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Songs in the Key of Life

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

‘This one is country from top to bottom,” Vince Gill declares in the opening sentence of the press bio for his excellent new album, “The Key.”

And sure enough: The album, on MCA Nashville, is a celebration of the traditional strengths of country music, from the soulful vocals to the torn-from-real-life sensibilities of the lyrics. What makes it more than simply a homage to the honky-tonk, heartache spirit of ‘50s and ‘60s country, however, is the depth of feeling in the Tony Brown-produced package.

Gill writes songs so winning that they would have fit perfectly into the classic repertoire of such country standouts as George Jones and Ray Price. And he sings them with a purity and conviction that matches those great artists’ best moments.

What Gill, 41, doesn’t explain in the bio is the reason for the intensity of the music: the personal heartache last year that accompanied the breakup of his 17-year marriage to singer Janis Oliver (a member of the sister duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo) and the death of his father, a retired federal appellate court judge who once played part time in a country band.

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The album’s title is taken from “The Key to Life,” a sweet, sentimental ode to Gill’s father, but the heart of the record is in the tales of broken love--from the bittersweet resolve of “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind,” which was written by Gill and Troy Seals and is already a Top 20 country single, to the biting despair of “There’s Not Much Love Here Anymore.”

On the eve of the album’s Aug. 11 release, Gill, an unusually private man, spoke about the new songs and, reluctantly, the pain behind them.

Question: You get the feeling that there’s a lifetime of emotion in this album. Does it feel that personal to you?

Answer: It does. I think all the rest of the albums felt like periods of time, but this kind of feels like my whole life--especially in that song [“The Key to Life”] when I talk about my dad and about the songs that influenced me as a kid. From start to finish, this was really a focused labor of love. . . . Maybe the best complete vision of any album I ever made.

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Q: Why the emphasis on traditional country?

A: I realized I missed that sound on the radio. I wanted to do something that reminded me of Ray Charles and Buck Owens and Ray Price and all those other artists that helped define country music, and I took the liberty of making the entire record that way. Most of the music you hear from Nashville these days is driven by pop and by rock ‘n’ roll--records that are dressed up with fiddles and elements to make them appear to be country. And I’ve done my share of that. But this time, I wanted something closer to what I think of as true country music.

Q: How much should we think of these songs as autobiographical? Clearly, “The Key to Life” is about your dad, but there are also all the songs about divorce.

A: There’s no way to control what people read into these songs, and there is certainly part of me there. But I’ve never written in a totally autobiographical way that has said, “Here’s my life in a song.” I just do it in pieces here and there. If you are a songwriter, you have to have an imagination. I don’t buy the theory that you have to live every moment of every song to have written it.

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Q: What about “There’s Not Much Love . . . ,” which is one of the most haunting moments in the album? The line about wanting the rain to wash away your tears--that sure feels like more than just a songwriter’s imagination at work.

A: [Pause] I try to keep [the divorce] as private as possible in terms of what I say in interviews and such . . . out of respect for everybody involved. But there is a lot of me in that song. I was really doing that. I was sitting in the house, the rain was pouring down and I was not the happiest camper in town.

Q: “Let Her In” may be the first song I’ve ever heard about a father hoping his daughter will be able to get along with his new love. Is that about your own teenage daughter?

A: That’s an interesting one to bring up because the song’s really not about me. I’ve got a buddy who has three kids from a previous marriage. He was getting ready to remarry. One of the kids was really struggling with it. That’s something a lot of people are going through these days.

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Q: What about the song about your dad, “The Key to Life”? It sounds so natural, as if it just flowed out of you; that it wasn’t one you had to sit down and spend a lot of time thinking about.

A: That’s right. It sure did just flow. I don’t fancy myself an incredible lyricist, but this is something that was much deeper and better than I think I’ve ever done.

Q: Coming at the end of the album, the song seems almost therapeutic, the way it captures the legacy of a loved one’s spirit. Does it feel that way for you?

A: The reaction to the song on tour has been amazing to me. You often don’t normally get a lot of response from a new song on tour, but the reaction to that song has been hands and feet above anything else I do all night long.

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I will say it took the death of my father to kind of put my divorce in perspective. What you learn when you go through hard times is that if you focus on the good things in your life, it can help pull you through all the negative things. It helps you survive.


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