Vince Gill Still Sticking Up for Country Music

Vince Gill has sold more than 26 million albums and earned 20 Grammy Awards, more than any other male country music artist.

Vince Gill was feeling a little lost when he got the call from Dire Straits cofounder Mark Knopfler.

After three solo albums, Gill and his label RCA Records, had parted ways. While Tony Brown, who Gill met working in Rodney Crowell's backing band the Cherry Bombs, had just produced his next album for MCA Records, Knopfler had another idea in mind.

"Mark asked me to join Dire Straits," Gill says by phone from his home in Nashville. "Sure, I thought about it, but I told him that I felt like I was getting a new shot. I thought I still had something to offer country music, and that I don't think I should quit. If I had (joined Dire Straits) I think in a way I would have felt like a failure in country music because it didn't happen for me, and I didn't want to give up on myself. So I turned down the sure thing to take a chance on a real hope."

The album Gill recorded with Brown was 1989's When I Call Your Name. While the debut single "Oklahoma Swing," a duet with Reba McEntire, reached the Top 20, it was the title cut that firmly established Gill as a new force on the country music scene.

The song peaked at No. 2 on Billboard and earned Gill his first Country Music Association Award for Single of the Year and his first Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

He hasn't looked back since.

Combining emotional vocal performances with powerful songwriting and expert guitar picking, Gill, remains one of the most popular and most-recorded singers of the past quarter-century.

He has recorded more than 20 studio albums, charted more than 40 singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and sold more than 26 million albums. He's added 17 more CMA Awards, including two Entertainer of the Year awards and five Male Vocalist Awards, earned 20 Grammy Awards – more than any other male country music artist – and in 2007 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Such accolades haven't slowed him down either. The latest album from the 58-year-old Gill is 2013's Bakersfield, which he recorded alongside steel guitar player Paul Franklin.

The album is a collaborative tribute of songs made famous from 1961-74 by country stalwarts Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, including Owens' "Nobody's Fool But Yours" and Haggard's "Branded Man."

"I think that's my favorite era of country music," Gill says. "Some of those West Coast records had a little more twang in them than some of the Nashville records of the time. The Nashville guys were more crooners, guys like Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves, who were real smooth singers, and then along comes Buck and Merle and they're twangy with telecasters and it was right up my alley. The music is also a tribute to the musicians who played on those records. Guys like (steel guitarists) Ralph Mooney and Tom Brumley, and (guitarists) James Burton and Roy Nichols and Don Rich. They were as much a part of that sound because it was more band driven."

One of the reasons Gill says he wanted to record the album was "to stick up for country music."

"There's not a lot of really great traditional country music being made right now," Gill says. "That was part of it. I missed that kind of music. I missed hearing it. It was stripped down and a little more raw. ... I'm not a purist. I've never claimed to be. I just love that music, so there's always going to be an element of that in what I do. Somebody's got to stick up for it."

A musical childhood

Gill was born and raised in Norman, Okla. His father encouraged him to learn to play guitar and banjo, which he did along with bass, mandolin, dobro and fiddle.

"I don't ever remember a time I wasn't dragging a guitar around trying to play it," Gill says. "My father played a little bit and his mother played the piano. My first conscious musical memory was seeing my grandmother play 'How Great Thou Art' on the piano when I was 2 or 3 years old. I was drawn to it. I had to play to figure that out, but it always spoke to me."

After graduating high school in 1975, Gill moved to Louisville, Ky., and after a brief stint in Ricky Skaggs's Boone Creek band, he moved to Los Angeles to join Sundance, a bluegrass group fronted by fiddler Byron Berline.

It was in California where Gill says he "stumbled into the Pure Prairie League gig."

"Up to that point I had been playing bluegrass, but I went with a friend who was going to audition for them," he says. "They were looking for a guitar player and lead singer. Those guys gave me an opportunity and all of a sudden I was front and center in this band writing songs and singing songs."

Gill recorded three albums with Pure Prairie League, the first of which yielded the Top 10 pop hit "Let Me Love You Tonight" in 1980.

"I was on 'Solid Gold' and 'American Bandstand' and Mike Douglas," Gill says. "I was wide-eyed and loving it. ... The main reason I quit was my daughter Jenny was about to be born. We toured 250 dates a year and I didn't want to be a dad and be gone the majority of my kid's life, so I packed it in. I thought I'd go solo and I tried to get a pop deal but no one was interested in an overweight singer-songwriter."

Laying the foundation for a solo career

Instead, Gill joined Crowell's band the Cherry Bombs, where he met and worked with Brown and Emory Gordy Jr., both of whom would later produce many of his solo albums. Gill signed with RCA Records in 1983 and moved to Nashville to pursue his dream of being a country music artist. His debut full-length album, The Things That Matter, featured the Top 10 hits "If It Weren't For Him," a duet with Rosanne Cash and "Oklahoma Borderline."

"Cinderella," was his first Top 5 single from The Way Back Home, Gill's final album before moving to MCA Records and recording When I Call Your Name, which he still calls a "career record."

In 1992, Gill released the quadruple-platinum I Still Believe In You. The title cut became his first No. 1 single, followed by "Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away." Gill also topped the charts with "The Heart Won't Lie," his second duet with Reba McEntire, which was featured on her album It's Your Call.

One of his most meaningful songs, however, did not top the charts. "Go Rest High On That Mountain," off 1994's When Love Finds You, has endured in a way that other hits have not.

"It always affects people when they lose someone they love, when they lose a spouse or lose a brother," Gill says. "That's what it was written about, losing my brother. To me the most impactful times in your life are when you have to say goodbye to someone. Here's a song that helps people and makes people feel better going through that process. I think therein lies the whole beauty of it. It helps people at their most vulnerable. It's also become one of those songs I think people would be real disappointed if I didn't sing it. It's one of those songs that have allowed me to have a great career and I always do every night."

Coming up next

Despite his superstar status, Gill still enjoys being a studio guitarist from time to time, or lending his vocals to other projects.

He often plays with The Time Jumpers, the ever-evolving Western swing collective who take the stage each Monday night at Nashville's 3rd and Lindsay.

"It's fun because they split up the money behind the amps after the gig," Gill says. "With all my benefit work I never get paid to play in Nashville so to put a couple hundred bucks in my pocket is a blast. ... It all stems from not having to have all the attention to feel worthwhile. If I was in the band it was always enough because I've been the sideman and I've been the harmony singer. To me those jobs are harder than being the knucklehead up front. To do something to support someone else, to me, that's harder and has more value."

Gill hints that he's worked on The Time Jumpers next album due out soon and has also recorded another solo album as well, although he's tight lipped on the details.

"I do have a new record that's finished," he says. "I just have to mix it. It's nothing too new, nothing avant garde, nothing too weird. It's just a bunch of songs I made up. ... I don't want to impress anybody, I just hope that my songs get better. I hope I sing better and play better. That's all I've ever wanted to do - not only move myself but move other people with music with the way I sing or play or write a song or what have you. So I'm just going to continue to do what I know how to do and just hope that I can get better."

A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper in St. Joseph, Mich.