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Vince Gill’s ‘Guitar Slinger’ Honors Friends and Family

Gino DePinto for The Boot

Never has there been and never will there likely be a voice like Vince Gill‘s. His unparalleled range and captivating delivery, coupled with his sublime songwriting skills, have made the Oklahoma native an unmistakable staple on country radio since the early ’80s. They’ve also earned him a trophy case full of Grammys (20, the most of any male country artist), CMA awards (18) and many, many other honors, including immortalization in the Country Music and Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame.

See Vince play live in concert, and you’ll realize that just as uniquely strong of an instrument as his voice is his guitar. Often called the Eric Clapton of country music, the 54-year-old guitar virtuoso can mesmerize an audience with his instrumental jams as much as he can with his vocals. So while Vince doesn’t have a self-titled album anywhere to be found in his bustling discography, his latest comes close: ‘Guitar Slinger.’

On what is his first studio album in five years, Vince finds the perfect balance of guitar-driven tunes that also showcase his incredible knack for driving emotion through lyrics, whether it be the tears that fall with ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ or the toes that tap along to the uptempo title cut. The project tackles subjects ranging from suicide to love, with a common thread among all 12 tracks: authenticity, as the singer/songwriter draws from either his own life experiences or the true stories of those close to him.

Vince visited our studios in New York to perform several new songs from ‘Guitar Slinger.’ We sat down after his performance to talk about the new project, which includes guest appearances by some very special ladies and stories about some very special friends.

Your two daughters and step-daughter all sing on the album, as does your wife, Amy Grant, who also co-wrote three of the tracks. Was it always your intention to make this album a family affair?

Not so much. I don’t think that I ever set out to cast a record with anything in my mind other than what sound will be there. I really try to hear the voices. So even though it’s a 9-year-old kid [daughter Corrina, who sings on 'Billy Paul'], I knew what I wanted that to sound like. Corrina was really compelled by that song. It’s a very dark song about murder and suicide. I went to Amy and said, “This is either the worst idea I ever had or it might be really eerie and cool.” She said, “Let’s try it.” Just hearing a little girl’s voice singing those words, ‘What made you go crazy, Billy Paul?,’ is pretty haunting. It was the right voice. Not the fact that it was my kid.

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Your oldest daughter, Jenny, is also on a few songs. She’s really developed an amazing voice, as has your step-daughter, Sarah Chapman.

Jenny’s voice blends with mine because our blood line is the same; I get that family harmony I never got to have until she got old enough to really sing and sing well. So I feel like I’ve got an Everly Brother there in my daughter. [laughs]

With Amy, the duet that we do, ‘True Love,’ was a song that she wrote about me, so I suggested we do it as a duet. She said, “I don’t know if I can sing it. You do things so much slower. I love tempos.” I said, “We can do it, I know we can.” And that was actually the first song we recorded in the studio. I think the uniqueness of that song is even more so because of the guitar playing that I did. It’s almost a duet of Amy’s voice and my guitar playing as much as me singing with her.

Then I thought how neat it would be to have Sarah on there. She’s 18, and she’s really showing a great interest in singing. She has a really compelling and unique sounding voice. The bottom line every time is that it’s about the sound of what I’m looking for more than the person I’m looking for. It just turned out that several of those people were my family.

Would you and Amy ever consider doing a whole album of duets?

We found each other very late in life and very late in our careers. We both felt the thing not to do was to try to become Sonny and Cher. We do it in small doses, but I don’t know if we’d ever do a whole record of duets. We might, I never say never. But I got to produce those two hymns records that she did ['Legacy ... Hymns & Faith,' 'Rock of Ages ... Hymns & Faith'] and got to take these old hymns and make them musically different than probably anyone would expect, and I sang and played on them. So there are so many instances of us doing that, but it’s much more subtle than both of us out front sharing the spotlight.

‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ has a true story behind it, but then it took on a whole new meaning after your co-writer’s passing.

