Nashville, Tennessee — “Listen to this,” says singer Vince Gill in his home recording studio, as he twists knobs on the mixing desk. He’s about to play a track from his new album, “Down to My Last Bad Habit,” featuring his two daughters, Jenny, 33, and Corrina, 15. “They’re both just little soul singers. It’s like having the Everly Brothers in my family.”
Gill, 58, has sold over 26 million albums, earned 20 Grammys, and won 18 CMA Awards — and can’t be prouder of his 18th studio album. He co-wrote the songs, co-produced the album, and takes pride in the production values that make his albums among the best in the business.
The country star is married to contemporary Christian and pop singer Amy Grant and spoke to LifeZette about his wide-ranging career, one that has earned him enormous respect from many corners.
Question: Your new album is the first solo album since “Guitar Slinger” (2011), and it’s more subdued. Why?
Answer: I think with every record, you’re at the mercy at the songs you’ve shown up with. I let a song come to me as it comes to me. Then I go with the best songs. I love the diversity of the songs on here. Man, it’s just fun to work on something, keep messing with it until you get it the way you like it. At the end of the day, I want my playing to move somebody. Not to impress them.
Q: The guy in the title song is in a bad way. When you wrote it, were you really that down-and-out?
A: I’m the happiest guy in the world. But I don’t go to music for that. I really go to music for melancholy. I’ve often heard you have to live something to write it, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that writing fine songs is just about having a good imagination, and being able to tell a story and paint pictures. Imagination is the biggest key for me.
Q: Name a song you’ve written that really got that deep pain in the pocket?
A: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” When something comes from a really honest place, it goes a few notches deeper. [Gill wrote the song for his older brother, Bob, who died in 1993; he had suffered brain damage in a car crash when he was 22 years old.]
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Q: You put this recording studio into your house a few years ago. Does that put pressure on you in any way?
A: All it does is inspire me. I don’t ever let sales have any impact. I was meant to play music. And I feel it’s so much more precious now than it was 43 years ago, when I made my first record. I know there’s not much time left. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die, as Loretta Lynn’s song says. (Laughs) But I can’t imagine not doing this. Whenever I hear people talk about retiring, I want to laugh.
Q: You’ve got some impressive guests on this album — Cam, Little Big Town, Chris Botti, and Nashville’s best-kept secret, Bekka Bramlett.
A: Absolutely. Making records is like directing a movie. And casting is the best part. I oftentimes know right away what voice I want to hear on a song. Bekka is about the only voice I would have ever wanted to hear on “Rock in My Shoe.”
Q: Have you ever been intimidated by playing with somebody?
A: Oh, I’m often intimidated. The most memorable time, I guess, was when I got to record with Eric Clapton. He called and said, “I found one of your songs [‘One Day’] and I want to record it. And I want you to come play on it.” I was thrilled to death, you know? So I went up to New York and it’s him, and Billy Preston, and every heavyweight in the world in there, all the best of the best of the best. And I was comfortable, because I was playing acoustic guitar, and Eric was playing electric. It was a bluesy tune, and he was just shredding this beautiful, great, unbelievable guitar solo that he so often does, and I was grateful my song allowed that to come out in him. So that was great. I had a good little part, and we got the take, and it was just off the charts.
Q: You seem to have no limit to the style you can play.
A: Aw, I don’t know. That’s a great fear of mine, to think you’re a soul singer, then have soul singers scoff at you. But my ears are pretty solid. I understand what makes Aretha Franklin sing like Aretha Franklin, and George Jones sing the way George Jones sang. Both are equally soulful, but they couldn’t be more polar opposites in the sounds that they make. I don’t know that I can do anything, but I’m not afraid to try anything. And sometimes you get there, and sometimes you don’t.
Q: I’m trying to imagine a Vince and Aretha duet.
A: Sign me up! (Laughs) I think we all fall prey to assuming a country singer wouldn’t be a soulful singer, or assuming a soulful singer wouldn’t be a country singer.
Q: The big country song on here is your tribute to George Jones, “Sad One Comin’ On.” Do you have a George Jones story?
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A: I have thousands! He called me Sweet Pea from Day One. I don’t know why, but he could have called me a lot worse.
Q: Your register doesn’t seem to deepen with time. You still hit all those notes.
A: I hear a big difference now, though. My voice feels thicker in a way. I think I’m singing better. For a long time, I was scared to really show out, but I finally said, “I’m going to cut loose a little bit.” And with singing a little harder, my voice seemed to widen. For me, I just want to sing like it’s the last chance I’m going to get.
Q: Your daughter, Jenny, has made you a grandfather now. How does that feel?
A: That’s the coolest thing of all! Life stands still when that grandbaby comes around. You don’t care about anything — just seeing that little kid smile at you. I don’t know what it is about grandparenting that’s so remarkable, but it might be just seeing the child that you birthed and raised, seeing her nurture and love like you know she never has. It’s pretty magical to see your kid take care of a kid.
Alanna Nash is the author of seven books, including four on Elvis Presley.