Vince Gill is a reluctant superstar.
It’s not that he’s not innately captivating, or that he’s not easily among the greatest guitarists of our time, or that he doesn’t write songs that have moved millions of listeners, including legends such as Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, John Prine, Don Schlitz, and Rodney Crowell.
It’s not that his voice isn’t instantly recognizable and remarkably beautiful, with dusky alto tones that give way to a soaring, stream-clear high tenor.
It’s not that he hasn’t won enough Grammy Awards (21) to crater any mortal mantle, or that he hasn’t won more Country Music Association trophies than most any other artist. Or that he didn’t sing and write “When I Call Your Name” or “Go Rest High On That Mountain” or a bunch of other songs now considered classics. Or that he’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry, and recently joined the Eagles tour.
But superstars trade on glamour and remoteness. They are photographed and videotaped on red carpets and in limousine loading zones, and maybe via long-range lenses on exclusive beaches or hotel balconies.
Vince Gill is photographed at the Pancake Pantry in Nashville, by people who ask him to smile for the shot. And he always smiles for the shot.
Gill is a reluctant superstar, intentionally absent of the glamour and remoteness.
“I would like people to view me as pretty normal,” he says, in a statement never uttered by Mick Jagger or Little Richard. And Vince Gill adores Mick Jagger and Little Richard. “I’m approachable. I play at a little bar on Monday nights.”
He plays that bar, Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley, with a band called The Time Jumpers. He joined the band because he wanted to be a better guitar player, though he was already known as one of the world’s better guitar players.
And he talks with anyone who wants to talk. And he plays with the best music-makers in the world, regardless of fame: The Eagles at a massive arena is fine, and The Time Jumpers at 3rd & Lindsley is just as fine. And he sings with a voice that is instantly recognizable and remarkably beautiful, with dusky . . . well, we’ve been through that.
“I spend my time trying to make it all a little better," he says. “I don’t have to be in the forefront of attention. I try to be welcoming of anybody that comes into my life.”
Gill is innately relatable, unless someone is paying attention to the notes and the tones, to the McCartney-esque melodies and the eye-swelling emotions . . . unless someone rightly marvels at the enormity of his gifts. He’s an unbelievable musician, and the most believable of people.
Vince Gill has a new album. It’s called Okie. It contains lines like “Let them cowboys be the heroes, I’ll just be an honest man,” and it includes songs that point listeners to Clark and Haggard. It’s his most personal album, as he sings about his wife in prayer, about kindness and forgiveness, about his heroes in death, and about his own loves, joys, and regrets.
The album’s title is taken from the once-derogatory term used to disparage migrants from Oklahoma to the nation’s west coast during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression eras. A proud Oklahoman, Gill has appropriated this term on an album that embraces his roots and explores some of the most important issues of our time.
“I thought this was going to be a songwriter record, not a concept album,” Gill says. “It wound up being more information than I’d envisioned. A friend sent me an email saying, ‘You could have only written this record after living a 60-year-plus life.’ He said, ‘There’s no struggle in these songs, just truth and your experience.”
Okie could have only come from Gill, who tells his truth with clarity and virtuosity and unsurpassed beauty, and with nothing in the ways of glamour and remoteness, and with everything in the ways of connection and understanding.
“Kindness would solve everything,” he says. “It would solve everything if people were kind and fair-minded.” And that’s as close as Vince Gill gets to braggadocio, because he is kind and fair- minded, and he is aware enough to realize that people realize all this.
One of the new tracks off the album is called “Forever Changed.” It’s about abuse, and he nearly didn’t record it. But many years ago when he performed it live, a band member who
heard it ran off the stage in tears, and told him that it was her story. She asked, “How did you know?” And he didn’t, but he did. He knows people aren’t always kind or fair-minded, or right or true.
“That mirror won’t lie,” he says. “You think you’ve gotten away with something? You can’t ever get away.”
Okie is an album that’s mirror-true, from the perspective of a searcher, not a preacher. “Everyone knows the price of regret,” Gill sings, recognizing the unfortunate folly of judgment and supposition: “You’re black and I’m white, we’re blinded by sight/ Close your eyes and tell me the color of my skin.” Gill figures that if we’d close our eyes, we’d welcome people and things more honestly. “The price of regret . . . I pay it most days,” he says.
There’s a song called “A Letter To My Mama” that used to be called “Love I Owe.” Gill penned it with legendary writer Dean Dillon, settling on the original title but then realizing that it should be addressed to the woman who raised him. He’s sung about his father in “The Key To Life.” He’s sung about his brother in “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” This is a debt once owed and now paid.
And then there are tributes to Haggard — both “A World Without Haggard” and “Black and White,” written by Gill and Charlie Worsham, the latter of which points to the poignance and ambiguity of Merle’s “Are the Good Times Really Over For Good” — and to Guy Clark, the poetic curmudgeon who impacted thousands of listening lives.
And so here’s a new Vince Gill album. It speaks of the price of regret, and it speaks of the Bible’s red words, the ones spoken by Jesus. And it is full of melody and grace. And he didn’t have to make it, because he’s already made a whole bunch of albums, and they’ve been good and they’ve been heard, and he’s a superstar.
Maybe we ought to listen. Maybe if we do then we won’t think of him as normal, in spite of his own wishes.
The dude is a treasure, and he’s pointing the way.