The word “crazy” pops up often in conversation these days with country musician Vince Gill, and more often than not, the tongue it’s rolling off of is his own. He knows that’s the way much of the music world will perceive his release Tuesday of a four-CD album of all-new recordings -- widely considered a first for a major pop-music recording artist.
More than three decades into a career in which he’s sold more than 20 million albums, won 17 Grammys and two dozen more awards from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, the Oklahoma-born singer, guitarist and songwriter decided it was time for a bold break from business as usual.
The set, constituting no less than his magnum opus, is titled “These Days,” after one of its 43 songs, all of which he wrote or co-wrote. They’re organized into four individually themed and titled albums: “Some Things Never Get Old,” a traditional country collection; “Workin’ On a Big Chill,” a harder-rocking set heavy on roaring electric guitars; “Little Brother,” an acoustic bluegrass effort; and “The Reason Why,” a session heavy on romantic ballads.
Pundits will be quick to suggest other titles that might have been more appropriate in this era of retrenchment and lowered expectations: “No Easy Way,” perhaps, for the job facing his record label, MCA Nashville; “Nothing Left to Say,” for the potential aftermath of his creative outpouring; or the country ballad that might just sum it all up: “Out of My Mind.”
Crazy or crafty, he credits it all to a bathroom visit during a recording session.
“We were in the studio knocking around working, having a big time doing all this recording,” Gill, 49, said while relaxing in the den of the elegantly comfy two-story home he shares with his wife of 6 1/2 years, Christian pop singer Amy Grant, and their 5-year-old daughter, Corrina.
“I was going to the bathroom, and on the wall was a Beatles poster that had all their records on it and all their release dates. I looked at that and thought, ‘They released that record, that record and that record within a year of each other?’
“It blew my mind,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, shoot, why couldn’t I do that?’ ”
At the time, he’d been agonizing over choosing tunes for a single album from among some three dozen songs he’d recorded during an especially fruitful period last year. He went to label president Luke Lewis and proposed putting out three albums within a relatively short time.
Lewis not only liked the idea, he urged Gill on. “He’s been crediting me with the fourth album,” Lewis said in a separate interview. “But after hearing the first three, I just asked if he felt like he was through. I think he said, ‘I’d like to do some acoustic bluegrass stuff.’ ... I kind of like to break the rules anyway, because I can’t figure out who made them in the first place,” said Lewis, who’s betting there are plenty of listeners ready to respond to Gill’s desire to explore all facets of his passion for music, from country to bluegrass to rock to gospel to jazz. “We don’t have to sell a huge amount to break even on this, and I’ve put out three or four Willie Nelson records in a year and three Ryan Adams albums, so it wasn’t a big stretch in that regard.”
The set’s list price is $29.98, so many retailers will sell it for around $20. It’s aimed, both men say, at the core Vince Gill fan.
“It’s not so much about trying to convince 50 million people to jump on board to a new record,” Gill says. “It’s really to give all this music to people who have been there from Day One for me.”
A call from Clapton
The wellspring of Gill’s musical gusher can be traced back a couple of years to a phone call from one of his heroes.
“This voice on the other end said, ‘Hello, Vince? This is Eric Clapton,’ ” Gill says, affecting a gentle British accent. “I said, “Right, and I’m the pope.’ But he went on, ‘No, it’s really Eric. I’m having a guitar festival down in Dallas, and I’m only inviting players I admire. I’d like you to be there.’ ”
Gill was the only country musician featured on the main stage of Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004, along with such fret board luminaries as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Carlos Santana, Larry Carlton and Clapton himself.
“I can’t tell you what that did for me,” Gill said. “That was very freeing. All I ever wanted to do was play music with other people, and here was somebody I admire respecting me for the thing I always wanted to do.”
After that, Gill hunkered down with renewed vigor to write and record. “When I came up for air, we had about 35 songs ready. Then it occurred to me, ‘Oh, God, now I’ve got to whittle it down to 10 or 11 for an album.’ ”
Having talked his way through that conundrum, Gill recently invited about two dozen guests into his dining room to sample the four CDs at a small-scale session. He talked about the songs and the two dozen guest performers, periodically nearing tears as he elucidated how much they mean to him.
“The idea was never to fill a record up with famous people,” he says. “The idea was to fill it up with people who have inspired me.” The picture he paints is that of a musical Thanksgiving feast, where all friends and family are welcome and the only issue when there’s no more space at the table is to expand the table.
Wearing an embroidered white shirt with its long sleeves rolled up, faded jeans and black, pebbled-leather loafers with no socks, Gill propped his 6-foot-3 frame against a marble countertop, periodically popping a handful of peanuts into his mouth from the crystal dish before him.
