The Gills open their home, hearts and studio to the Musician’s Friend crew
The first word that springs to mind in trying to convey the warmth and kindness we encountered during our visit with country legend Vince Gill and his family is “gracious.” Despite Vince’s position as one of the most revered and popular musicians in the realm of country music, there is no pretension or distance. And that goes for his family too.
Musician’s Friend: Vince, what do you remember as being the initial spark that created your passion for music?
Vince Gill: I don’t know that I can honestly recollect “the moment,” but what I do know is that I don’t ever remember there not being music in my life. My first conscious memory of hearing music was my grandmother playing “How Great Thou Art” on the piano.
MF: Was music something that was always present in the house?
VG: My father played a little bit. My mom played the harmonica. My brother played the guitar. My dad’s brother played. There was always music being played by someone or on records. I don’t ever remember a time that there wasn’t music, or that I didn’t have a guitar in my hands trying to figure out how to play it. From day one, it seems like it’s all I did. I know the hook was in early.
On camera Vince and Jenny talk about their collaborations.
MF: Jenny, how was your interest in pursuing music initially sparked?
Jenny Gill: One of my earliest memories, I don’t know what show it was, but he was playing somewhere; I think it was Summer Lights. I might have been five years old. I had this really pretty dress on, and Dad asked if I wanted to come out and sing a song with him, a song inspired by a story I had told him about wanting to ride on a train, “Jenny Dreams of Trains.” He said, “Hey buddy, you wanna come and sing this on stage with me?” I remember I was so nervous, and I remember looking up at him and him looking back, shaking his head “no” because I thought it was time to sing. I remember what my voice sounded like amplified over a microphone, and I thought, “Whoa!” I was hooked on singing from then on.
MF: Was your interest in playing an instrument sparked around that time too?
JG: My first experience with an instrument was the recorder in fourth grade. That turned into playing the flute in my middle school band, which I loved. I learned how to read music and made it all the way to second chair. Guitar playing didn’t come until much later for some reason. I think maybe because he was so incredible at it. He’d sit down and try to teach me a few things, but we’d just end up getting frustrated with each other because I couldn’t get it quick enough, and it had become such a simple thing for him. So I’d run off and play kickball or something. [laughs]
MF: Vince, you received a guitar from your folks when you were fairly young. What impact did that have on you and your playing?
VG: The Christmas that I was 10, my mom and dad found a way to afford a very nice guitar, a Gibson ES-335, and a Fender Super Reverb amp, both of which I still have and am very proud of. It meant the world to me because I had a great instrument to learn on. For me to have something at that age, to have a great instrument that the best guitar players in the world still play today, I think that was a real key.
Vince takes us on a tour of his drool-worthy guitar collection.
MF: Jenny, receiving a guitar at a young age certainly had an impact on your dad. Do you have a special memory about receiving a musical gift?
JG: Recently, for my birthday, my dad gifted me an acoustic guitar. I had told him I wanted to get better on the guitar to open up my options of what I could write. So he gave me this guitar, and there’s just something about the way it feels in my arms that makes me want to play all the time. It didn’t happen until my late 20s, but that’s when the guitar-playing spark came to me.
MF: Vince, you’re quite proficient on a number of instruments. How was your interest in those other instruments sparked?
VG: I started playing the guitar at such a young age, and as I got into grade school I started taking violin lessons. That lasted for about three years. Then I got a mean teacher who soured me on playing the violin anymore. There was a little old lady down the street who tried to teach me piano, but that wasn’t very fun. It smelled like mothballs in her house. It was the longest 30 minutes of my life, if I recall. [laughs] But I really regret not playing the piano. I wish I’d have stayed at it and had the knowledge of what the piano has right in front of you. I regret quitting the violin too. I would love to have had more theory in my background.
MF: Vince, how much has the support of your family contributed to your success?
VG: The support of my family throughout my life—especially those young years—I had no idea how valuable that was. Even when I started gigging, at 13, 14 years old, they never beat me up about it. They just said, “Keep your nose clean and get to school at 8 o’clock and we don’t care what you do.” Even as I took off and started playing, I never got the speech about “When are you gonna get a real job?” And I showed them what struggling and starving was like! [laughs]. Just scraping by, not knowing when the next gig was gonna come when I needed 40 or 50 more bucks to pay the rent that month. Not one single time did I get that speech, and that was powerful. Their viewpoint was more about the happiness of their kid. I think that’s the real key; it was for me. The purpose of being a good father is raising a happy kid.
MF: Not all parents of young musicians are that supportive…
VG: Well I would often get “Turn that s**t down!” up in my room. I’d be up there playing Hendrix as loud as I could, trying to bend those strings and do all that stuff. I got some of that. [laughs]
MF: What are some of the ways you’ve sparked an interest in music with your other children?
