To the casual observer of country music, it may have appeared that Vince Gill emerged from nowhere in 1990, with his first breakthrough hit with "When I Call Your Name," which won the Nashville-based Country Music Association’s "Song of the Year" award. But the reality is Gill has been on the scene since the mid-1970s, after graduating from high school in his native Oklahoma City. He will performs Tuesday, October 18, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
Through the course of 15 Grammy Awards and 18 awards from the Country Music Association in ensuing years, Gill has developed a reputation for being good to his fans. He has shared his success on the country music charts with dozens of charities. An avid golfer, he runs an annual tournament to raise funds for junior golf in the Nashville area.
"After high school, I took off and headed straight for the beer joints," Gill explains in a phone interview one recent morning before entering the recording studio to work on his forthcoming album. "I didn’t think anybody could teach me much of anything about hillbilly music in college. When I was 18, just out of high school, I moved to Kentucky for a year. I played a lot bluegrass music and I played with some of the best – I was in bluegrass bands with Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglass and others – and I stumbled into a gig with the Pure Prairie League. All of a sudden, at 21, I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band and having the time of my life."
The Pure Prairie League was a band that blended country, pop, and bluegrass with traditional folk tunes. "Amy," and "Let Me Love You Tonight," two of the band’s best-known tunes, were very much in the style of the Eagles and Poco, two late 1970s rock and country-rock bands. Gill’s knowledge of bluegrass, country, and folk guitar stylings gave the band an edge with fans of country music, so while they were basically a rock ‘n’ roll band, they had enough of a country sound to appeal to fans of both genres.
Gill says he first became interested in golf as a 10-year-old but he quickly dispels folklore about qualifying for the PGA Tour. "I never even tried to qualify for the PGA Tour. I think how that got started was I was asked by a journalist what I might be doing if I wasn’t doing country music. After years of working at it, I’ve become a low handicapper but now, after all these years, I’m a scratch player. Maybe if I worked really, really hard at it now, I could make the Senior Tour."
He grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. His father was a lawyer and his mother was a housewife. He has a younger sister and an older brother who died. "My father played banjo but he also played golf. I took up all the sports as a kid, but golf was the one thing I did pretty well. I’ve stuck with it all these years, been playing it more than 40 years. But music was the thing I learned at a really early age and all my life, I’ve really been driven to practice," he says.
His parents weren’t hurt by his decision to skip college, he says, because they saw how focused he was on making his living as a musician. "As a 17-year-old kid it was hard to get into the joints but I was in a local band, and we played jug band music, blues, and bluegrass, and my folks just trusted me. They knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t going to do anything stupid."
In the early 1990s, after he’d had considerable success in the country music world, Gill married country singer Amy Grant, who performs with her band at the State Theater on October 23.
Grant also plays golf. Both had children from previous marriages, he says. The couple live outside of Nashville, where with five kids between them, "we don’t get to play much golf together but I can assure you, we get a lot of help with the kids." Grant has recently started hosting a television program, "Three Wishes," which airs on Friday nights on NBC.
Asked about the relationship between country music and blues, Gill says both genres come from the same place. Blues evolved from the African-American culture but country music was little more than the white man’s blues, he says. "I’ve always believed that country music was born out of the blues because both forms come from poverty-stricken people sitting around with banjos and guitars, singing about hard times. As a kid I distinctly remember, once I was old enough to buy records, I was buying blues and country records. My older brother was a big blues hound, so I had a lot of great country music and blues to listen to as a kid."
Asked about his approach to songwriting, Gill says: "If you look at my records, over the years, you’ll see it’s a bit of everything, some co-writes and some that are completely my own tunes. I don’t keep a journal. I don’t write songs every day, because with five kids between us, I can’t quite get that accomplished. So these days, I focus on writing new songs when it’s time to make a new record."
Gill’s most recent release is 2003’s "Next Big Thing." Although you can’t hear it on that CD, among the musical influences he cites are Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. But Gill also credits a long list of traditional country and bluegrass artists with helping to shape his style, including musicians like Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins, Patsy Cline, Don Rich, and Buck Owens.
Since emerging as a solo act in 1983, Gill has earned his position as one of country music’s biggest superstars and is one of the most recognizable faces in the country music business today. At the State Theater Gill will be accompanied by John Hobbs, keyboards; Pete Wasner, keyboards; Dawn Sears, back-up vocals; Jeff White, guitar and vocals; Billy Thomas, drums; Michael Rhodes, bass; and Tom Britt, guitar and steel guitar.
And yes, he brings his golf clubs on the tour bus, following a long standing tradition in the country music, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz worlds. Willie Nelson is an avid golfer but so are people like Neil Young, Alice Cooper, Tico Torres, Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi, and literally dozens of entertainers.
"I’m nuts about golf," he says. Gill has a network of country music fans who share his passion for golf. When his tour bus comes to town, they get him on some very nice, often exclusive golf courses. "In essence, I’ve made something of a career out of trading concert tickets for the chance to play good golf courses, everywhere I go."
Vince Gill, Tuesday, October 18, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Jon Randall opening. $35 to $65. 732-247-7200.