Vince Gill on Getting Better With Age and the X-Rated Alter Ego He Wishes He Could Unveil
Vince Gill is known for his pitch-perfect notes on beautiful love ballads like “Look At Us” and songs of anguish and heartbreak such as “Worlds Apart.” However, underneath those angelic tones is another little-known goal of the Country Music Hall Of Fame member: He would love to record an album that steered away from that image, a la The Statler Brothers' alter egos Lester "Roadhog" Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys.
“I’ve always wanted to record a bunch of really dirty songs under a fake name that showed my sense of humor,” the singer confides to Billboard. “You know, like Roger Miller with an X-rating,” he says with a laugh.
Gill fans, rest assured -- his new disc, Down To My Last Bad Habit (out Friday, Feb. 12) is not that album. Rather, the disc is quite possibly his most perfect project -- from a vocal and instrumental perspective -- that he has recorded in his career. The singer simply shrugs that compliment off, saying that it’s all about the music.
“Every singer is in tune now, with all the technology that they have,” he stresses. “And, that’s all good. But, at the end of the day, if there’s nothing in it that hearkens to the emotion or the feeling, it’s just a slick record. I just sing the way I sing, and play the way I play. All the notes matter to me. It’s important that everybody on the page had to say with what they sing and play. I’m no different in that I’m just playing guitar and singing the songs. It’s all just par for the course for me.”
Gill knows he could continue to play the same hits that he’s enjoyed since 1984 over and over again each night -- but he says he enjoys a blank canvas as much as anyone.
“It’s fun to have new music out. It’s always fun to write a new song, throw it up a flagpole and see if anyone likes it. I never grow tired of being creative or trying to write a better song, and trying to improve. That’s the whole exercise for me, I don’t think I’m going to top the charts all the time or anything like that. I might have a hit, and it would be fun to do that,” Gill says. “However, the real reason to be creative is to get better at your craft. That’s what’s inspiring to me. I’ll be 59 in a couple of months, and my ears tell me that I’m better than I’ve ever been. I play better, I sing better, and my songs are better."
And Gill feels so strongly about the music he's creating these days, he doesn't need external validation to confirm it. "Just because they’re not selling millions of records or topping the charts like they once did, that doesn’t mean they’re not a good," he says. "That’s not the case. As long I see the curve going the right way, it’s inspiring to make records and play music with people. That’s all I ever wanted to do. That’s what the process of recording and making records is all about.”
Down To My Last Bad Habit is full of guitar-driven tracks, and yes, a few songs of despair. His gripping performance of “I Can’t Do This,” which he penned with Catt Gravitt and Brennan Hunt, “could be one of my most compelling vocals ever,” Gill says. “For it to come now, at this point in my life is very inspiring to me. I feel that it comes from a place -- and I don’t mean this from one ounce of being morbid, but I know I don’t have as much time left as I have had to this point. So, you better sing and play like you will never get another chance. I think those things are behind some of this. I think that on purpose, I tried to push myself to sing even better and with more emotion. It’s really been inspiring to me that people have been hearing and noticing the difference.”
That feeling of a ticking life clock comes as Gill admits to watching several of his loved ones pass away in recent times -- including longtime band member and harmony singer Dawn Sears, who passed away in December 2014. “I watched sweet Dawn battling cancer, and as she got weaker week by week, it robbed her of her voice, and eventually she couldn’t sing anymore. But, the times she could, I would sit next to her, and it was killing me to hear the depth of the emotion she was singing with,” he explains. “I think that deep down, she knew that she wouldn’t be singing forever. None of us do, but she was able to potentially see the end, and knew that it could be coming.”
Gill compares the loss of Sears to the loss of his musical right arm. “It was the first time I spent touring without Dawn in 22 years. I tell people I lost my Don Rich and my Bonnie Owens all in one human being. She was a huge part of why I love what I do -- having her to lean on and sing with. She was such a rock. Some people sing at different places of the pitch. Some sing in the top tier, some in the bottom. But, she sang in the middle of it, and believe me, there is a difference," Gill explains. "The gift that she gave me was that confidence that she was going nowhere, that she had my back. If I wanted to slip around vocally. I could do what I wanted to do, knowing that she was going to be so solid. In a way, she allowed me to sing around her.”
At the same time, there is a "Circle of Life" feeling with the new music -- as Gill collaborates with several of country's brightest newcomers. “I think it’s smart to look to the future and who these people are that are inspiring to me. Charlie Worsham is inspiring to me, as are Cam and Little Big Town. It's inspiring to me that one of their fans might not know much about me, but through them, they might listen to the old guy," says Gill. "People did that for me when I was the kid, when I was young. They invited me on their records. None of it is any different. I’m a fan of music like anyone else. I’m a creator or it, but I’m also a fan. I feel compelled by what it is that those artists do.”
Gill will be taking his new grooves on the road this year, but one thing he won’t be doing is vocalizing about his political leanings, like Natalie Maines from The Dixie Chicks. He says he supports any artist’s right to espouse their leanings, but that’s not him. “A lot of people might not remember this, but I was one of just a few people in our industry who stuck up for her and the girls when all of that happened," says Gill. "Regardless of what you believe or which side of the fence you sit on, I think there’s a common decency that has gotten out of whack with that. I don’t think it’s my place. I like who I like, and I’m not going to go stump for somebody, or try to talk someone into believing what I believe or who I believe in. That’s a real personal thing. It’s not because I’m afraid of turning half the people off if I side with somebody, but it’s more from a place of respect for myself to keep my mouth shut.”