Inspired by Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, Vince Gill Shares His Truth on New Album 'Okie'

Vince Gill
John Shearer

Vince Gill

On Okie, Vince Gill’s first album since 2016’s Down to My Last Bad Habit, the Norman, Okla.-native takes some advice from one of his heroes, Merle Haggard, to heart.

“He told me to just tell the truth,” Gill says, who closes the album with “A World Without Haggard.”  “He says then you don't have to remember what you said and just tell the truth. That's the most important thing of all.”

The MCA Nashville set, out Aug. 23, includes some of the 62-year old Country Music Hall of Fame inductee’s most personal, reflective songs, including “Forever Changed,” which tackles sex abuse, and “When My Amy Prays” about religion. 

“All I tried to do was have these songs maybe be about subjects that were tough, but maybe tell these stories without judgment,” tells Billboard. “That's what feels the best, there's not a lot of judgment.”

Gill talked about making the album and how he balances his solo career, his role in the beloved 20-year old Nashville collective the Time Jumpers, and—since 2017— touring with the Eagles

Billboard: Tell me about “Forever Changed.”
Vince Gill: I had a gym teacher and basketball coach in seventh grade that tried to act inappropriately [toward] me. It felt wrong and nothing had happened per se other than him running his hand on my leg and whatnot. I said, “That don't feel right” and I jumped up and I ran…In a sense I was lucky but I have a little bit of perspective on how uncomfortable it was. These people are supposed to be protecting you and they're not. You see people treating other people badly in all kinds of ways, not just sexually. I think if we don't talk about some of this stuff it will all stay suppressed and never have a chance to do any healing for anybody.

On the other hand, several songs here are about people that had your best interests at heart, whether it be Guy Clark, your wife Amy Grant or your mom.
Absolutely. It's not all rough and tough. There's 12 songs and they're all different. I’m trying to write some neat songs to make people think, make people feel something ... I've never been afraid of being emotional in music. It's where I go for grief, for joy, and for melancholy and so [it] makes sense to write about them too.

The album includes “Nothin’ Like a Guy Clark Song”  What was his influence on you?
I met Guy when I was 19 and I'd already already done some of his songs in the band that I'd been in. I did a gig at the Troubadour — first gig I played in Los Angeles — and we opened for Guy.

I loved Guy's songs because they were always so picturesque.  [He wrote about] grandparents and pool halls and people who played dominoes and just sat around and shot the breeze and played pool for a nickel a rack. All those kinds of things and characters really spoke to me that Guy had in his songs...In truth, he wrote that song, I didn't write that song, [because] they're really inside references to Guy and a bunch of his songs and told in a way that not only honors him but gives somebody a pretty good insight to who Guy was.

“When My Amy Prays” is a song that no one else could have written but Vince Gill.
Not without getting a knuckle sandwich from Amy. [laughs].What prompted that song was I think most people assume that I'm married to Amy, that I had the same kind of life she did and [was] big in the church and it really wasn't the case with me. They perceive me to be kind of similar to Amy and I'm just not…I know the best way to live is to honor your bride and so the song's intended to do that but also tell the truth about me….That’s the one song I think I really cut loose and sang. The rest of this record is all kind of a singer/songwriter, not trying too hard to really sing big.

You've written about your father before in “The Key to Life.” Your mother takes precedence in “A Letter to My Mama.” What’s the story behind that song? 
I wrote that song with Dean Dillon a long time ago, 18 years ago probably, and never recorded it. Never felt the right record or the right time. My mom was the most solid one in the family so to speak and always consistent and friendly. She's pretty awesome. Still lives alone at 93 and pretty inspired woman and farm girl and all that stuff. She got to hear that song. It meant a lot to me.

You co-wrote “Black and White” with Charlie Worsham, a younger artist you’ve long championed.
To me he's undeniable. You hear him play, sing, watch him write, and you just shake your head and go, “Come on world, how can you miss this?” It'll happen. It's too good not to. I met him when he was nine…What I like about that song is it just poses the question— “Were we better off in black and white, back in [earlier times]?” They told the truth on the news at night. It's hard to find the truth on anything that's going on in our country. The thing I like  most about that song is the very last line gives you hope. It says being kind means more than being right. It says “I pray our best is still in sight.”

You're not necessarily making records for radio anymore. Is that liberating? 
I don't think I ever did. With a straight face, [I can say] I don't ever feel like I was forced to make a record in any other way than what I thought was right. I've really felt the freedom to be whatever I wanted to try to be…So the fact that I'm on the radio didn't change me and the fact that I'm not on the radio now doesn't change me. All I'm still trying to do is sing and play and write the best song I can possibly do. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

You have a song on the record called “Price of Regret.” What are your regrets?
Oh, all of them. I regret a lot of stuff, but you can't change it so you’ve got to forgive yourself and move on. There's some truth in being honest enough to know you screwed up, to know you made mistakes, to know “Maybe I'll do better next time.” It's like a kid trying to learn to hit a baseball: He's going to miss a lot more times than he hits it, but you just keep swinging.

There's Vince Gill the solo artist, Vince Gill in The Time Jumpers and Vince Gill who plays with the Eagles. How do you differentiate between the three?
I'm pretty confident in knowing that they're all the same dude. All it is is me being a musician. The reason I can go and walk in the rock & roll world and play guitar with Joe Walsh is because I'm a musician. Same reason I can play western swing like Bob Wills did, same reason I can make country records and sing like I sing is because I'm a musician. There is no difference in any of them. All I'm doing is doing what the job presents in front of me.