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Still a big thing

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

They don’t come any bigger than Vince Gill. The country music star is recognized equally as a monster guitarist and a sensational singer. He has been rewarded with 15 Grammys, the most ever for a country musician, in instrumental, vocal and songwriting categories. A collaborator as well as a solo artist, his tenor has been paired with Ralph Stanley, Barbra Streisand, Alison Krauss, Gladys Knight and Dolly Parton. Over 22 million copies of Gill’s albums have been sold.

But as big as Gill is, he isn’t quite as big as he was. After selling 5 million copies of the 1992 album “I Still Believe in You” and having eight records reach No. 1 or 2 on the country charts between 1992 and 1994, Gill’s career has dipped earthward. His last few albums haven’t hit the commercial stratosphere. And Gill took three years between albums, from 2000’s “Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye” to “Next Big Thing,” released last month. That hiatus contrasts with the mid-’90s, when he released an album almost every year.

Gill thoroughly accepts the downsized state of affairs. For one thing, he has compensated for the relative professional lull with a focus on the personal: In 2000, he married fellow superstar singer Amy Grant; the following year, the two had their first child together.

And Gill recognizes that such shifts in popularity inevitably come with music stardom. In fact, that is a central theme of “Next Big Thing,” the first of his albums that Gill produced himself. On the title track, Gill observes, “When you finally hit the top, man, you know what that means/Everybody’s ready for the next big thing.” But instead of bitterness and regret, the song, an up-tempo honky-tonk stomper, practically celebrates the idea that what goes up must come down.

“It’s reflective of our culture,” said Gill. “When they’re ready for something new, they go on to the next thing. I don’t feel like anybody’s escaped it – even Elvis and Michael Jackson, the biggest stars there are.”

“Young Man’s Town,” featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, is a more somber but equally accepting look at replacing the old with the new: “There’s nothing you can do when the fields have turned brown/Man, you gotta face it – it’s a young man’s town.”

“My last two albums didn’t fare so well,” said the 45-year-old Gill. “I said, maybe that’s the writing on the wall. Maybe it’s time to move on a little bit. I took three years between records and made a lot of life changes.”

Renewed energy

Gill has no strategies for combating the downturn other than writing the best songs and making the best records he can. “It’s out of my hands,” he said. “I’m going to write and record, and then not worry about it.”

With “Next Big Thing,” Gill believes he has recaptured some lost energy. The album is a sweeping affair, with country ballads, rockers and Cajun-inflected tunes. On the ballad side, “Whippoorwill River” hits the spot, a family meditation with backing vocals by Jenny Gill, Vince’s daughter from a previous marriage (to country singer Janis Gill). “Real Mean Bottle,” a tribute to Merle Haggard, is full of the proper grittiness.

Gill, for one, is pleased with the album. “I got my imagination back and a sense of humor,” he said. And “Next Big Thing” is being welcomed as a return to form. Entertainment Weekly, after calling “Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye” “sleepy” and “dull,” gave Gill’s latest an A- grade and hailed it as “a lively and assured return to form.”

One possible career detour that seems open to Gill is the bluegrass route. Gill has had plenty of experience with bluegrass; among the early bands he claimed membership in was the Kentucky-based Boone Creek, which featured Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas. And Gill’s bluegrass chops aren’t rusty enough to keep him from doing his annual bluegrass concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where he has lived the past 20 years. But Gill isn’t anxious to join Skaggs and Dolly Parton as country singers who have turned to their bluegrass roots as a way of dealing with their declining presence on country radio. At least, not yet.

“I love bluegrass,” he said. “But there’s so much attention, it would be, ‘Oh, he’s jumping on the bandwagon.’

“I’ll make a bluegrass record when nobody wants to hear a bluegrass record. And I have this neat career in country music.”

Downsizing venues, too

It is indeed a neat career when the options include moving from massive, impersonal arenas to smaller venues where the sound is better and an adoring crowd is in your face. Gill seems to be reveling in those smaller gatherings. He celebrated the release of “Next Big Thing” by embarking on a club tour. And in June, Gill will ditch his band entirely to play a two-week stretch on the West Coast, where he will be accompanied by just a pianist.

“It’s fun just to play music with your guitar and tell stories,” he said. “It’s such a different evening than a big band, big stages.

“The whole idea [of the club tour, dubbed Back 2 Basics] was to reconnect. Not to my youth, but to that time when every town had a great club and everybody went there, and everybody played there. It was before we could fill arenas. It was a live listening party for the record, and it was a blast.”

Not every town, though, has a Wheeler Opera House, where Gill will perform Wednesday, March 19, in the opening concert of the Wheeler’s five-night Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music. Gill is scheduled to perform a solo show at the Wheeler, though it should be noted that Gill’s singing wife will be in town, and it will be no surprise if she joins Gill onstage. Though he has recently turned to playing club gigs and duet concerts, the solo performance is something he reserves exclusively for Aspen.

The Wheeler served as an inspiration. “We took a family trip [to Aspen] two years ago,” said Gill. “I wasn’t much of a skier. But I knew there was a great place there, the Wheeler, and it seemed like a fun thing to do to play there.”

Since first playing the Wheeler as a guest star at the annual Musical Tribute to John Denver, Gill has made the venue a regular stop on his vacation itinerary. Last year, he was scheduled to perform one solo concert at the Wheeler; tickets sold so quickly that Gill agreed to a second show. Gill and his family then stayed in Aspen long enough for him to jump onstage with the Del McCoury Band during their Beyond Bluegrass performance. This past fall, Gill and Grant were once again guest singers at the John Denver tribute; they followed that with a benefit performance for Challenge Aspen at the Elk Mountain Lodge.

Getting to the top

Perhaps one reason Gill is so accepting of his current status as that last old thing is that he took his time in becoming a next big thing.

An Oklahoma native, Gill was a professional musician at an early age, playing in such groups as fiddler Lonnie Pierce’s Bluegrass Alliance while in his teens. And though his talents were always recognized, his early efforts weren’t always successful. Boone Creek, for all its prowess, came to an ignominious end.

Skaggs and Douglas “asked me to come be in that band,” said Gill. “After a while, there were no gigs, no money. They said, ‘We’re gonna cut you loose.'”

Gill went to California, where he played in fiddler Byrone Berline’s band. When he heard that a friend was going to audition for a spot in country-rock band Pure Prairie League, whom he had opened for some years earlier, he tagged along.

“They said, ‘Aren’t you the guy from Oklahoma who plays all those instruments? Come up tomorrow and jam with us,'” recalled Gill. “I brought my electric guitar, turned it up to 11 and jammed. We all got along real well.”

Well enough that Gill got an offer to join the band. The group by then was beyond its peak, but by the end of his three years with Pure Prairie League, Gill had established himself as a major talent. When the band shut down, Gill launched his up-and-down Nashville solo career.


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