‘Pressure’s on,” says Vince Gill, a couple of hours before his headlining show at the Greek Theatre. He smiles as he looks around the theater’s subterranean commissary for a reaction.
The crew and band members sitting at nearby tables chuckle. They know their boss is having a little fun at the expense of his laid-back manner.
Yes, the man who by consensus is the nicest guy in country music might also be the most relaxed.
He’s definitely one of the hottest. Since his first big hit, 1990’s Grammy-winning “When I Call Your Name,” he’s been a fixture at the top of the country charts--most recently with “Whenever You Come Around” and “What the Cowgirls Do,” the first two singles from his current album “When Love Finds You.” He’s picked up another four Grammys, and last year was named the Country Music Assn.'s entertainer of the year.
As a singer, songwriter and lead guitarist, Gill represents a rare combination of versatility and virtuosity, earning critical respect to go with the commercial success. His fellow musicians are certainly clued in: Mark Knopfler, for instance, invited him to join Dire Straits in 1989, just before Gill’s solo career kicked into high gear.
None of this seems to have gone to his head. Indeed, Gill has been spending the hours preceding the show shuffling sleepily through the business of sound check and pasta dinner.
Ask him about his pre-concert routine--for many artists a neurotic ritual of isolation, vocal exercises, wardrobe decisions, etc.--and he just laughs.
“A lot of Nintendo,” he finally offers.
The Oklahoma native is sitting in his dressing room, wearing a T-shirt, rumpled jeans and thongs--an outfit he’ll upgrade only slightly for the show with a change of shirts and the addition of shoes and a jacket. Talk about a regular-guy image.
“I certainly don’t go out of my way to sell that to people,” he says. “I think sometimes people take their success and their career and their whole deal way too serious. I really don’t. I’m still just a guitar player, in my mind.
“I think that just comes from me being secure about myself. I wasn’t any different 10 years ago or 20 years ago. I just try to be normal. I like people. I’m approachable. It’s not a conscious effort to be a certain way. I just am.”
It’s not just big sales and good reviews that make Gill the kind of person the Country Music Assn. has named to host its awards show on Oct. 5--the first time the three-hour job has been handled by one artist.
In that kind of nationally televised forum, Gill invariably manages to project class and dignity, and as firmly as he rejects the notion, he’s an ideal ambassador from Nashville to the world.
Not everything in Gill’s life has been as sunny as his demeanor would suggest. His older brother Bob died of a heart attack early last year, ending what Gill calls “a rough life.” And in a golf course robbery, Gill found himself facing a sawed-off shotgun.
“I had nightmares about it for a long time--but in the nightmares I got shot,” he says. “I still get jumpy if somebody runs up on stage during a show.”
And despite his substantial charity work, including AIDS-related projects, Gill has come under fire for not wearing a red ribbon in support of the issue.
“My response to that is I think everybody’s deserving,” says Gill, who would obviously prefer to be talking about music than touchy controversies. “There needs to be a green ribbon, a brown ribbon, a yellow ribbon, a pink ribbon, for farmers, ecology--there’s an awful lot of problems besides just one.”
And he admits there are sides of him the public doesn’t see.
“I have drive and ambition,” he says. “There are things that I’m intense about. I get on the guys if they’re not playing as good as they can and should. I want things to be the best. I’m a perfectionist. I want everyone else to be equally committed. I have a temper that shows up once in a while.”
That doesn’t seem to bother his musicians.
“I’ll tell you what kind of guy he is,” says drummer Martin Parker, a Gill band member for three years. “I had rotator cuff surgery earlier this year, and he told me don’t worry about it, take as long as you need, your job’s here. . . . Anybody else in this business would have fired me.
“This is the best job there is,” adds Parker, smoking a cigarette in the wings as show time approaches. “You know what our name for this tour is? It’s the ‘All Fun, No Ass----- Tour.’ ”
Gill’s steely tenor was forged in the propulsive drive of bluegrass, but it’s pliant enough to negotiate the supple ballads that have become his musical signature.
His music ranges from rootsy Western swing to pop-country hybrids to hard-core country tear-jerkers, but his trademarks are soaring expressions of affirmation and devotion such as “Look at Us” and “I Still Believe in You"--classic records that are closer to Smokey Robinson than “Smokey and the Bandit.”
“I found something that works, and that’s pretty comforting,” Gill says. “But I’m always tinkering. I always want to do something a little different.”
Gill, 37, grew up in Oklahoma City listening to his parents’ country music and his peers’ pop and rock. But when he started playing music in high school, it was with the area’s hotshot young bluegrass band. After high school, he decided to stick with music rather than try to be a professional golfer.
In 1976, his progress in the bluegrass world brought him to Los Angeles, where he lived for seven years, frequenting clubs from the Troubadour in West Hollywood to the Sweetwater near his South Bay home. It was here that he met Manhattan Beach native Janis Oliver, a member of the sister duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo. They married in 1980 and have a 12-year-old daughter, Jennifer.
He played first with fiddler Byron Berline’s group Sundance, then joined the country-rock band Pure Prairie League, singing lead on its 1980 hit “Let Me Love You Tonight.”
Gill left PPL for progressive country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s backing group--"the best band I’ve ever played with,” he says. The lineup included Emory Gordy Jr., who would produce Gill’s first solo albums, and Tony Brown, now Nashville’s top executive and record producer.
Brown took an A&R; position at RCA Records and signed Gill to the label in 1983, but Brown moved to MCA Records before they could collaborate.
“I’m not sayin’ Tony leaving is the reason I didn’t have hits when I was first signed over there,” Gill says. “The timing of things was not right for me. It took a long time, but in hindsight now, it gave me a lot of time to watch, hang out and learn. A lot of good things.”
The next seven years were frustrating for Gill. His RCA singles periodically made the Top 10 of the country chart, but most died on the outskirts.
“Nothing gave me any kind of vision of what people really liked,” says Gill, who also kept busy and built his credibility by playing on countless sessions by other artists. “Creatively I wanted to make records the way I like ‘em, the way I hear ‘em. . . . It was just nobody wanted to hear it for a while.
“That was OK. Bonnie Raitt was a great example of a similar type situation. . . . In ’89 when she won all the Grammys, I turned on the TV--'There you go, now that’s fair.’ I felt like it kind of paralleled my situation in a sense.
“I thought I was pretty good. I felt like I belonged. I knew I could play and I knew I could sing. I don’t mean that egotistically. My ears tell me that, that I have some talent. And I love it. I mean music is the greatest thing in my life.
“I’d have done it no matter what, no matter where I wound up on this totem pole of popularity. I didn’t care if I was on the records as a harmony singer or as a guitar player, as long as I got to be on ‘em kind of felt good to me, just to be a part of it.”
In 1989 Gill moved to MCA, where he finally got to record with Brown. Their first album was “When I Call Your Name,” and the title song made Gill a star.
“I wanted to do something really country that showcased my voice,” says Gill of that diverse breakthrough album. “For a long time I was hesitant to shove my voice way out there on a record. I’d always been really band-oriented in my thinking. . . . It just happened to be the right song at the right time.
“I never think about why it didn’t happen those seven years. Because it doesn’t matter in a sense. I figure that if it had happened then, then my career’d be over now, and I wouldn’t be havin’ any fun now.”