The original phrase came from my step-kids’ grandfather. He had received bad news about his health, and that was his response: “What are they going to do? Threaten me with heaven?” How very profound … I think this song honors him in a really great way. Then, after I recorded it, Will Owsley [Vince & Amy's co-writer on the song] took his life. He actually played some of the guitar on that record, and then I had to finish it without him. But it’s great — I’ll always have that little piece of him playing on that record and the song we wrote together. I’ll always have a soft spot for that song, and every time I sing it, I think about him.

There are so many different characters on this album, in story songs like ‘Buttermilk John,’ ‘Billy Paul’ and ‘Bread and Water.’ Are they fictional characters or based on people you know?

‘Bread and Water’ was a song I wrote with Leslie Satcher. I threw out this line: “One night, he wandered into that old mission.” The first lines of songs are the most important part of the songs. If you really want to tell a story, that first line has to capture you. I said that line and then got a big lump in my throat and almost teared up. It reminded me of my brother. My brother had a rough stretch of life. He had a car wreck at age 21 and was almost killed. He was in a coma for many months and wasn’t expected to live, and he never really fully recovered. He did pretty great considering the depth of the injuries and as a result of it, he would spend some time kinda hobo-ing around and not checking in with us. We didn’t know where he was for periods of time and found out he’s been down in the mission, or working at the Salvation Army or out picking fruit somewhere. So the song is loosely based on my brother.

Is ‘Buttermilk John’ also someone you know?

‘Buttermilk John’ was a song I wrote in tribute to John Hughey. John was a steel guitar player who played on my records for nearly 20 years. Everything that you heard me do after ‘When I Call Your Name’ was John — he really gave my music great definition. He was probably even more known in the days he played with Conway Twitty in the ’60s and ’70s. He was a world class musician, and we were great friends. I wanted to honor him with a song, and his nickname was Buttermilk John because he loved buttermilk and cornbread. His wife, Miss Jean, is one of the dearest souls that ever lived, and it was that love that they had for each other … They stayed sweethearts their whole marriage, and they held hands everywhere they went. If John wanted to go to Walmart, Jean went with him. If Jean wanted to go somewhere, John would go with her. They were a beautiful couple. And she struggles everyday since he’s been gone. There hasn’t been one day that she doesn’t go visit his grave. So I wrote that about them, to let her know that I loved John like she did.

Gino DePinto for The Boot

Other than being a track on the album, what’s the significance of the title, ‘Guitar Slinger’?

‘Guitar Slinger’ wasn’t going to be on the record. I never thought of that title. My manager, Larry Fitzgerald, came up with that title because he listened to the record and said, “You’re playing so much more guitar. Something’s different about you and the way that you’re playing. I think you ought to call it ‘Guitar Slinger.’” And I said, “Well, that song is not on the record, so let’s put it on the record!” So we found a slot for it.

Besides working in your pajamas, what was the biggest advantage to recording this album in your home studio?

There’s no place that feels as comfortable as home, and to have the creative side of my life finally within those walls was more gratifying, more peaceful and content than anything I could have imagined. I felt for a long time I was just screwing around; I didn’t think we were really recording or if it really mattered because of the relaxed atmosphere. There was a great spirit when we were playing music because it’s not a commercial building, it’s not a place that’s out there trying to make money being a recording studio. It’s just a place where I felt I could do what I wanted to do at the time I wanted to do it in. There was no pressure.

Congrats on 20 years as a Grand Ole Opry member. Do you think younger country singers today have as healthy of a respect as you do for coveted music institutions like the Opry?

I think they do. As time goes on, you lose sight of history. It’s going to take someone like me to teach a new artist who Roy Acuff was, who Bill Monroe was and who Minnie Pearl was — all the great stars of the early days of the Opry — and that’s my job. I’m supposed to do that, and they’re not supposed to know it all. I never look down at them for not knowing the history, because I didn’t either. When I was younger, I wanted to learn it and I still want to learn it. Those people drove the dirt roads with everybody piled in a couple of cars. They traveled tough, and we get to cruise around in big buses — much more luxurious than they had it. I want them to know I respect them and am grateful for what I’ve learned from them, because I wouldn’t know how to play this music if there hadn’t been great mentors like that.

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