Vince Gill

You can’t miss the trophy shelf in Vince Gill’s den. The 49-year-old Oklahoma native has won 14 Grammy Awards, 18 Country Music Association Awards—more than any other performer in history—and earned a passel of gold and platinum records. Most of them sit right there, clustered in a casual, yet potent display of artistic success, but Gill doesn’t give them a glance as he eases his tall frame into a nearby couch. Normally low-key and soft-spoken, Gill is especially so on the day of our interview. He has just returned from a golf tournament in Colorado, exhausted and nursing a wicked lobster-red sunburn, but that doesn’t prevent him from sharing the details of his latest recording adventure, the four-disc These Days [MCA].
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Consisting entirely of new studio recordings of previously unreleased material, the opus contains 43 songs in a variety of styles, including bluegrass, blues, roots rock, honky tonk, jazz, and, of course, the love songs and ballads that have earned him legions of adoring female fans.

“Those ballads bought this house,” he laughs, pointing down the hallway of his sprawling mansion.

These Days features an amazing roster of guest performers, including Sheryl Crow, Michael McDonald, LeAnn Rimes, Guy Clark, Bonnie Raitt, John Anderson, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Phil Everly, the Del McCoury Band, Lee Ann Womack, Gretchen Wilson, Jerry Douglas, Trisha Yearwood, Bekka Bramlett, and pedal-steel wizard Buddy Emmons. Gill’s daughter Jenny and wife Amy Grant also contribute vocals on several songs.

Throughout the many songs and moods, Gill’s guitar playing is toneful and compelling. His flatpicked acoustic solos have the grace, speed, and power of Tony Rice and Clarence White, and his Tele licks snap and pop with the intensity of Albert Lee and Brent Mason. In the ballads, Gill’s sweet, singing leads pay tribute to Larry Carlton, while his sparkling bluegrass mandolin, hot Texas blues, and funky Travis picking each sound utterly authentic. And soaring above the fretted-string symphony is Gill’s legendary voice—a beautiful tenor that makes women swoon.

The creative burst that yielded These Days was triggered by a phone call from Eric Clapton.

“I was at a point in my career where my records were no longer getting airplay on country radio,” Gill reveals. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve had a good run, what’s next?’ One night as I was pondering this, the phone rang and it was Eric. After I got over the shock, he explained he was a fan of my guitar playing, and he was calling to personally invite me to join him onstage at the Crossroads Festival. It was such a validation to get this call, and such an honor to play with Eric and the others, that when I came back home I began furiously writing these new songs. Somehow playing at the Crossroads Festival gave me the courage to explore the different styles and sounds you hear on These Days. It was a creative awakening.”

Writing and recording four albums of new music is a monumental undertaking. Was this your plan from the start?

I didn’t start with the intention of recording this much music. My original idea was to go into the studio, and record one song a day. There was no other goal than to simply make music, and have fun doing it. I’d call some of my favorite players to see who was available on a particular day, and arranged the band accordingly. The music was sounding really good, the players were in a groove, and the mood in the studio felt right, so I thought, “I’d sure like to see where this leads.”

So we kept booking time and musicians. A week or two into it, I realized, “Man, I have an awful lot of songs.” I figured at some point I’d have to pick my 10 favorites for an album, but I was too busy making music to worry about it. When I came up for air five or six weeks later, I’d recorded 31 songs. That’s when I started to go, “Uh-oh. Now what am I going to do?”

What happened?

I began to see how the songs all fell into different categories. I could take this batch and make a really traditional country record, and that batch and make an album of ballads, and another batch to make a more rocking record. Talking with the record label, we came up with a radical idea, which was to go back into the studio to record a totally acoustic album, and then release the whole collection as a four-record set. So I cut another 12 songs with an acoustic band, which brought the total to 43.

How long did it take to write all these songs?

The acoustic record has three or four songs I’d written in the past, but, otherwise, everything is new. It took the bulk of 2005 to write the new material for all four albums.

How did you present the songs to the musicians? Did you record demos before going into the studio?

I don’t do demos. Oftentimes, demos point the way too much. When that happens, you get “demo love,” and everyone just gravitates toward what they hear on it. Instead, if you perform a song with just voice and guitar, the musicians can create what’s in their heads, rather than simply recreating someone else’s part. I was lucky to have such high-caliber musicians to work with, and the last thing I wanted to do was dictate what they should play.

Hearing you sing blues in “Molly Brown” was a real surprise—and a treat. That’s a first, isn’t it?

Yeah. I’m an old blues hound, but nobody would know that because none of my records reflect it. To me, we’re all just blues singers and blues players. I think the beauty you always look for in music is found on the blues side of it. It’s the most compelling by a mile, and that’s what I’ve always been drawn to. Country music is the blues. Bluegrass is mountain music—blues from the Appalachians. People call Billie Holiday a jazz singer, but you know she’s really singing the blues—just with big chords and orchestral arrangements. The great people who stand out to me are those who hit the blues side in a big way, whether it’s blues in a rockin’ vein, like Cream or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or singers like Van Morrison, Michael McDonald, Diana Krall, and Bonnie Raitt.

