Regarded as one of the good guys in country music, Vince Gill has hosted countless Grand Ole Opry segments and awards shows, and he’s just as welcoming off stage, too. He generously invited the Bluegrass Situation to his Nashville home for a visit about his new album, Okie, as well as his roots in bluegrass music.
In the first part of our Artist of the Month interview, the Country Music Hall of Fame member pulls back the curtain on some of the key tracks on Okie, and explains how artists like Guy Clark, Amy Grant, and Willie Nelson influenced the album.
BGS: I’ve heard you describe this as a songwriter record, but you’ve written a lot of your hits. What do you mean when you describe this as a songwriter record?
VG: Well, I don’t think the intention of any of these songs is thinking they’ll be hits. I think that in the way of production and the instrumentation, the intent is really to never get in the way of the song. I don’t play any electric guitar on this record. I only played one or two solos on the entire record.
The rest of it is just kind of moody, ethereal, all of us playing together, and nobody stepping out so much in a big way of, “Now it’s your break, it’s time for you to play the big ripping solo.” There’s one instance of that. I think the point of it was, hopefully, that nothing ever got in the way of the song.
And there’s not big choruses with lots of harmonies. I liked Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, and how sparse it was and simple. That’s what I wanted, something with a lot of space.
Did you know that going into it or did that reveal itself?
Yeah, that was the intent. I had this collection of songs. I said this would make a pretty neat, demure kind of record of not trying too hard, I guess. I mean, not singing hard and a lot of licks. Once again, there’s only one song on this record where I really cut loose and sang, and that was “When My Amy Prays.” The rest of it is just telling the story.
I even did a recitation on “Nothing Like a Guy Clark Song,” which scared the crap out of me. I don’t like the sound of my speaking voice very much. I like my singing voice just fine. But I’d only done one other kind of recitation recording in my life and that was tribute to Guy with his song, “The Randall Knife.” It always sounded bizarre to me to hear myself just talking, talking blues kinda stuff.
How did you choose the guitar for that song? Do you have a certain guitar you use?
Yeah, I think I used my guitar or Sparky’s — a friend of mine, Harry Sparks. He’s got a great old 1942 D-45. He lets me keep it here and play it a lot. It’s a long history of a story of our friendship. It’s probably the holy grail of all acoustic guitars and there’s only a few of them made and they sell for many, many, many dollars. And he had it.
I was living in Kentucky at the same time, when I was 18, and we were big buddies. Couple of years later I moved out to California and he called me up when I got out there and said, “Hey, I got to sell my D-45. I’m in trouble.” I bought it from him and told him I’d keep it for him. If he ever wanted it back, I’d sell it back to him for what I paid for it. At the time he finally called, it was worth about 10 times what I paid for it. And I said, “Yeah, I’ll sell it back to you for what I said I would.”
It’s a great story to remind yourself of how important friendship is, and your word. A few years ago we were doing a record here at my house and he brought his D-45 and we played it on a bunch in the record. He was leaving, and he had the case, and he looked at me and just handed to me. He said, “Here. You need to keep this for a while.” So it’s been a neat piece of the puzzle of our friendship.
It sounds beautiful. too, on top of that.
Amazing. It’s one of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever heard in my life.
You write about race relations on this record a couple of times, particularly on “The Price of Regret.” I was curious if something specific inspired you to explore that topic.
It starts out as basically owning up to, we all have to have some regrets in life, and what they are can be any number of things. But what I’ve always been surprised by is how our eyes fail us. Sometimes when we see something and we look at it, we judge it. It’s the first thing we do is prejudge. Whether someone’s heavy, whether someone’s slovenly-looking, or poor or rich or white or black, and we just have this thing come to us to tell us what we think it is.
If we would honestly receive someone, not seeing them, I think you’d be much more honest in acceptance of one another. That’s what it says in that song: “You’re black and I’m white. We’re blinded by sight. Close your eyes and tell me the color of my skin.” And you couldn’t. Which would be a good thing for us.
At your Ryman show, you spoke about watching the Ken Burns documentary about country music, and you mentioned the fact that AP Carter’s sidekick was a black man, and Hank Williams learned to play guitar from a black man.
Yeah, and DeFord Bailey was one of the first great stars of the Opry and Jimmie Rodgers learned all those songs from black fieldworkers. It goes on and on and it never stops. Ray Charles taught us how much soul our music had. Charley Pride showed you how country somebody could be that was African American. It was powerful to see that we never bought into any of that mess, to some degree. And it is a mess. It’s embarrassing how we’ve handled all that.
The song I keep coming back to on here is “What Choice Will You Make.” I feel like I’m the best friend in the car, hearing that conversation. That first line puts you in the song right away, or at least it did for me.
My favorite part of that song is that it’s a song without judgment, and it happens every day. Young kids wind up, somebody gets pregnant and, “Hey, I’m 16. Look, I wasn’t prepared for this.” And all it says is, “What choice will you make? Whose heart will you break?” It doesn’t say what you should or shouldn’t do. To me, that’s a kinder way to go about tackling the subject of this matter.
The woman I wrote it with, Leslie Satcher, we’ve got a long history of writing really neat songs together. She’s tremendously talented. It was important to me that it not get to that place where we were saying what should or shouldn’t happen. That’s nobody’s place. It’s sort of like “Ode to Billie Joe.” You don’t really know what happens. It starts in that moment of sitting on the edge of town with such a worried mind, and it ends with still sitting there on the edge of town, not sure what to do.
On this record, I hear references to Amy [his wife, Amy Grant] a couple of times, on “Honest Man” and “When My Amy Prays,” of course. What’s that experience like, playing her a song you’ve written about her?
It’s a running gag. You know you live in Nashville when you write your girl a love song and she tells you the third verse could use a little work. [Laughs] It’s really great to have a friend that does tell you what’s right and what’s not and what’s good and what isn’t. It’s easy to be inspired by her because she’s so gracious with people. She’s the most welcoming person I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Hands down. Nobody I ever seen better at that than her.
And non-judgment. No harsh words about anybody and it’s just beautiful in the way she receives. It’s kind of easy to write songs about her. If they’re songs that are faith-based, everybody assumes that I’m as a big of a church guy as she is. And the truth is, I wasn’t that much of a church kid. So I have to go to her every now and then and say, “Is this kind of close to what happens?” [Laughs] She’ll say, “You’re right on track. You’re OK.”
Illustration: Zachary Johnson