It's been a few years since Vince Gill had a new album out…
five, to be exact. Bear in mind, though, that that last album, These Days, was an unprecedented four-CD
set of all new material. So if he had just parceled the discs in that
collection out on an annual basis in the intervening years, he would've seemed
like the busiest guy in country.
How do you follow up a 43-song, four-CD set? Did Gill feel
under any pressure to make a six-disc set this time?
"I didn't know the heck what to do," he laughs. "I thought
about doing just one downloadable song and making that available and seeing
what happened. Go from 43 to one!"
Fortunately, he's back with Guitar Slinger, a set that features a very reasonable… no, not 43,
and no, not just one, but 12 tracks. He performed three of them for the Yahoo!
Music cameras in Nashville, including his new single, "Threaten Me With Heaven."
After his set, we sat down with the Country
Music Hall of Fame's youngest member about the origins and meaning of these
rich new tunes.
THREATEN ME WITH HEAVEN
"'Threaten Me with Heaven' is a song that I was fortunate to
write with my wife, Amy (Grant), a fellow named Dillon O'Brien, and [the late] Will
Owsley, who was a really talented songwriter and guitar player," Gill recounts.
"They had already kind of had that song started. I came to the house after
playing golf"—big surprise there, for Gill fans—"and they said, 'Hey, we're
stuck. We can't get this song going.' So I came in and helped finish it, and I
was really taken with the sentiment and the poetry of that song. It kind of
feels Dylan-esque to me, in the melody, and people have really responded to
"It feels like it's not too far from a song like 'Go Rest
High on That Mountain'"—referring to the 1994 hit that was inspired by the
death of Vince's brother, Bob, and has been a perennial at funerals ever since.
The new song has a possibly terminal patient expressing that a happy afterlife
is not such a terrible worst-case scenario.
"Basically, the story is about how everybody's tore up about
the bad news, the bad prognosis for your life, and then the [character's] comment
is, 'What are they gonna do, threaten me with heaven?' It's really beautiful,
and I'm proud to be a part of writing it."
Gill and Grant don't often cut the same kind of material,
but the inspirational "Heaven" seems like a song that could have landed up on
an album from either spouse.
"Yeah, I think so," he agrees. "You know, the way we
originally wrote it, it had a much quicker tempo, which Amy was drawn to that a
little more than I. I liked the sadder, more blue side of the way I figured out
how to arrange and record and sing it. It's been interesting to see people
react to that song. There's something compelling about it that speaks to
He pauses. "It especially speaks to me now since Will Owsley,
who was part of the writing of that song, played a little bit on the record of
that with me before he took his own life. So it's [part of] that kinship of my
friendship with him, and that song will always tie us together."
IF I DIE
Yes, another mortality-themed song… and another winner. In
this one, the narrator hasn't received any terminal diagnosis, but nonetheless
imagines some of the positive and negative ways in which he might go out. Gill
wrote it with Ashley Monroe, a solo artist who most recently joined up with
Miranda Lambert in the Pistol Annies.
"Ashley came to me with that idea in the first verse: 'If I
die a-drinking…' That's where she was headed with it. I said, 'What if you had
different scenarios and each one was drastically different?' The first scenario
was, 'If I die a-drinking, just like my daddy.' Then if I did 'If I die a-cheating,
then I can't blame the guy for wanting to kill me.' Then it goes into, 'If I
die a singer of some old song, the last song I'll be singing is 'When the Saints
Go Marching In.' And then the last verse is 'If I die praying to Jesus on my
knees, everyone I've ever loved will be waiting there for me.' So, I like where
it starts, and I love where it ends."
The reverent climax to the tune doesn't mean Gill's playful
sense of humor has been completely replaced by piety.
As he tells the story: "I remember a friend of mine asked me
to come and sing for his church service one Sunday morning. And I purposefully
sang that song, because I knew it would really throw him for a loop. And I
watched his face during the first two verses, looking at him as I sang 'If I
die a-drinking.' And he kind of cocked his head toward me. And then I got to
the cheating verse, and he was kind of going…" Gill mimics the minster's look
of terror. "And then there's
redemption. A fond memory!"
THE OLD LUCKY DIAMOND MOTEL
Amazingly, given what a staple of life they are, there
haven't been that many songs written about motels over the years.
"No, not much," Gill says. "'Motel California' would be a
good one." He laughs. "That was the Hotel California, wasn't it? If it would
have been country, it would have been Motel California!
"This one is about a fictitious place, the old Lucky Diamond
Motel." (And it has a fictional narrator, too, so don't worry—he didn't really
lose his virginity there.) "But I grew up just a mile from Route 66, which I
didn't even know was Route 66. As a kid, I didn't really know the history of
that road. My brother had a really severe car accident on Route 66 that almost
took his life; he was in a coma for several months. We used to drag Route 66 to
try to get girls to like us when somebody could get a car and go out and have
fun and cruise through the drive-ins and whatnot.
"It's such a legendary road in our history and it goes from
Illinois all the way to California. It's just a nostalgic story about them
tearing down these old places. I'm all for the progress and stuff, but I really
miss those little diners and those little roadside places that had so much
character. It's fun to go on the Internet and just look at the crazy places
that are still open on Route 66.
"And," he points out, "I did a video at a little roadside place called the
Vega Motel 20 years ago or more." Indeed, that would be "Never Knew Lonely,"
shot at the infamous old motel in Vegas, Texas back in 1990… which you can watch here:
What Gill loved most about "Old Lucky Diamond Motel" wasn't
the nostalgia of it, though. "What was fun about for me was that it was the first song I wrote after I
finished that last record, These Days.
What made me excited and encouraged about recording new music and writing new
songs was that this song struck me as like nothing on the previous record"—even
though, as previously noted, the predecessor in question had 43 songs, which
covered a daunting amount of range. "I felt like I did all that work and then
got creative again and went to a different place, and that felt good to me."
One song from the new album Gill didn't do for our
cameras—because of a prominently MIA participant—is "True Love," a duet
with Amy Grant Gill.
"It was a song that she'd written for me, about me. And it
was mostly finished, and then she wanted a bridge for it, and I came in and helped
arrange it and finish the bridge for her. She was kind enough to say I helped
write it. I originally cut it by myself, and then I thought it would be much
more interesting as a duet. But she has a hard time with how patient I am and
how slow I'm willing to go when I'm recording a song."
It's not just Amy. "I had a drummer that told me years ago, 'Your
songs are so slow, I have to count 'em off with a calendar.' I always thought
that was funny. But Amy said, 'I can't sing that slow!' I said, 'Yes you can, let
me help you.' And we worked and worked. It's a neat duet, because it's as much
a duet between her voice and me playing guitar as it is a duet between her voice and mine, though I do sing on it."
This is just part one of our interview with Gill. Check back for part two, in which he discusses how the Nashville flood wrecked his vintage guitar collection (but not his daughter's wedding), life with Amy Grant, and why he's finally indulged in more studio guitar solos after all these years...