends.
Inside the recording studio that occupies the entire north wing of the house, though, Vince is calm and casual. He’s also shoeless. Ever since Vince began making his albums at home, the Gill household has seen many days like today—days filled with visitors, interviews, tracking sessions and the sort of controlled chaos you’d otherwise find at an office. This isn’t an office, though. It’s a residence. And if Vince wants to walk around his own residence wearing socks and sweatpants instead of business clothes, there’s no boss to tell him not to.
“Music really lives and thrives in my home, which is great for me,” Vince says, surrounded by more than 100 guitars that line the walls of his studio lounge. “That’s a powerful thing. I don’t have to go somewhere to be creative—I can stay home. It’s the best feeling in the world, being here barefooted all the time and not being tied to a clock. Studios are expensive. But here, if I wanna stay in this room and geek out on another guitar solo for a couple hours after everyone else has left, I can.”
If there’s any country star who has earned the right to kick off his shoes once in a while, it’s Vince Gill. Now entering his fourth decade as a singer, songwriter, producer, sideman, frontman and hotshot guitarist, he’s grown into one of the genre’s rarest gems: a legacy artist who’s still in his prime. For every classic song in his catalog—a catalog filled with hits like “When I Call Your Name,” “I Still Believe in You” and “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” all of which helped define one of country music’s biggest decades—there’s another project in the works, another tune being written, another show being played. Vince has already secured his spot in the history books, but that doesn’t mean his chapter is anywhere close to finished.
“Even though I’m 58, I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been,” he explains. “And that’s unique, especially when you’re not the hot commodity anymore, and you’re not popping out hit record after hit record. I’m a light-years-better singer now than I was 25 years ago, though. I’m a light-years-better guitar player. A light-years-better songwriter. I think that the more you get to do it, the better you get at it. And maybe the music goes a good bit more unnoticed now than it used to
. . . but not by me.”
Listening to Down to My Last Habit, it’s hard not to notice Vince’s strengths. His voice—kept in shape by a vice-free lifestyle that includes sidestepping such temptations as alcohol and cigarettes—bounces between a clear, high-flying croon and a bluesy baritone. His guitar playing, which enjoys just as much airtime as his vocals, is nuanced one minute and explosive the next, with Vince tipping his hat to a wide range of pickers. You can hear the Stratocaster smoothness of Mark Knopfler, the wobbly vibrato of Eric Clapton and the percussive twang of Albert Lee. At the same time, the album’s 12 songs still feel like Vince’s work, probably because he wrote every last one of them. The guy is right—he’s rarely been stronger.
Vince gets a little help from his friends along the way, too. The members of Little Big Town lend their four-part harmonies to one of the album’s highlights, “Take Me Down,” while Cam burns down the house with her duet on “I’ll Be There for You.” Charlie Worsham and Alison Krauss make appearances, too, and a handful of co-writers—including longtime friends Richard Marx and Ashley Monroe, both top-notch singers in their own right—add their contributions to songs like “My Favorite Movie.” Even Vince’s own family gets a piece of the action, with daughters Jenny and Corrina singing on separate tracks.
At just 14 years old, Corrina—the only child of Vince and his wife, Amy Grant, both of whom also have children from their previous marriages—sounds more than ready to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She duets with her dad on “One More Mistake I Made,” a song whose trumpet solos and smoky, jazz-influenced arrangement bring to mind a more jubilant version of Don Henley’s “New York Minute.” The song’s vocal harmonies, gorgeous and closely entwined, point to a family legacy in the making.
“Corrina is unbelievable,” Vince gushes, equal parts proud dad and genuine fan. “‘One More Mistake I Made’ is a real jazzy kind of piece, and there’s even a trumpet on it, which is something you don’t hear on country records all the time. The lyric in that song is about owning your mistakes. To sing something that honest and that poignant and that different with a young kid—my own kid—is really cool, especially when she’s an amazing vocalist. Singing with someone like that will keep you on your toes.”
Corrina Gill isn’t the only one whose chops has been keeping Vince on his toes. For nearly 20 years, he traded harmonies with Dawn Sears, a solo artist who joined Vince’s touring band as a backup vocalist in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, the two were also performing together in the Time Jumpers, a western swing group filled with some of Nashville’s top sidemen and singers. Happy to be the ensemble’s lead guitarist rather than the frontman, Vince let Dawn deliver most of the Time Jumpers’ songs. It was a good dynamic. The band grew tighter and tighter over the years, thanks in large part to a weekly residence at the Nashville club 3rd & Lindsley. Things started changing in 2012, though, when Dawn’s lung cancer diagnosis added a serious jolt of emotion to what had begun as a fun, happy-go-lucky band. The Time Jumpers continued performing, but Dawn ultimately lost her battle with cancer in 2014 at the age of 53.
“Those last months of sitting beside her and listening to her sing, I knew what was going on in her head,” Vince says softly. “She was thinking, ‘I might not get another chance to sing, so I’m gonna sing with every ounce of emotion I’ve got in my being.’ That was inspiring. I thought, ‘You need to learn from this. You need to sing like you might not get another chance.’ As a musician and a singer, I’ve always wanted to be subtle. I’ve never wanted to appear like I’m showing off. With this album, although I’m still the same guy, I don’t worry about that as much. While I have all my faculties, I really want to make the most of them. Because at some point, you’re gonna sound like an old guy. You’re not gonna be strong enough to push hard enough to keep that note right there. And you don’t get to sing forever. So I’m cutting loose a little bit.”
