Sunday, October 15, 2006

Just a Balladeer? A 43-Track Manifesto Testifies Otherwise

The New York Times
Published: October 15, 2006

Vince Gill releases a four-CD set this week (below left, the packaging for the individual discs) called “These Days,” featuring 43 songs. “You always write a lot of songs, but you only cut so many,” he says. “I didn’t want that to happen this time.”

Most people know Vince Gill as a sweet-voiced singer of country ballads. Some might also know him for the high tenor harmonies he lends to the records of others, while others will recognize him as a perennial winner at the Grammy and Country Music Association Awards (and, from 1992 to 2004, as the affable host of the latter). Few beyond Music Row in Nashville, however, know Mr. Gill to be a serious guitarist, a pedigreed bluegrass musician, a prolific songwriter or a performer versed in blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll.

All of which could change with the release this week of “These Days,” Mr. Gill’s latest album for MCA Nashville. The record certainly reveals him to be a consummate musician, and in an assortment of genres. Even more impressive, it does so with four CD’s of new studio recordings and an expansive cast of collaborators ranging from pop stars like Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow to the jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall.

Multidisc concert albums are of course de rigueur in rock, and scores of musicians have put out two-record sets consisting entirely of new studio material. Prince went one better, issuing a triple-CD of new work in 1996, while George Harrison, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Clash each made three-record studio albums during the heyday of the vinyl LP. But not counting the four solo records that the members of Kiss released on the same day in 1978, no major pop act has done what Mr. Gill will do on Tuesday with his four-CD box set of new original music.

His project is nothing if not ambitious, even, at first blush, bordering on an act of hubris. The set contains 43 tracks and has a running time of more than 165 minutes. All of the songs were written or co-written by Mr. Gill. “These Days” is the sort of outsize gesture people have come to expect from an inveterate self-promoter like Garth Brooks, not from Mr. Gill, a self-deprecating golf buff who by most accounts would rather be out hitting the links than holed up in a recording studio.

Skeptics will find plenty to quibble about. Mr. Gill, after all, is no Bob Dylan, who is perhaps entitled but has yet to attempt such a prodigious feat. For much of the decade Mr. Gill, who turns 50 next year, has been on the brink of becoming a “heritage act,” a euphemism used in country music circles to describe longtime radio favorites who are no longer deemed young or hip enough for airplay.

“These Days,” though, isn’t the work of an artist easing into retirement but that of someone reasserting his bona fides. The scope and reach of the album go beyond even that, suggesting that Mr. Gill is making a case for why people who don’t consider themselves fans of country music might want to listen.

“There are a lot of questions out there about how people are going to buy music in the future,” said Chris Parr, vice president of music programming at Country Music Television in Nashville. “Vince’s record shows that Nashville is still looking at innovative ways to engage the consumer. It also reminds us that the country music format is at its strongest and most dynamic when it embraces the diversity of sound you hear on his four CD’s.”

Mr. Gill, who kicks off his United States tour by bringing a 17-piece band with horns to the Nokia Theater in New York on Monday night, wasn’t necessarily out to prove such a point. “I guess I’m shedding my skin a little with this record,” he said. “And yet it’s not about me trying to convince the rest of the world that I am all these things. That’s just not in my makeup. It’s always been enough for me to know that I played guitar on my records. I bet 8 out of 10 people who walk up to me after seeing my live show go, ‘I had no idea you could play like that.’ It never bothered me because that was the most obvious place for my guitar playing to come to light.”

Mr. Gill was speaking in the den of the homey Southern manor he shares with his wife, the pop singer Amy Grant, in the Belle Meade enclave of Nashville. Barefoot and dressed in jeans and an old Sun Records T-shirt, Mr. Gill, whose sleepy eyes and tousled thatch of hair always make him seem as if he has just risen from a nap, was surrounded by vintage guitars, Grammy Awards and golf mementos. A five-hole putting green beckoned from the north lawn.

“It didn’t start out as this great big thing,” he said about his new record. “It became that. You always write a lot of songs, but you only cut so many. I didn’t want that to happen this time, so I just stayed in the studio and wound up, five or six weeks later, having recorded all these songs. Then I was like, ‘Now what are you going to do?’ ”

The solution, reached with the help of Mr. Gill’s record label of 17 years, was to group the tracks together stylistically so that the package would contain four distinct albums, each with its own title. A modest list price of $29.98 is likely to make it an easier sell, especially during the holidays, when box sets are popular gift items. There are no plans at this point for the four discs to be sold separately.

The first album in the series, “Workin’ on a Big Chill,” makes the biggest statement of the four, devoid as it is of the ballads that have been Mr. Gill’s stock in trade. Consisting mainly of Southern-style swamp pop, the record spotlights Mr. Gill’s gutbucket guitar runs as well as guest vocalists like Rodney Crowell and the former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. One track, a risqué tête-à-tête with the country singer Gretchen Wilson called “Cowboy Up,” couldn’t be further from the heart-tugging plaints with which Mr. Gill made his name.

