As Vince Gill was inducted into the Rockwalk on February 4, he looked back on his long career and offered the assembled audience his earliest memories of starting out.
“My first thought regarding a career in music was, ‘If I can just pay the rent and not have to get a real job, I’m winning.’”
In the four decades and counting that Gill has been playing music, the 58-year-old guitarist/singer has sold more than 26 million albums, won 20 Grammy Awards and 18 Country Music Awards, been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has a new album (called Down to My Last Bad Habit) coming out in mere days and has just had his hand prints placed beside those of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Page, Edward Van Halen, Billy Gibbons, and a dozens of other great guitarists on the Rockwalk, located on Sunset Boulevard in front of Guitar Center’s Hollywood store.
So far, there have been no reports of him being late with the rent.
So, yes, Vince Gill appears to be “winning.”
“That’s an impressive little piece of real estate out front,” Joe Walsh noted as he introduced Gill at the Rockwalk induction ceremony inside Guitar Center Hollywood. “Having Vince out there with everybody will take things up a notch.”
Walsh said that his band, the Eagles, first noticed Gill around 1979 or 1980, when the young picker was playing and singing with Pure Prairie League. “Great band,” Walsh said. “We paid a lot of attention to them. They were a good band to learn from.”
He also gave accolades to one of Gill’s more current projects, the Time Jumpers. “If you’ve never heard the Time Jumpers, you must go see them the next time you are in Nashville,” Walsh said. “It will change your life. I got incredibly depressed after seeing them. That’s how good they are.”
And Walsh offered some insight into one of Gill’s unique songwriting habits. “Vince is a big proponent of golf,” he noted. “As a matter of fact, he has written some of his best songs while looking for his ball, which sometimes takes a while.”
Before inviting Gill up to the podium, Walsh got a bit more serious. “Listen,” he said, “Vince is the real thing. I mean it. He’s a national treasure. He’s humble, he’s brilliant. He plays pretty much every everything. He’s got a million-dollar voice. A guy couldn’t have a better friend, and it’s an honor and a privilege to introduce him.”
When Gill took the microphone, he certainly lived up to the “humble” characterization.
“This is a little bit surreal for me,” Gill said. “I came out here to California as a young man in 1976, just 19 years old, to try my hand at a music career. I just wanted to make rent. I was armed with a Gibson electric guitar and a banjo. I was inspired by a diversity of people, like Earl Scruggs, and also the great Joe Walsh. I spent many hours learning ‘Funk #49’ and ‘Rocky Mountain Way,’ as well as ‘Earl’s Breakdown.’ So I was a confused individual,” he said, laughing.
Gill thanked Walsh for his introduction at the ceremony. “Joe is one of my great heroes, and that’s the truth,” Gill said. “You can go into my record collection at home and find his records in there from when I was young and aspired to learn to play the guitar. He, along with Chet Atkins and others, was one of the handful who directly inspired me.”
Next, Gill reflected upon the first record he ever made. “That was 42 years ago,” he said. “I was in a local band at home in Oklahoma City, and we were fairly popular, with no expectations of what would happen. Lo and behold, they started playing our record locally, and it kind of became a regional hit. I was just a 17-year-old kid, and I was riding around in the city when I heard my voice and my playing on the radio for the first time. I can still drive you to that very spot right now, and show you exactly where I heard it.”
At that point in his career, realizing his music was reaching people (if only on a local level) suddenly gave Gill a sense of hope. “Not an expectation, but a hope,” he said. “A hope that if you do something [in music], maybe something can actually come of it. And I’ve kind of lived on that hope all these years.”
Chart position or dollars earned were never measures of success to Gill. “For that reason,” he said, “I even felt successful back in those mid-70s years playing with the bluegrass bands. They were some of the best musicians in the world of bluegrass. I got lucky early on—I was playing with great people who were inspiring to play with, and that lead to Pure Prairie League and a couple of hits, and then we got to be on American Bandstand, and then got a record deal in the early ’80s.”
It was around this point in Gill’s musical journey that the real struggle began—the struggle to become a successful country music singer.
“I’m flattered that I’ve been honored as a guitar player here today, because that’s what I was first, and what I always wanted to be most,” Gill said. “What’s interesting, though, is that historically there aren’t tons of guitar gods in country music—not the way there are in rock and blues. So, I knew right away that if I was going to have some success, I’d better write some good songs and sing, and let people gradually discover that I could play, too. And little by little they did.
“I just knew that if I was involved in country music, the ticket to having some success was the way I could sing, and I would just let my guitar playing unfold, and people would gradually discover it.”
Gill recalled the moment back in 2003 or 2004 when he felt the world was starting to finally recognize him not just for his singing and bandleading, but also for his guitar playing.
“I picked up the phone one day and I hear, ‘Vince, it’s Eric Clapton,’” Gill said. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure it is. Who’s yanking my chain? Somebody’s B.S.-ing me.’”