Vince is also focusing on songs that challenge and inspire him, rather than songs that are guaranteed to blaze their way up the country charts. Vince already has enough hits, after all. He’s already made enough money. Down to My Last Bad Habit is the latest in a string of albums that explore the far-flung corners of his influences—albums like These Days, a 43-song behemoth that tackled everything from jazz to bluegrass, and Bakersfield, a guitar-heavy tribute to country icons Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—while largely ignoring the mainstream. As far as Vince is concerned, if it’s not “country enough” for the radio, who cares?
“I do feel a responsibility to stick up for country music, straight up,” he says. “I love the traditional side of it. But while I was wrapping up this album, Paul Franklin and I released Bakersfield. The Time Jumpers did a really traditional album around that time, too. And now, Paul and I are planning another album together—something with the same premise as Bakersfield, but not a tribute to Buck and Merle specifically—so I’ve really been able to get my fix for traditional music lately. With this project, I didn’t feel like I had to point toward something traditional. There’s only one real country song on the record, and that’s a tribute to George Jones. Down to My Last Bad Habit is just me writing songs, whether it’s an R&B song or a blues song or something that’s rocking pretty hard. And really, I’ve always done that. There’s always been a lot of diversity on my records. While I’m seen as a country artist, it’s so far from just that.”
That’s the truth. With nearly 20 albums to his name, as well as more than 500 appearances on other musicians’ albums, Vince’s career path is one of the most diverse in country music. His discography is so extensive that certain details have started to blend together, like release dates. Asked for an anecdote about the first time he sang backup vocals on a Richard Marx album, he just smiles and shakes his head. “I don’t know which album it was,” he admits. “It was more than 20 years ago. We’ve worked together so much since then, though, and become great friends.” Later, he lays out a quick plan for the next year or two, which will include recording sessions for his new project with steel guitar wizard Paul Franklin as well as preparations for another solo record. Actually, if everything works out, a few more solo albums may be on the not-too-distant horizon.
“I probably have the next three projects in my head,” says Vince. “I have the songs. I have the plan. I have the vision. Now I just need to find enough time to execute everything and go get it all done.”
Maybe that’s what Vince Gill means when he sings about his “last bad habit.” The guy is a certified workaholic, more than willing to pack his schedule far beyond the limits of a normal working musician. He’s barely taken a break in 40 years, and with three upcoming projects in the works, he won’t be taking one anytime soon. He’s happy, though. He’s fulfilled. And today, decades after kicking off his career, doing quality work is one habit he’s not about to kick. NCW
Vince Gill – Down To My Last Bad Habit
- Reasons for the Tears I Cry (Vince Gill)
- Down to My Last Bad Habit (Vince Gill, Al Anderson)
- Me and My Girl (Vince Gill)
- Like My Daddy Did (Vince Gill)
- Make You Feel Real Good (Vince Gill)
- I Can’t Do This (Vince Gill, Catt Gravitt, Brennen Hunt)
- My Favorite Movie (Vince Gill, Ashley Monroe)
- One More Mistake I Made (Vince Gill, Adrianne Duarte)
- Take Me Down featuring Little Big Town (Vince Gill, Richard Marx, Jillian Jacqueline)
- I’ll Be Waiting for You featuring Cam (Vince Gill, Leslie Satcher)
- When It’s Love (Vince Gill, Richard Marx)
- Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones) (Vince Gill)
Sidebar: Real Deal
With guest appearances by Alison Krauss, Sheryl Crow, Little Big Town and more, Down to My Last Bad Habit has plenty of added star power. It took a cameo by a considerably less famous singer, though, to really stop Vince in his tracks.
“Charlie Worsham sang a song on this record!” he says, making it sound like a proud boast as much as a fact. “He’s the one kid who’s come along since I moved to Nashville who really makes me say, ‘That’s the real deal. That’s someone [who] should have a huge career.’ And he will, I think. He’s gifted. He sings great. He plays great. He’s not just a pretty boy who can dance. He’s got everything you could want and everything an artist should have. I really think it’s important to invest in a lot of these young people who are gifted, ’cause I’m gonna learn something from them, too.”
Sidebar: Remembering Glenn Frey
Vince Gill moved to Southern California during the late 1970s, when the Eagles were one of the state’s biggest active exports. Years later, he sang his own version of the band’s final Top 10 hit, “I Can’t Tell You Why,” on the 1993 tribute album Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles. A personal friend of the group’s co-founders, he was hit especially hard by the death of guitarist Glenn Frey, who passed away on Jan. 18, 2016.
“This is gonna sound stupid to say out loud,” he admits, “but I always felt like if I was 10 years older, I might’ve been playing with those guys. Maybe they would say the same thing about me. I’ve gotten to be great friends with all of them over the years, as well as a fan of what they’ve done musically. As I look at that long legacy of songs written by Don [Henley] and Glenn, I’m realizing that their music is as important to our American songbook as music by [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney. They’re as important as anything by Burt Bacharach, James Taylor, Carole King, Jimmy Webb or [Bob] Dylan. You name all the songs that were really definitive of our culture and our world over the decades, and the Eagles’ songs were just as important. And Glenn was the guy behind a lot of them.”