VG: I think all you can do is show them the opportunity. Whether they decide to jump off the deep end, that’s their call. With Jenny, I didn’t want to push this on her; I wanted her to find it and have the interest in it on her own. There’s nothing worse than the parent whose overbearing. Oftentimes they’ll drive the kid away from what it is they wish the kid would do. The other kids—Matt, Millie, and Sarah from Amy’s first marriage [Vince's wife, musician Amy Grant] and our daughter together, Corrina—everybody has musical talent, and a lot of it. Matt and Millie have not had quite as keen an interest in music; their interests have fallen, creatively, in a different place. Sarah did a duet with her mom on Amy’s last album. And Corrina is absolutely, over-the-top gaga nuts about music. She’s taking piano lessons; she’s playing the guitar. I took her to see Carrie Underwood and Hunter Hayes the other night, and she was on cloud nine. Amy took her to see Aretha Franklin.
MF: What are some of the benefits you’ve both received through sharing music with one another?
JG: He’s made me a better singer, handsdown. I recently came to him and said, “OK, I want to make a record, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing—help me!” So he’s been helping me in this very studio, and when it came time for the vocals, we got to work. He is very encouraging. He doesn’t baby me, but he pushes me and challenges me to get the best out of me, and I really have learned a lot. It’s also been cool as a songwriter to have him hear my songs and give his feedback. We’ve just started to scratch the surface there. To collaborate in that area has been super cool for me, because he’s like the king. Songwriting, guitar playing, singing…what can’t you do? [laughs] He’s also taught me how to be thankful, and how to remind yourself that you’re like everybody else. My parents—my mother too, she played with Sweethearts of the Rodeo—they all played a part in giving me this opportunity. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today with the knowledge I have and having a really good shot at having a successful career.
VG: The cool thing for me is watching her grow to the level she’s grown to. To be able to become a great harmony singer is hard to do. A lot of people think harmony singing is easy, but it’s so much harder than being the front man and just doing whatever you want to do. I’ve always been a nut for harmony that was blood, like the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers… people that were of the same DNA. Now I finally get to hear it with Jenny. My dad and I sung together a bit but I was eight years old; I didn’t know what blood harmony was. So for me, at this time in my life, I’m getting to finally hear that bloodline work together, and that’s inspiring to me. It’s a blast for me to get to sing with her. We’re going to do an old Everly Brothers song for a movie today in fact, “Wake Up Little Susie.” I’m looking forward to having my little Everly over there sing the high part.
MF: Vince, your album with The Time Jumpers was recently released. How does a project like that keep your creativity moving forward?
VG: I think a lot of musicians get bored with their own playing. The good ones do. You’re always striving to get better, and I think most people equate getting better with playing more. It’s really the opposite—getting better means playing less. That’s been the case for me. To find a way to say the most with the least is what I’m trying to accomplish. One of the reasons I love doing it is I get to just be a guitar player. I sing a couple songs in the set, but there are seven singers in the band. So I just get to play guitar all night, and not have to talk in between songs. I got to be who I always saw myself as, which is just a guitar player. I’ve always tried to surround myself with people who were better than me, who would make me continue to improve and try to get better. That’s the reason I wanted to do this gig. It kind of comes from a bebop/swing/jazz place…western swing does. It’s not a simple music. There’s a lot of orchestrations that we do, three-part harmony, things like that, and it was a little over my head. But even at 55 I was willing to say, “I can improve. I can learn a little bit more here and have a lot of fun.” On top of that, what made it fun was we’d just play down there Monday nights [Nashville’s Station Inn] for whatever came in the door. It was like when I was 14, 15, 16 and we’d play somewhere and say, “How much did we make?” and split the money up behind the amps. It’s still fun as a musician to finish, and it’s closing time and someone says, “Hey man, here’s 68 bucks.” And you’re like, “Wow, I’m gonna go to Waffle House, and get four eggs instead of just two!” I think life works in circles and you wind up finding great places in that circle to exist.
MF: What’s next for the both of you?
JG: We’re doing some recording here in the studio, and what’s great about it is I’m not trying to fit it into a certain genre. We’re just creating what pleases us and what sounds good to us. If it finds a home, great, if it doesn’t, that’s OK. It’s a project that I’m proud of. I do know that music is a part of who I am, and whether I find success as a songwriter, as a backup singer or front and center, any of those scenarios are good for me because I love all of it. I’m pretty sure dad was the same way. He just wanted to be in the band; just wanted to play guitar and sing. Whether he was the biggest star in country music or not, it didn’t matter to him. He’d still be doing what he’s doing today. He’d be playing music. All that other stuff never mattered, and that’s my plan too.
VG: Creatively, it’s an open book for whatever I want to do. I’m going to do a project with the steel guitar player Paul Franklin. He’s about the best musician I’ve heard in my entire life. We’re gonna do a record together that’s going to be steel guitar and Telecaster, and me singing some Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs. Kelly Clarkson wants me to play on her new record and sing a song with her. Willie Nelson has been a great mentor to me, especially watching him over the last 15 or 20 years. He’s probably done more in the latter part of his life than he did in the first 50 years of his life. That’s kinda my plan. I really want to make as many creative statements as I can, because I don’t know how long my fingers are going to be nimble, how long my voice will stay strong and my brain will stay agile. So I’m trying to get as much in as I can while I don’t have a walker. [laughs]
The Vince Gill Guitar Slinger TAB Book will help you replicate Vince’s awesome guitar chops and songs.