Many of the songs he previewed pay homage to the progressive-country community he joined in 1976 when he moved to Los Angeles, where he played his first big show with fiddler Byron Berline’s bluegrass band Sundance, opening for Texas troubadour Guy Clark. He remembers looking into the crowd that night at the Troubadour and spotting many of his idols, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Rodney Crowell among them. Eventually, after making his name as the focal point of Pure Prairie League, he quit the country-rock group to join Crowell’s band.
“People saw me leave Pure Prairie League, being the lead singer and writing songs, to go be Rodney’s sideman, and said, ‘Ooh, are you crazy?’ But I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance to play with musicians like [those]....
“I’ll never forget the first rehearsal. They started playing, my eyes got this big,” he says, making silver dollar-sized circles with thumb and forefinger. “I thought, ‘My God, you’ve really got to give it all you’ve got or you’re not going to be able to keep up.... To this day that’s as eye-opening of an experience as I’ve ever had.”
The voters’ choice
For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, during which Gill placed 50 singles on Billboard’s country chart, half of those reaching the Top 10, it seemed that Grammy, CMA and ACM voters had to only find Gill’s name on a list of nominees and he’d come home a winner. But after hosting the CMA show for several years, Gill walked away -- part of a major life reassessment after his 1997 divorce from singer Janis Oliver and the death of his father the same year.
“For about the last three, four, five years I’d felt a little lost,” he says, in part because, like many veteran musicians, he was finding it harder to get radio airplay.
“I was OK with that,” he says. “But with my heart and my soul telling me I was getting better at what I was doing, I can’t let go. I can’t just walk away. I feel like this is probably the best thing I’ve ever had to offer.”
Gill also had to contend with the blow to his good-guy public image from pillories within the country-music and Christian pop communities when he and Grant came together after ending long-term marriages.
“For a while I thought I had every Christian in the world mad at me,” he said with a characteristically low-key laugh. “But you just put one foot in front of the other, take with a grain of salt what people are saying about you ... and we just pressed on. They say time is the great healer, and it’s proven to be that.”
Around the house, Gill and Grant’s affection spilled out easily, unpretentiously. At one point, Grant skated across the floor in her bare feet and wrapped her arms around his waist as the music blared from the speakers. But this longtime girl-next-door of Christian pop also exhibited atypical frustration at her husband’s laid-back vibe.
“About three songs in I had to leave,” Grant explained after the listening session broke up a couple of hours later. She’d wanted him to play the album’s catchiest songs -- the slam-dunks -- but Gill often turned to more offbeat numbers.
“I went upstairs to put Corrina to bed, and I’d hear one and think, ‘I can’t believe he’s playing that!’ her eyes blazing, fists clenched and teeth gritted, leaving just a hint of a smile beneath. “He told me, ‘Don’t try to control this,’ so I didn’t. And that’s because he’s not trying to sell a record -- he wants to tell a story.”
The musician long known for his boyish charm says he’s feeling as energized as ever, and he sounds that way through much of “These Days.”
He and John Anderson take good-natured shots at today’s pop-leaning country acts in “Take This Country Back.” His instrumental skills and heart-melting tenor come out in “Molly Brown,” a genre-defying tale of an ill-fated interracial love affair set in small-town Oklahoma. He delves further into social commentary in the gospel-soaked “What You Give Away,” a duet with Sheryl Crow that addresses one’s response to the needy.
There’s a jazzy duet with Diana Krall, bluegrass-folk pairings with Del McCoury and Guy Clark, soulful rock with Bonnie Raitt and Michael McDonald, spirited country outings with Crowell and Harris. And he brings the family along with Grant and 24-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Jenny.
“I’ve been lucky, and I’ve got a lot of Grammys on the shelves, but more than half of ‘em are because I collaborated with somebody else,” he says. “To me that’s the whole reason to do it. There’s nothing better than playing music with somebody and sharing that experience.”
Beyond exploiting the opportunity to collaborate, a quadruple album has given him “a chance to take ... an entire record to create a mood. And things are different now with the Internet, this and that, downloads. So why does it have to be a 10- or 11-song record anymore?”
At this point, however, Gill is focusing on getting his 17-piece band ready for a tour that will bring him to the Wiltern LG on Nov. 12, content to leave any worries about the fate of his oversize offspring to the business types.
“My work’s done,” he says. “I’ve done it to the best of my ability. Does the fact that 10 people bought it or 10 million bought it change my view of what I’ve done? I don’t think so. None of the notes have changed....
“To me, it’s always been about trusting my ears and not letting certain things get in the way,” Gill says. Such commitment to his artistry at times “can drive some people a little crazy. But then you have to be just a little bit crazy to be doing this in the first place.”
Where: Wiltern LG, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 12
Price: $45 to $75
Contact: (213) 380-5005