Vince Gill Offers Stories of Struggle, Hope On New Album ‘Okie’ [Interview]

He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, earned 21 Grammy Awards and crafted classic songs such as “I Still Believe In You” and “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but Vince Gill says he is still striving for success—because for the gifted vocalist, writer and musician, success is measured in terms of challenging himself creatively, and continuing to improve on his already formidable talents.

With his new album, Okie, which releases today (Aug. 23), the Oklahoma native, 62, issues one of his most personal collections. He honors several people who have played important roles in his life, including his mother (“A Letter To My Mama”), and his wife Amy Grant (“When My Amy Prays”). The deaths of two of Gill’s musical comrades and heroes inspired a pair of tracks from the album—“Nothin’ Like A Guy Clark Song” and “A World Without Haggard.”

He also doesn’t shy away from complex, timeless struggles revolving around regret, loneliness and faith, or darker subjects of judgement, racism and sexual assault.

“I’m singing some songs that might be about some tough subjects in spots, but I want to tell them in a light that doesn’t come with announcing judgment. I think if you’re just willing and open to conversation, and accepting of what others think and feel, that’s the whole way for anybody to ever really heal, is to have it kind of centered around some kindness and some truth.”

MusicRow spoke with Gill about his new project, the inspiration of artists including Clark and Haggard, and his work as a member of both The Time Jumpers and The Eagles.

MusicRow: You are featured prominently in the upcoming Country Music documentary by Ken Burns. I understand that documentary helped inspire your album title, Okie.

Yeah. Well, it was inspired by it in several ways. I was searching for a title to call this record, and I had two or three titles in mind. I had one title that I felt like defined the record too narrowly, and then I had just watched the documentary. I got an early copy of the finished product and was very emotional in watching it to really finally see our story get told with some respect. I’ve always felt like we kind of got looked down our noses at as country musicians, and hillbillies. It told such a powerful truth of our history.

I liked that it talked about the Dust Bowl era and how people from where I’m from all migrated out west to find work. A lot of people never knew that the term “Okie” was derogatory. It was like the “N-word” to call somebody from Oklahoma an Okie. And so with as much pride as I feel about where I’m from, and what our people overcame and did to get by, I said, “Now this feels like a more appropriate title for this record.” I think it sums up the entirety of this record in a much better way than I could have with a song title.

You wrote “Nothing Like a Guy Clark Song” after his passing. What do you remember about working with him and why did you feel a musical kinship with him?

More than anything, I remember just how crusty he was in a cool way. He was a no BS kind of guy, and everything was pretty straight up, very truthful. I loved getting to be around him.

The experiences of recording with him when Rodney was producing some of those records in the early ’80s, I think we might have made one of those records here in Nashville. We were all still living in L.A. I love his songs because the bands I was in in high school did a few Guy Clark songs, so I was familiar with his songs my whole life. We wound up getting to write a few songs together over the years, played on a bunch of his records, and just him, and Rodney, and I have a pretty big kinship, probably not as deep as Rodney and Guy’s, but pretty deeply. We connected by a song that Guy first recorded back in 1980. I played guitar on it. We had never heard the song before and we were writing it down, recording it, I just was weeping all over my guitar because that song just killed me because my father was a lawyer. It really hit hard for me and I was recording that song saying, “This is the song I’ll play at my dad’s funeral someday.” And then my father died many years later, when I was 40, just like Guy’s dad did. So there’s always been this really deep connection between myself and Guy.

A lot of artists would pay tribute to an artist as iconic as Merle Haggard by just covering one of his songs. You did quite a few of Merle’s songs on the Bakersfield project with Paul Franklin. Was that part of the reason you chose to instead write an original piece?

I think so. That’s more in keeping with me. I like writing songs, I like that the song about Merle doesn’t have any real references to his song titles in it. Some of that can be a little too clever for me. So it was more from an emotional place of how inspired I was by his singing and writing. I got pretty close to Merle in the last few years of his life, which was really important to me and I sang on some of his last recordings, a real dream come true. He was always my favorite artist when I was young and he was kind of busting on the scene in the early to mid-’60s.

You debuted “Forever Changed” during Country Radio Seminar in 2018. What inspired that song?