But the voice with the British accent on the other end of the call only laughed and remained persistent, saying to Gill, “No, it really is me! I’d like to invite you to play at a guitar festival I’m doing in Dallas. It’s called Crossroads.”
“Then,” Gill said, “Eric said some words to me that I’ll never forget. He said, ‘I’m only inviting people who play guitar that I like.’ Getting that affirmation—even 12 years ago now, when I was 47 years old, at a stage of life where I was already fairly established—was life-changing.”
Another guitarist invited to perform at Crossroads was Gill’s old guitar pal Joe Walsh. “Over the years, Joe and I have gotten to be better and better friends, and we’ve even done some sessions together,” Gill said. “Recently, Joe and I got to play together on a new Sheryl Crow record, and I’m sitting there, playing guitar, looking around the room going, ‘I can’t believe this. There’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Funk #49” dude sitting next to me.’”
Walsh and Gill are currently talking about getting together to “make some music and even record together.”
“What I love about the way Joe Walsh plays,” Gill said, “is that he plays with great patience. Most guys play everything they know in the first five minutes. But I’ve known about Joe’s playing for about 45 years, now, and I still think he’s holding a good bit of it back.”
Having written songs and done recording sessions with hundreds of artists, Gill has a hard time thinking of any “bucket list” artists he hopes to work with that, so far, he has not.
“Sometimes I look back on all the great people I’ve made music with, and I just have to pinch myself,” Gill said. “Just this year I got to sing with my all-time hero Merle Haggard. He’s making a new record, and I got to sing on four things. That’s a childhood dream that coming true.”
Gill is also thrilled he got to work with Willie Nelson.
“That group Joe mentioned, the Time Jumpers—we’re a Western swing band,” Gill said. “We play old-school swing music from the ’40s, like Bob Willis used to play. We have the best time. We play every Monday night in Nashville, and we got to be part of Willie Nelson’s new record—the one he’s doing in tribute to Ray Price—and we played all the great shuffles, like ‘Heartaches by the Number’ and ‘Invitation to the Blues.’”
Gill said it was in those sessions that he was handed the most challenging job he’d ever been given in a recording studio—singing harmony with Willie Nelson. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s not easy,” Gill said, laughing.
Gill’s new album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, will be released on February 12, and naturally the first question one wonders is what exactly is Gill’s “last bad habit”?
“I just went into the vintage room here at Guitar Center, and that’s a pretty good indication of what it is,” Gill said. “That habit is great old guitars. I have a pretty crazy collection of great instruments. To me, the point of collecting great instruments is I feel that in a way I’m saving these instruments. These instruments get to have a musical life, instead of maybe getting purchased by somebody who’s going to put them in a glass case never to be played again.
“Of all my guitars, I have a couple that are really dear, starting with the ones that were my father’s. My father has been gone 20 years, now, so those guitars are extremely precious to me, though they’re not valuable. One’s an ES-125, and one’s an archtop Harmony. And they’re both very hard to play, and not inspiring at all, but the fact that they were my old man’s makes them priceless to me.”
Another precious guitar of Gill’s is the white ’53 Fender Telecaster he bought in 1978. “If I’m defined by a guitar, it’s that one,” Gill said. “For some reason, that guitar was just meant for my hands. Since getting that one, I’ve gotten probably a dozen other early-’50s Fenders, but none of them have the mojo that that one does.
“Lastly, there’s an acoustic guitar that I bought when I was 18 that’s very dear to me, too. I had moved to Louisville, KY, for a year to play some bluegrass, and I was in a band for awhile with Ricky Skaggs—a great musician and great friend—and when I moved up there, I had decided I wasn’t going to go to college, I was going to play music.
“One day at a festival, I found this old pre-war Martin made in 1942 in brand-new condition that this guy had for sale. I had always wanted an old Martin like that, so I wound up trading the guitar I had at the time and about $1,500 or $1,600 cash for it. That money was all the money I had. I’d saved it up from all the gigs I had done in high school. It was my college education, it was going to be for my future.
“So, there I was—dead broke, but with a job in that band, and this great old pre-war D-28, which I still have to this day.”
If Gill’s first adult goal was simply to make rent playing music, one might wonder if, after enjoying one of the most fruitful careers of any contemporary country artist, the 58-year-old’s next goal will be less humble? It’s not.
“My current goal?” Gill said. “Make it to 59. That’s a big one. I love life. I love life so very much, and it was precious to me to have Joe be a part of this today, because he’s been inspiring me, like I said, since I was a teenager. And in the last two weeks—with the passing of [fellow Eagle] Glenn Frey—I know Joe has suffered a huge, huge loss, and is out here with a tender heart. It was just great to hug his neck and see his face today.”
Gill said his home life is great, too. “I’m married to the kindest soul I’ve ever met,” he said of his wife, Amy Grant. “That’s why I play the blues—because my life is perfect.”