The second disc, a largely romantic collection titled “The Reason Why,” includes cameos from Ms. Raitt and Ms. Crow and a saloon-style duet with Ms. Krall. The third disc is an old-school honky-tonk record called “Some Things Never Get Old.” Long on shuffles, twin fiddles and steel guitar, it features collaborations with Nashville mainstays like Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris and Ms. Grant. The last of the four discs, the bluegrass-steeped “Little Brother,” enlists the support of the Del McCoury Band, the Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark and Jenny Gill, Mr. Gill’s daughter from his previous marriage to the singer Janis Oliver.

Not surprising for a project that strives to do so much with so many people, not all of “These Days” works. The duet with Ms. Krall is a bit stiff, and doubtless some will wish that Mr. Gill had cut back on the guitar vamping on Disc 1. Elsewhere a couple of the ballads betray the middle-of-the-road sensibility that has limited Mr. Gill’s appeal among fans of rock and harder-edged R&B. (In addition to his early work in first-tier bluegrass bands Mr. Gill was the lead singer in a late installment of the unremarkable country-rock band Pure Prairie League.)

The project’s occasional lapses aside, “These Days” is a signal achievement for Mr. Gill, a musical ecumenist who brooks few distinctions between art and entertainment. The four CD’s not only testify to his depth and range as a musician, but do so, as Mr. Gill has often done, through collaborations that smack more of mutual inspiration than of back-scratching or expediency.

Most of the people who sing or play on “These Days” are friends of Mr. Gill, 7 of whose 17 Grammy Awards have involved musical pairings with other artists. A performer who has earned considerable goodwill in Nashville over the last two decades, he has sung or played on the records of many of the guests on his new album, including stints as a guitarist in the formative bands of Ms. Harris and Mr. Crowell. Everyone from Phil Everly and Alison Krauss to the NRBQ alum Al Anderson and Buddy Emmons, the pioneering pedal steel guitarist, appears on “These Days.”

Mr. Gill says the spur for this creative abandon was a phone call he received at home two years ago from Eric Clapton, asking him to play at his Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas. “Here’s one of the finest musicians that will ever live, and he sees me for what I am, a musician,” Mr. Gill said. “It took all these chains and all these thoughts of what I should be and what this town was counting on me to be and said to me: ‘Hey, play what you love. If it’s jazz, let it be jazz, and if it’s rocking, turn it up.’ ”

Mr. Gill has always considered himself a guitar player first. “I think it’s because I’ve done it the longest,” he explained. “For years I was too bashful to sing. I’d just bury my head in my guitar and play.”

Fond of the old Martin guitars associated with country and folk music, Mr. Gill also prizes his Telecasters and Stratocasters, instruments linked to rock giants like Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix. “I was a rock ’n’ roll kid too,” he said. “I was drawn to the records of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. And my brother was a blues hound. I had all these old Muddy Waters records, so there are elements of greasy, dirty blues in my playing.”

“It’s ironic,” Mr. Gill went on. “Because if you said, ‘What do I do best?’ you’d say: ‘He sings ballads. He’s a great torch singer.’ And I guess it’s been wise of me to lean on the ballads. The world’s full of great guitar players, and the country world has never really been about guitar gods like rock ’n’ roll has.”

Mr. Gill’s songwriting is another aspect of his musicianship that he feels has been underappreciated. “I took a beating for a long time,” he admitted. “People said, ‘Yeah, love his playing, love his singing, but his songs aren’t that great.’ And warranted — your best work isn’t your first work. I got better as a songwriter. I want my body of work to encompass the songwriting element as well.”

“Arrogant, isn’t it?” quipped Mr. Gill when the fact that he wrote or co-wrote all of the material on “These Days” came up in conversation.

The people of his home state, Oklahoma, certainly recognize Mr. Gill’s gifts as a songwriter. Earlier this year he and Jimmy Webb, the composer of classics like “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park,” were commissioned to write a song commemorating Oklahoma’s first 100 years of statehood. Their collaboration, “Oklahoma Rising,” is now one of two official state songs, alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”

As the title and sweep of his new album attest, Mr. Gill wants to remind people, and not just those in sometimes insular Nashville, that he still prides himself on making music — all kinds of it. “I think people look at me and say: ‘He doesn’t care that much anymore. He likes to go out and play golf.’ And I go: ‘Well hang on. Sure, I like to do other things, but I’m as passionate about every note of the music I play now as I ever was.’

“We didn’t compromise or sell ourselves short,” added Mr. Gill, referring to his new record. “It got to be as twangy as it needed to be, as slick as it needed to be, as raw as it needed to be. There were no times when I felt like we had to rein something in to make it fit into some narrow little format.”

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