How do you think your audience will react to “Molly Brown”? It’s a tale of interracial love in the South, in which the singer is murdered by his father.

As edgy as it is, I think the story will be interesting for folks to hear. And anyway, that’s what always drew me to music—not the happy endings, but the dark ones.

Who played the acoustic slide guitar?

That’s Tom Britt. More of the world needs to know about him. He has the most interesting style—it’s part Sonny Landreth, part Ry Cooder, but he has his own thing going. Tom uses a lot of open tunings. He played slide on “Molly Brown, “Nothing Left to Say,” and “Rhythm of the Pouring Rain.” I met him when I was 18, living in Kentucky. Tom was playing steel guitar then. Now he’s the other guitarist in my band. It works great because he plays so differently from me.

On the bluegrass tunes, did you play your guitar parts live with the ensemble?

Yeah. The five songs I’d consider bluegrass are all recorded live. The two songs I recorded with Del, we did in one period of a couple of days. The other three songs I recorded live with Jeff White, Mike Bubb, Mike Cleveland, Charlie Cushman, and Ronnie McCoury. To get that authentic, old-school sound, you have to record the band playing together in a room.

In “Give Me the Highway” and “What You Give Away” you play monster flatpicked solos with a sparkling tone and crisp attack reminiscent of Clarence White. When did you discover flatpicking?

My first guitar experiences were as a seventh- and eighth-grader playing in garage bands. We played rock and roll, and I was trying to be Jimmy Page and Joe Walsh. When I got immersed in bluegrass as a 16-year-old kid, I became enamored with Tony Rice and Clarence White, and I spent a lot of time exploring that world. But during those years I spent playing bluegrass, I wasn’t ever identified with a particular instrument. I got gigs because I could sing, and I’d end up playing whatever instrument was missing from the band.

When I was with the Bluegrass Alliance, I played guitar, then I left them to play bass with Ricky Skaggs. He decided to be a little more modern and pop, so I became the steel and electric guitar player. When the Bluegrass Alliance lost their mandolin player, they asked if I could fill in. I knew I was no Sam Bush, but I could play chop rhythm and noodle around, so I became the band’s mandolin player.

Out in California, I played with [fiddler extraordinaire] Byron Berline in a band called Sundance. Dan Crary and Allan Wald were playing guitar, so I mostly played mandolin. When Dan couldn’t make a gig, I became the other guitar player, playing acoustic and electric. These bands all contained beyond great musicians, and I was always struggling to keep up with them. I think people probably liked my singing more than my playing ability.

Jerry Douglas plays ripping Dobro on “Girl.” Didn’t you know each other when you were both starting out?

When I was 18, I played in Boone Creek with Jerry and Ricky for about six months. They didn’t have any gigs at the time, and I was a pain-in-the-neck 18-year-old kid, so they sent me back home [laughs]. Both Jerry and Ricky are great friends of mine, and always will be, and that was the best thing they ever did for me.

Richard Bennett—a superb guitarist who tours and records with Mark Knopfler—joins you on guitar on many of these tracks. When you bring in a second guitarist, what exactly are you looking and listening for?

I want someone who doesn’t play the way I do. That would be too much of one thing. In Richard’s case, he would rather not play the solo—which is rare for a guitarist. He’ll say, “You play all the solos. I want to work the groove.” For Richard, it’s all about touch. Tom Bukovac—another Nashville studio guitarist who plays some great rock guitar on These Days—was watching Richard lay down a Strat part on one of my songs. Afterward, Tom said, “That’s the best Strat tone I’ve ever heard in my life.” That’s how good Richard is.

He played on my first record 23 years ago—we’ve been friends forever—and he knows my playing better than I do. He has the greatest array of little acoustic instruments with names you can’t even pronounce in weird tunings, and he instinctively knows where to fill the holes, and what sounds will complement my guitar. It’s the same with Steuart Smith, who also does some great playing on these records. They add the parts they know I don’t and can’t do.

What acoustics did you play on These Days?

I go into the studio with a bunch of guitars, and as the band starts to work out the song, I’ll pick one that will hopefully sit well with the other instruments. Sometimes, a guitar’s ring and overtones can get too big for a track, so I try to carefully choose the right one to fit the sonic space. I have many different Martins—00s and 000s, as well as several D-18s and D-28s.

One guitar I use a lot is a new 0000 Martin that George Gruhn designed. Historically, Martin went from the 000 body size to the dreadnought, but George thought a 0000 body would make a perfect Martin. They made 35 0000-18s to celebrate 35 years of Gruhn’s music store. As soon as I played one, I said, “I’ve got to have this.” The guitar is as wide as a dreadnought, but not quite as deep, so the bass isn’t boomy like a dreadnought sometimes gets. These 0000 guitars record like a million bucks.

