By Susan Johnson
Photos by Jim Wright & Chris Hollo
In fine southern tradition, he called me Ms. Susan, and he said to call him Vinnie. But, of course, I couldn’t do that. Because this was Vince Gill, winner of a bazillion music awards: Twenty-one Grammys (more than any other male artist); 27 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry; over 20 studio albums; over 40 singles on the Billboard charts; more than 26 million albums sold; honored by the Country Music Association with 18 awards (more than any other performer in history); a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; two Entertainer of the Year and five Male Vocalist Awards; inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Guitar Center Rock Walk; hired by the Eagles to fill in for the late Glenn Frey; and he could have possibly picked up a few more awards between the time we talked and print time!
Vince Gill will be performing on stage at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre on Sunday, November 11, 2018. He’s been to Jacksonville before and even played a concert there to benefit military personnel and their families. Because this will be his first visit to our area, though, we thought a little introduction might be in order. So, pull up a chair – preferably a rocking chair – and listen in.
By his own account, he’s “traveled the entire country at least once or twice,” usually on tour and usually with a timetable. Does he remember visiting Florida? “I’ve been all over the great state of Florida just ‘cause I’m a golf nut. I’ve played a lot of great golf courses in Florida. I’m looking forward to coming down there and singing some songs and playing some music. I never get tired of that!”
Well, let’s address that golf statement first. Does he find time to play when he’s on the road? The answer is a definite yes. He explains, “Golf has kind of saved my life in a way. I’ve been out traveling the road for these last 44 or 45 years or whatever it’s been. Golfing made for a great escape in my music life. It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble.” He laughs, which he does a lot. “Going to a golf course instead of a beer joint has probably served me very well.”
Rumor has it that Gill could compete with the best of them on any green. Just how good is he? Asked about a handicap, he says, “Mine is still scratch. I’m not competitive with golf, or with music, though. But, I’m competitive with myself, and I’m hard on myself, but I’m not competitive against another golfer. I don’t go out there with the mindset that I want to beat him. I couldn’t care less. I’ve been beaten by the best golfers in the world my whole life, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. The beating I took from Arnold Palmer was awesome.” There’s that laugh again. “I was four under par, and so was he, playing the last hole. I missed my birdie putt and he made his. He looked over at me and winked and pointed his finger and said, ‘I got ya!’ That’s a good thing. I think a little competitive spirit in the right light is a very good thing.”
As it turns out, Gill and Palmer were good friends. “Arnold and I were very great friends. He might be my favorite person I ever met…got to play golf with him many, many times and was honored to sing at his funeral. I got to sing for him when he got his Congressional Medal of Honor, and there’s just not a better human being that ever lived than Arnold Palmer.” What made their bond so strong? “He had an unbelievable knack of making whoever he was with feel like they were his favorite. I remember even asking at the service, saying, ‘Ok, let’s have a show of hands of everyone that thinks you were Arnie’s favorite,’ and they all raised their hands. Everybody raised their hands! He was a rare human being.”
Gill has known more than his share of loss. He sang “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” a song he wrote after his brother passed away, at Palmer’s funeral. He has also written tunes that honor the memories of other loved ones who have passed on. Does performing them get easier as time goes on? “Sometimes it’s tough. I was singing “Go Rest High on That Mountain” in Madison, Wisconsin recently, and I just kinda lost it for a minute. You know, you gotta train your mind not to go there. You need to find a happy memory or a happy place to go to, but that night the emotion of it got me a little bit. You just never know.”
In the early days, Gill played bluegrass, joining up with Ricky Skaggs (Boone Creek) and serving as back-up for Florida fiddler Chubby Wise. “I used to get to play with Chubby when I was a kid. We had a neat little bluegrass band, and he would come play some of the festivals and ask us to back him up. That was a pretty big thrill, to hear an iconic fiddler like that. Those days in bluegrass were really special. What I love about it more than anything is that the friends I made at 16 and 17 years old I still have today. I still see all of those same people. I play a bluegrass show every year at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with all my favorite bluegrass pickers. They have a Thursday night series, and they’re kind enough to let me come and play on one of those nights. Yes, when he says, “they are kind enough to let me play,” he means it!
Speaking of kindness, what is a southern tradition he would like to see continued? “Kindness. Kindness toward everybody. It can go a long way. Southern hospitality is a real thing. It’s always positive when you run into somebody that’s a stranger, and they’ve got a smile on their face, and they speak to you. That’s gotta be the one thing that I try to keep in the forefront of my brain – to be nice to everybody I meet. Just smile and speak to somebody. You know, it makes everything feel a little bit easier.”
