Climbing his way back to the top

Vince Gill welcomed his recording hiatus

February 17, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

It must be sweet to wake up in the morning and be Vince Gill.

Think on it. You'd be 6-foot-3 and movie-star handsome. You'd have the easy tenor voice most crooners only dream of. You'd quicken hearts with your swashbuckling guitar solos. You might, if you felt like it, write a new tune by lunchtime - possibly your fifth Country Music Association song of the year.

Maybe you'd ponder the 22 million records you've sold or your 15 Grammys. Maybe you'd drop in on your buddies, Dolly Parton or Bonnie Raitt. Perhaps you'd kiss your wife - one of the nicest, prettiest singing stars in the history of Nashville - on your way out the door.

Or how about some golf? With that handicap of one, you might get a chance to top your best score - a course record 62.

"All right, stop," says Gill with a laugh so friendly he makes resentment unthinkable. "I know; it ain't fair! I've worked hard all my life, but I've been blessed."

You could say that. When the aw-shucks country star brings his Back 2 Basics tour to Towson's Recher Theatre March 12, he and his band will weave 17 new songs from his new CD, Next Big Thing, together with older hits such as 1992's "I Still Believe In You," giving a sellout crowd of 750 a glimpse of a major artist in recovery from - what else? - the throes of his own success.

That's something he found early. The son of an Oklahoma judge, Vince grew up hearing his dad play banjo, picked up the instrument at 8 and parsed the sounds of Flatt and Scruggs. He scored his first electric guitar at 10. "All I did for years was play," he says with a laugh. "I was a guitar geek."

By 15, he led a country-rock band that opened for national acts. He impressed members of Pure Prairie League, the folk-based '70s outfit. When the band was looking for a lead singer in 1979, the members came to Oklahoma to find him. Three years later, he set out for Nashville.

By most measures, he started out a hit. He gained fame as a backup singer and session man. He picked with Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. He sang originals for RCA. Backing his 1989 single, "When I Call Your Name," with the Kentucky harmonies of Patti Loveless, he proved his theory that traditional country was on the verge of peaking. It was a runaway hit and CMA Song of the Year.

"When [Patti] came in on her part," says Tony Brown, Gill's longtime producer, "I almost started crying. It was one of the best pieces of casting ever. His voice is so textured. Combined with her rawer one, they brought all that bluegrass and gospel stuff [out]."

Gill rang up 11 straight Top 10 hits, including four No. 1 songs. He won CMA's Entertainer of the Year award twice. By the mid-'90s, he had become one of the Top 10 concert draws in American music. He chalks it up to luck and talent.

"You're in the middle of all," he marvels, "and everything's going unbelievably well. They're playing your music [on the radio]. You have a single on top of a single. The faucet is turned on, and you don't want it to turn off. You keep doing what feels good to you."

Nashville fame flickers, though. "You have to look at this music throughout its history," says Gill. "It's like a circle; it goes one way for a while, then it comes back. It's at the mercy of who shows up and learns how to play a few chords and sing these songs."

Gill can't pinpoint why, but after about 1996, "the records didn't do quite as good as they had." Not long after his father's death in 1997, for instance, he released The Key, a reflective collection that was, he says, "conceptually, steeped in my past, though traditional country was not prevalent that year." Some thought it too personal and not commercial enough - even though it gained widespread critical acclaim and sold more than a million copies.

"[The powers-that-be] turned the faucet down a little bit," he says. "That's what they've done the last four or five years - just turned the water pressure down a little bit."

He tries to shrug it off. "It comes and goes," he says with a laugh. "I've had plenty of years where they didn't play my records and plenty of years where they did. Why whine or worry about it?"

After an album in 2000, he took a three-year break.

"If you're in everybody's face all the time, they'll get tired of your stuff," he says. "Even I felt that way. I thought, `I want to step back. I want to live a life that's not all about pounding out hits. They could use the break. So could I.' "

During that break, Gill, who had earlier divorced, met and married pop/gospel star Amy Grant. They had their first child, Corrina, and Gill went from single dad of a teen-ager to a father of five. "Nothing like a big family," he says. Next Big Thing, Gill's 11th MCA album, now available in stores and online, is the result.

"Things feel peaceful right now," he says. "Being settled has allowed me to feel like my old self again. This record has let me get my imagination back."

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