It’s pretty clear that nobody’s dictating to Vince Gill what a Country Music Hall of Famer’s career ought to look like. Every few months, news makes the rounds of his involvement in some other singular, tradition-savvy project.
He joined the Western-swinging Time Jumpers and got them into his studio to record an album, which resulted in two Grammy nominations. He produced the most hardcore country album the world’s ever heard from Ashley Monroe, the upcoming Like a Rose. He dreamed up a duets set casting steel guitarist Paul Franklin — instead of a singer — as his duet partner. And that’s an abbreviated list.
None of it seems all that surprising or at all out of character for a guy whose musical interests and abilities were always broader and deeper than any hit single could possibly show.
CMT Edge: I’ve heard you invoke Willie Nelson‘s latter-day career as a source of inspiration. When you became a free agent last February, parting ways with MCA, did you reflect on how you wanted to invest your energies during this next season of your career?
Gill: You know, the funny thing is, I never felt like anything but a free agent even in those years. I had this wonderful career, and I enjoyed it. It was not something I was doing and successful at with a wink, saying, “I really don’t dig this,” you know? I feel like my career’s always kinda been that way, with who I played with and what I was playing. I never wanted to pigeonhole myself into being one thing or doing one thing. There was too much musician in me that loved a little bit of everything.
In one sense, in referring to Willie, watching him probably record more in the last 10 or 15 years than he did up to that point was really inspiring. I’m only gonna have so many years left. I’m 55. I don’t know how long my hands will stay nimble and my voice will stay decent and my mind won’t get addled and who knows what. At some point, you’re gonna start singing, and it’s gonna sound like somebody wheezing. It’s just gonna happen.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been much of a dreamer or a goal-setter or anything like that. I just like reacting to the moment. That’s what’s been fun for me. Since radio has kind of discarded me and no longer thought I was relevant for that, it’s been really gratifying how the phone has rung, like [Eric] Clapton and those Crossroads shows and Sting wanting to do [CMT Crossroads]. … It’s so much fun. It’s nothing but being musical now.
You’ve been doing some great back-to-the-roots stuff with the Time Jumpers and Ashley Monroe. What makes a project attractive to you?
There’s one side of me that really wants to fight for country music and its purity. I’m not down on who’s doing what these days. I think people are just creative how they want to be creative. …
I’m doing a record right now that is gonna be a duet record with Paul Franklin, the steel guitar player. A lot of people would think [I would] do a duet record with another singer. But it’s really neat me singing and playing some Telecaster and him playing a ton of steel guitar. There seems to be so little steel guitar in country music these days, and I’m just a complete nut for steel guitar. Always have been. One of the first records I ever made, Buddy Emmons played on it in 1975. It was so inspiring, I bought [a steel guitar]. I couldn’t figure out how to tune it or play it. It’s the only instrument I’ve ever gotten rid of, and everybody cheered when I did. (laughs)
Is the Paul Franklin record one you’re working on in your home studio?
I’ve started singing [Buck Owens’] “Together Again” with the Time Jumpers, and people are going absolutely nuts. There’s a core of people out there that adore that kind of music. And the Time Jumpers are, to some degree, really scratching that itch for people all over the world. …
It’s remarkable to get to play music with 10 people of that caliber. They’re talented. They’re making me a much better guitar player. That’s one of the reasons I did it. All you have to do is play guitar all night and sing one or two songs a set. I’m not the focal point. I don’t have to talk in between songs. I’m not the center of attention. I enjoy that to some degree, but I also enjoy just being one of the guys playing. I always have felt that way. Even with my band, even when I was having hits, I’ve always had a band mentality. Everybody got to shine and everybody was featured.
Those Time Jumpers shows seem genuinely egalitarian, everybody taking turns singing lead and soloing.
The best part of it is why it even started in the first place. It wasn’t 11 hungry young musicians trying to make it. It was 11 people that made their living doing other stuff. Everybody’s a sideman for somebody, or they’re a session guy all day every day. So it’s not like those Monday nights are the reason those 11 people eat. It was born out of such a purity. That’s what was appealing to me.
