PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
July 17, 2007

Mr. Nice Guy

by Jim Newsom

The Grand Ole Opry has four shows a week-—one on Friday night, two on Saturday and another on Tuesday. Each show opens with a big-screen video introduction by Vince Gill. He has become Mr. Nashville, the national ambassador for country music. At 50 years old, he is the new Roy Acuff.

"That’s high praise," he said in a telephone conversation last week. "I appreciate that."

He had called to talk about his upcoming "Friends and Family Tour" concert Sunday night at the Pavilion in Portsmouth. The most honored country music artist ever, with 18 Grammys and 18 CMA awards including back-to-back nods as Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994, Vince Gill has little left to prove. But last year, he released a four-disc box set called These Days packed with 43 new, original songs, covering country, bluegrass, jazz and rock-n-roll. The rich breadth of material reflects the diverse mix of musical influences he absorbed as a child growing up in Oklahoma.

"I had Led Zeppelin records and I had Bill Monroe records," he said. "Patsy Cline was huge at our house; we had a lot of Jim Reeves. My brother was older and my sister was older, so before I could even buy any records I was at the mercy of whatever they played. My brother was a blues hound, so I had all kinds of great blues music to listen to. My sister was a folkie-rock kind of kid, and my mom and dad were country fans. So I got a little bit of all of it. My dad was a frustrated banjo player, so I was intrigued by bluegrass music. I was a full-genred inspired kid!

"I played guitar long before I sang. I wanted to be Chet Atkins as a little boy. Just listening to those records, I couldn’t even fathom how he did all that; still can’t. It was inspiring to hear guitar music. I loved the sound of it and was drawn to it. I practiced religiously every day and tried hard to get better. I’d listen and listen and listen. I was consumed by it, just like a little sponge."

His first brush with success came with a two-year stint in Pure Prairie League that included a top-10 hit in 1980, the smooth-pop "Let Me Love You Tonight."

"I went from playing in a bluegrass band to being the front man for a rock band," he said. "I could play good enough rock guitar, and my ears kind of informed me of what was appropriate and what was needed. So I never hit a lot of trouble stepping into something different. That was just fun. I had played in a lot of rock bands, garage bands, in high school, so to get to do that again—play as loud as you wanted and having those kinds of crowds—it was life changing. I loved it.

"I quit when I was about to have a child. They toured 250 days a year and had a hit or two, but I didn’t really see much future in that. When I had this child, I wanted to be home a little bit. Then I had the opportunity to play with Rodney Crowell which also gave me the opportunity to play in Rosanne Cash’s band. At that time, that band was one of the greatest bands of musicians that had ever been assembled. So I said, man, this is really up my alley, and it was a giant step forward for me musically. My decisions were always based on who I was going to get to play with and what I was going to get to play; the guitar chair in that band was a pretty high-profile chair.

"That, in turn, is what got me a record deal. In ’83, Joe Melotti with RCA came to see me play with Rosanne in Houston at a livestock show and rodeo. George Strait was on that show—it was the first time he ever played there. I got the record deal and moved to Nashville and started trying to find my way."

By the early ’90s he had found his way and then some. His string of CMA and Grammy awards began with "When I Call Your Name," the Single of the Year in 1990, and it never abated through the rest of the decade.

"I’m glad I hit the spot I hit," he acknowledged. "The era of the ’90s was arguably the most productive the country music industry has ever been. I’m not saying the records were as good as anything ever made, just the amount of people that were interested in country music."

Vince Gill was everybody’s favorite "nice guy." He never felt the need to don a cowboy hat, never put on outlaw affectations. I asked him if he really is a nice guy.

"I hope so," he laughed. "I didn’t create [the image]; all I did was be me. I think that’s what they like about me—I’m more normal than anything else."

His marriage to Christian singer-turned-pop-star Amy Grant in 2000 was the stuff of tabloid headlines. But, in fact, theirs is a union of soul mates.

"The first record I made when we first got married," he laughed, "everybody goes, ‘Oh, I don’t really like this. He’s too happy.’ You’re gonna pan me for being happy? That’s good! But, you know, I have regained my imagination and all is well—I can write sad songs again. They may not be true, but I can write ‘em!"

Grant joins him for Saturday’s concert, as does bluegrass icon Del McCoury.

"This is going to be fun," he said enthusiastically. "I’ve been out on tour for the last nine months in support of this record, the box set, with a big band. We play everything from bluegrass to jazz to big time rock-n-roll and hardcore country. Everybody just kind of comes and goes on that stage. We have a horn section that plays on a bunch of stuff, singers come and go, sometimes we’re a four-piece, sometimes we’re an eight-piece, sometimes we’re 16-piece. With Del McCoury coming, the bluegrass section of the show will be even better. Amy’s gonna sing some of her hits. Nobody’s opening for anybody, we’re all just gonna intertwine. They’ll play, I’ll play, we’ll do some things together. It makes for a pretty fun musical night."

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.