Gill has achieved the kind of success and recognition that few people in any industry manage to attain. Looking back, does he think he would have been happy simply being one of “the boys in the band?” He answers without hesitation, “I know I would have been. Without question. I didn’t need to be the guy up front to feel content. My mom said this about me a long time ago. People would ask her, ‘Does it bother you that your son didn’t go out and get a real job? Went off at 18 years old to play music, struggled and this and that?’ She said, ‘No, I didn’t want a rich kid. I wanted a happy kid.’ That spoke volumes to me. I think my career bears that out. I don’t mind working for other people, and I don’t mind being in the band. I don’t mind being the side man. I don’t mind being the harmony singer. I never had to have the attention. As it turns out, I was pretty good at writing songs and singing, so it was only natural that I be the knucklehead in front!” He forgot to mention his guitar skills, which are legendary. He is one of the most respected guitarists in the country.
He also has an enviable ability to engage others and work together to bring out the best in everyone. His over 1,000 collaborations on projects with various other artists serves as testament to that. Does that ability apply in his personal life as well? “I’m pretty much an open book. I think sometimes people are afraid of people who have had some success. When people say to me, “I’m surprised at how normal you are,” it makes me feel sad for maybe the way some people who have had success are. I don’t know if I am in the minority or not. I wouldn’t think I am, but when people expect you not to be nice, that’s not good!” He stops, then says, “I’ve said this my whole life–the only thing that’s special about me are the gifts I’ve been given. You kind of keep that in perspective. Whether you’re a great athlete or a great actor or a great scientist or whatever. You’ve been given a gift of some wisdom or some talent or whatever it is–that’s what’s special.”
His latest album, “Down to My Last Bad Habit” was released in 2016. It’s an inspired mix of rock, pop, blues, and traditional country, and features artists like Chris Botti and Alison Kraus, along with his daughters, Jenny Gill Van Valkenburg and Corrina Gill. What do you learn from working with your kids? “You learn to be very careful what you say. You wear two pairs of kid gloves when you work with your kids.” I hear a chuckle, but he gets serious pretty quickly. “Words are powerful. Words can wound and words can heal, and I’m very careful with the words I use on my kids. All my kids are musical, but Jenny and Corrina are the two that really are crazy about it.”
At 61 years, Vince Gill is far from retirement, but does he see a time when he would choose a porch and a chair instead of his guitar and a stage? “I don’t see how I could stop playing or why I would. I will tell you this…if you get to a place where you cannot do the things you used to do, that’s hard on you. I haven’t flipped the switch going that way yet. I might. Everybody does to some degree. Then, some people keep their voice their whole life, and I hope I do. I had a sweet friend named Little Jimmy Dickens that was at the Opry for over 60 years. He lived to be 94, and he played the Opry two weeks before he died. So, I’d kinda like to adopt that one right there. If I could make 94 and sing on the Opry two weeks before I’m gone…that would be a pretty good way to go!” (Gill himself was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry on August 10, 1991).
What lessons have been learned from spending so much time on the road? “More than anything, you learn what not to do, how to use your time. You learn how to edit yourself a little bit. You don’t have to say everything, you don’t have to play every note. Save yourself a lot of effort on stuff that doesn’t really matter that much. That’s wisdom. There’s something to all that.” Would he change anything? “No. I wouldn’t want to go back. I wouldn’t want to be younger. I love my life right now more than I ever have. There wouldn’t be anything to go back to that would trump that or change that. I haven’t met anybody I would trade places with yet.”
After the death of Glen Frey, the remaining members of the Eagles couldn’t envision the band continuing without him. Over time, though, that feeling changed, and Gill was invited to step in. Why did he accept? “Well one of the motivating factors was, that they needed somebody, and they chose me. It’s a real blessing getting to be a part of singing, probably the greatest songbook, of any American band in history. You couldn’t aim any higher if you tried. Not that I aimed to do it. I didn’t. I worked hard enough that they liked what I did enough to say, ‘Hey, can you come do this with us?’ What a gift, to get to be a part of a great legacy of songs like that!”
As if a solo career and a stint with the Eagles weren’t enough, Gill also plays in a western swing band called The Time Jumpers, who happened to pick up a Grammy in 2017 for Best American Roots Song for a tune Gill wrote called “Kid Sister,” written in tribute to the late Dawn Sears. Are they still together? “Oh yeah. We all call that our therapy. We all get to go and have fun and play the kind of music we love. It’s obviously not for the money. We’re out there playing in the club for twenty bucks a head. We’re not breaking the bank, just loving friends and playing great music. It really doesn’t get any better than that!”
For more information on tours and music, please visit Gill’s website at www.vincegill.com. To purchase tickets to the November show, please visit the St. Augustine Ampitheatre.