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Country music superstar Vince Gill talks to OKG about his Saturday concert



By the time he graduated from Northwest Classen High School, Vince Gill knew how to play five instruments, including banjo and guitar, and at least as many music genres, including bluegrass.

Gill added country-rock to that skill set when he joined Pure Prairie League in 1979. Some of his songs from that time are still embedded deeply in our cultural memory, especially “Amie (Falling in and Out of Love)” and “Let Me Love You Tonight.” Gill said he has only performed “Amie” live a couple times.

“I didn’t write the song, so I don’t think it’s respectful,” he said.

That might be the easiest decision he has to make when it comes to what he will play at his concert Saturday at The Zoo Amphitheatre, 2101 NE 50th St.

“Well, I can’t do everything,” Gill said. “The first thing is to figure out what the band plays best. We’ll mix it up and show the crowd a good time.”

This leaves his set list options wide open, and as an artist known for his collaborations and genre-bending live sets, his studio door is also usually wide open.

“When the phone rings, I say yes as often as I can,” Gill said. “Working with friends on fun projects is an easy yes.”

His signature, beautiful, languid tenor makes him an easy choice as a duet partner or backup vocalist. His multi-instrument resume certainly helps, too.

Creative collaborator

Gill said the high point of his songwriting career occurred when Willie Nelson covered “Whenever You Come Around” on his 2014 album Band of Brothers. Imagining Gill excaited about another artist, even a legend like Willie Nelson, recording one of his songs is difficult given that Gill has worked with the likes of George Strait, Eric Clapton and Barbra Streisand, all part of a list that no Oklahoma kid would dare to draw up while playing in a high school bluegrass band.

In 2013, he and multi-instrumentalist Paul Franklin (Dire Straits, Barbara Mandrell, Mark Knopfler) released a tribute to their Bakersfield, California, roots — not family or birthplace roots (Franklin grew up in Detroit), but their earliest musical influences, including Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

Bakersfield was Gill’s first duet album, which was surprising from a man who has been involved in so many notable duets. Franklin is Gill’s bandmate from The Time Jumpers, a Western swing band composed of first-call studio musicians.

Collaboration, however, has been the beating heart of Gill’s career.

Including singing, writing, producing and playing, Gill has been a part of more than 400 albums.

Another recent project was Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War, a collaboration album on which Gill and artists like Ricky Skaggs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Shovels & Rope and Dolly Parton recorded new versions of war-era songs. Gill chose “Dear Old Flag,” and the mandolin work on the track is heartbreaking, as is Gill’s voice, which never descends into sentimentality or inappropriate emotionalism.

In 2011, he worked with Rodney Crowell to record “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears” for the album The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.

Gill is very animated when discussing the collaboration with Crowell.

“A janitor found a notebook with unpublished lyrics from Hank Williams in a dumpster,” he said. “It was such a fun project.”

The album started when the notebook was handed over to Bob Dylan to complete the lyrics, with help from Gill and Crowell, Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm and others.

Being Vince Gill means that when someone finds a notebook of unpublished Hank Williams songs — kind of like the guy who finds a Picasso at a garage sale — you are on the short list of people who get a call.

No debating

Gill now lives in Nashville, but he no longer talks about the traditional-versus-modern country debate that divided the city’s music scene for over two decades. While he is clearly capable of working on both sides of that divide, he is a product of the traditional school wherein artists write, play and sing.

In addition to his role as a caretaker of the bluegrass tradition, Gill’s work with The Time Jumpers and Asleep at the Wheel also helps keep alive the vibrant tradition of Western swing.

“I grew up with Western swing,” Gill said. “It was the music of dance halls all over Oklahoma and Texas, partly because it was such a perfect way for rural towns to get people together. There wasn’t much to do in those small towns, but people would come together for a night of swing.”

These days, he has built his own home recording studio and is working on a new solo album, which he says is almost finished. He also helped produce country musician Ashley Monroe’s latest project, Like a Rose.

He still plays live, too, but it’s a different kind of show. Gone are the days of jumbo-sized arena and stadium tours.

“I like the medium-sized venues,” Gill said. “Some of those theaters have real history behind them, like the State Theatre in Pennsylvania or The Birchmere music hall in Virginia.”

Few words

For this homecoming, he did find himself reminiscing about how growing up Okie influenced his music.

“I think what I took most from Oklahoma was common sense,” he said. “I’m amazed at how widespread it is where we’re from. It’s that matter-of-fact, no wool-pulling, no blowing smoke way of seeing the world, talking and working.”

How we pick ourselves up after a crisis also inspires and warms the soft-spoken musician.

“The work ethic I saw after the bombing — we just had the 20-year anniversary — did not surprise me,” he said. “I was proud of Oklahomans, proud to be one. I try to bring that same ethic and focus to my songwriting, to say the most with the least words.”

Print headline: Home boy, Country music superstar Vince Gill talks to Oklahoma Gazette about his Saturday concert, his local roots and the countless songs and memories he has made during his decades-long career.

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