The band’s been a Nashville institution for years, but it’s becoming more widely known. Signing with Rounder Records, earning Grammy nominations and having you in the lineup can’t have hurt. Kenny Sears once described to me how you lobbied for a permanent spot in the band after years of filling in. What’s your version of the story?
I was always flattered when I got called to come sub for either Andy [Reiss] or Ranger Doug [Green]. A lot of times, Dawn [Sears] couldn’t make it because she was out touring with me. Plus, I’m from Oklahoma, and that music’s like my childhood or part of my DNA or something, and I have always loved it. [When] they had two people quit, I don’t know that I actually went and said, “Hey, I’ll be in the band if you want me to.” I just remember Kenny saying, “Would you have any interest?” “Well, sure.” …
I would assume that for some members there was some hesitation because of my accomplishments in my own career. “What’s this gonna be? Is he gonna come and we’re gonna be his backup band?” And it couldn’t have been any further from that. There’ll be some good things that can happen if I’m in this band, I think. If we react to them the right way, it’ll be nothing but good for the band. And I think it has been. There are some gigs that have come along that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t in the band. At the end of the day, they’ve seen me for two and a-half years, three years, and there is no preferential treatment. … You can’t say “Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers” ever.
Kenny also said that you were the one in the group who really advocated for recording an album and putting original material on it.
Uh huh. I put in my two cents. I said, “Guys, there are people in this group who write songs, and there’s no reason that this band shouldn’t continue to be a Western swing-flavored band, but we can [work in some originals]. And I had a few songs that I would do with them when we first started playing together. One song was “New Star Over Texas.” That sounds like “Faded Love.” It sounds like it could’ve been written in the ’40s. And that’s the point. If we can have an original stamp on this Time Jumpers sound, then we have something. We have something really, I think, unique. We’re not rehashing the same songs.
Is the Ashley Monroe album another you recorded at your studio?
Uh huh. The studio works great. It sounds great. It’s comfortable. It’s a little old-school in that we all, for the most part, gather in a room and play music together.
I was flattered that Ashley asked me to do that. I’ve been a longtime friend and fan [of hers]. I was always mesmerized by her voice. I felt like everything they tried to do with her recording-wise was never [from] that pure place of her. She always struck me as having that kind of quiver in her voice that was as honest and as real as Dolly Parton‘s voice. I said, “Man, you’ve gotta just get everything out of the way and let that voice and those songs tell these stories.” Because her songs are so stinkin’ good.
They were good even before she was 20 years old, back when her debut album didn’t really go anywhere.
I remember when I met her. We were going to write some songs. She called me up and she said, “Are we still gonna work today?” And I said, “Yeah.” “Great. Can you come pick me up? I’m not old enough to drive.”
I think it’s great that she’s been able to make an album that feels as down-to-earth and thoroughly country as Like a Rose. Your production makes a big difference.
I appreciate that. They asked me about it, and I said, “I’ll make probably a much countrier record than anybody wants.” It’s just my take on really who she is at her core. To me, you should be honest with yourself and do the things that are the best of what it is that you do, rather than chase what’s going on or what’s current or what’s popular. … With her, I really believe she might be the person that could be, in a sense, like a modern day Emmylou [Harris]. Emmylou, when she came along, had a way of showing people that weren’t interested in country music how cool it was, me included.
What else is on tap for you for 2013?
Well, I’m gonna make a regular record, whatever that means. (laughs)
What does that mean at this point?
I don’t know. I’m gonna make another record for Universal. I’ve been friends with Mike [Dungan] for close to 30 years, and he’s taken over the record company. He came to me and said, “Man, I think you should make records for this place. You helped build it. You’ve been here for 23 years. You and Reba McEntire and George [Strait] really built up that brand, that Universal MCA brand. I want you to make a record.”
I said, “OK.” I’ve got no animosity. It’s just my contract ran out after 23 years. That’s all that happened. I wasn’t unhappy. There was no rift. … I’m not gonna quit trying to write great songs and have hit records. I keep teasing I’m almost old enough to have my comeback. (laughs)