In my life I’ve watched people sticking up for innocent people that perhaps didn’t have a voice. In that instance, it’s hard for a young person to have a voice, when something like that is transpiring. I had an incident as a kid. I don’t know that it’s necessarily relevant to the fact that I wrote that song or had anything to do with being able to write that song, but I had a gym teacher and basketball coach guy in seventh grade that tried to act on me. I was fortunate that I got up, and I ran the second it was inappropriate. In seventh grade nobody knows much about anything, so I just said. “This just seems wrong on so many levels.” So I jumped up and I ran. But so many kids didn’t experience that. There was something that happened that maybe affected them in their lives. And so, once again, I have a heart for compassion. I have a heart for innocent people. Sometimes I like sticking up for people that I think are being treated unfairly.

You also speak out against judgment and hatred on “The Price of Regret” with lyrics like You’re black and I’m white, we’re blinded by sight/ Close your eyes and tell me the color of my skin.

We’re so fast to judge when we see something, and if you couldn’t see it you would probably experience it in a totally different way. I got that lesson years ago from Eddy Arnold. We were doing a tribute to him and I was singing this song and he said, “Vince, what do you think about that song?” I said, “It’s a nice song.” He said, “Well, okay, the next time you sing it understand that it was written by a blind man.” And so then all of a sudden it flipped, and you saw the song in a completely different light. It was just such a great lesson to learn. And so I felt like if you didn’t see me you wouldn’t know if I was white, if I was black, if I was Hispanic, if I was fat, if I was skinny, and you would maybe accept me a little more openly without preconceived judgment. I think we do such a disservice to each other by judgment. I just think we could do a lot better job of being, well, kinder to one another instead of so greedy and mean.

One of the songs on this album, “Black and White,” you wrote with Charlie Worsham.

With Charlie, I saw a lot of myself in Charlie, in the years that I struggled. I came here in the early ’80s, and as Willie Nelson said, you couldn’t get arrested. But that’s not entirely true. I could get arrested. I struggled for a lot of years, and the thing that I learned was because I really could sing, and I really could play, the songs weren’t bad, people would still take a chance on me. With somebody like Charlie who can play so well, who can sing so well, there’s so much room for him. Nobody ever gets tired of a great singer singing a great song. It’s just undeniable, he’s so talented and a great-hearted kid.

In addition to this album, you are now a member of The Eagles, you are still playing with The Time Jumpers, and you have your annual Christmas shows with Amy coming up later this year. What continues to drive that level of creativity?

I’m still in pretty good shape and can get around good. I love doing it. I feel like I’m at my best right now. I know that sounds kind of strange, but a lot of people would look at my past and say, “You were probably at your best when you were selling all these records and having all those hits.” Truth be told, I’m a way better singer now, a way better musician now, a much better songwriter now than I was in those days. So as long as I continue to progress in my mind and in my ears, I want to play. It doesn’t matter what it is or what role I play, it’s just being creative.

Which do you feel is more challenging—playing in a sideman role or in a lead singer/musician role?

I think it’s a much harder job being a sideman and being a supportive player. If you’re the one that wrote the song, and sang it, and played it, you can do it however you want. If you’re the supporting guy you kind of have to play to complement it and make what it is better, so it’s a little bit different listening curve.

I think my favorite comment I’ve gotten since I’ve been in [The Eagles] was from a reviewer who said, “I really enjoyed seeing Vince in the band not so much for what he did, but what he didn’t do.” That meant a lot to me because I’m not trying to garner any attention. That meant a lot to me that somebody saw me trying to fulfill that role in an appropriate way.

Your work is so diverse, from bluegrass to rock to jazz to country. What do you want to do next?

Yeah, it is. I’d love to do more. I want to do some recording bluegrass before too long because it’s so important to me, and I don’t feel like I got to do a lot of recording in the world of bluegrass. I did a lot of performing, but not near enough recording, so I hope to see a bluegrass record somewhere down the line. I’ll probably point towards a real traditional pitch next, if I know me. At some point, we’re all at the mercy of whatever songs we show up with. I don’t know what my next satchel of songs is going to look like.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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