As far as old Gibsons, I’ve got a ’50s CF-100—a unique sounding guitar with a small body and single cutaway. It’s great for filling sonic spaces where a big tone would be overwhelming. I have an early ’50s J-200 that’s really neat. It has a big, percussive sound. It’s what the Everly Brothers used on a lot of their classic songs. That one has a L.R. Baggs LB6 pickup in it. I also have a few McPherson acoustics with L.R. Baggs custom pickup systems, and I use a Baggs Para Acoustic DI on the road.

How do you string up your acoustics?

I’m generally a light-gauge guy, though, occasionally, I’ll use a medium set for bluegrass. My strings are always D’Addarios. Here’s how much I like D’Addario strings: Years ago, I called them about an endorsement and they turned me down, but I still used them.

What about picks?

For hardcore bluegrass, I’ll use a fat tortoise-shell pick to eliminate clicking sounds in the attack, but, most of the time, a medium pick works for me.

Do you use a hybrid pick-and-fingers technique for blazing solos like in “Take This Country Back”?

Yeah—it’s a combination of flatpick and middle finger. All that chicken-picking stuff is not quite a banjo roll, but similar. The technique is less about downstrokes and more about pulling the strings up with your middle finger to make the notes pop.

Often, I’ll play a Strat using only my fingertips—no pick. Mark Knopfler inspired me to do that. His Strat tone is so thick and round because he uses the meat of his fingers, rather than the pointed edge of a pick, to strike the strings. If I want a part to take up less space in a recording, I’ll just brush the strings with my thumb or fingers. That makes the tone less pointed than with a pick.

What about open or altered tunings?

I always have a couple of guitars tuned down a half-step to Eb. That way I can get the jangle of open strings in keys that wouldn’t otherwise have them. I also play a lot in dropped-D [low to high, D, A, D, G, B, E]. On a handful of tunes, I added little rhythm parts using a Keith Richards open-G tuning, which is G, D, G, B, D.

Do you simply use the top five notes of open-G tuning, or do you actually remove the sixth string?

I take it off to convert the guitar to a 5-string. That way I can really strum hard and not take up as much space as a 6-string tuned to open G. It’s a spankier sound.

What about the really low guitar riffs, like in “Little Brother” and “Cowboy Up”?

That’s a baritone in “Little Brother.” On “Cowboy Up,” Big Al Anderson dropped his low-E string down to C to playing that growling, funky stuff.

Tell us about your mandolin.

I have a Gibson Lloyd Loar—the holy grail of bluegrass mandolins. I finally bit the bullet and bought one this year. If you think vintage guitars are expensive, you don’t want to know what a Loar will set you back.

Do we hear it on These Days?

Yes, I played it on “All Prayed Up” and “A River Like You.” Ronnie McCoury, who played mandolin on three songs on the acoustic record, also has a Loar. So we had dueling Loars in the studio—it was pretty amazing.

Did you record to tape or hard disk?

We used Pro Tools. You know, Pro Tools gets a bad rap with musicians. If you abuse it—auto-tuning everything, correcting all the timing, and cutting and pasting all the phrases—then yes, the music loses its feel. People look down their noses at Pro Tools, but they don’t understand what a great tool it is. You’re able to try ideas and experiment in ways you can’t with tape, like exploring different arrangements or passing parts back and forth between musicians. For instance, Bonnie Raitt tracked her vocal harmony on “The Rock of Your Love” in a hotel room in Amsterdam after we sent her the backing tracks by e-mail. If there’s soul in the music, it will come out, regardless of how it’s recorded.

Having said that, I think some of the old mono records sound better than anything we’ve ever recorded in modern studios. Back in the days, they couldn’t mic and control everything, so the band mixed itself, in a sense. There was a magic to the way those guys played together. It was a nice round sound—not as clearly defined or as pointed as it is today—with the steel or guitar emerging to play the intro or fills and then falling back to accompany the singer.

Do you get involved with miking your instruments in the studio?

No. I’m not a gear guy. I can hear when it’s working or not, but I let the engineers deal with the technical end of the recording process. I do know we used a lot of ribbon mics for the acoustic stuff. They’re warmer sounding than typical studio condensers, and more people are starting to discover them.

What stands out to you in these four albums?

One of my favorite moments is in “This New Heartache.” The lyrics reference other songs, so when I’d sing “crazy arms” or “A-11” or “lovesick blues,” Buddy Emmons would respond to each reference with a corresponding phrase on his pedal steel. He knew the melody for each of those songs and what was unique about the original arrangements. In fact, he probably played on some of those records. Hearing him react that way to my song was truly magical.