Gill’s avid fans packed a special album-release performance at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in downtown Nashville’s Broadway entertainment district in February 2016.
On a cool, clear night in Montgomery, Alabama, Vince Gill is chuckling with anticipation over the first of several shows he’s co-headlining with Lyle Lovett. It’s their second Songs and Stories acoustic tour—an intimate, informal setting that allows each to sit back and admire the other as a fan and fellow traveler. In fact, it’s so informal that there’s never even a setlist.
“Man, we never even talk about what we’re gonna play before we go on,” Gill says excitedly. “We did some of these gigs last year and it was always, ‘You wanna start? I’ll start! You start!’ We took turns doing that and then teasing the other guy—‘so, you’re opening for me tonight.’ We just trade songs, you know? It’s fun with Lyle because he has such a tremendous wit. By the end of the night, we do more laughing than we do singing.”
It’s a great way to unwind, which, as it turns out, is a gift that comes naturally to Gill. His approach to playing and making music is about as easygoing as a sunny Saturday in his home city of Nashville. He’s outwardly humble, but inwardly focused, active, and creative. He draws strength and sustenance from family and friends, but he’s also restless in his pursuit of emotional honesty and authenticity in his songwriting—as well as his pursuit of new sounds, new songs, and old guitars. With a collection of acoustic and electric rarities that would make most museum curators seethe with envy, he is truly an aficionado of guitars. And if every guitar tells a story, then Vince Gill is arguably the modern bard of country music.
On Down to My Last Bad Habit, the latest in a string of albums tracked at his state-of-the-art home studio (called, simply, the House), Gill pulls out all the stops. From the summery ragtop boogie of “Me and My Girl” to the cheatin’-hearted schmaltz of “I Can’t Do This” to the classic whiskey-soaked sound of “Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones),” the country flavors are deep-fried, but so are the bluesy grinds like “Make You Feel Real Good” and the radio-ready hits like “Take Me Down,” with country rockers Little Big Town). Working with co-producer and confidante Justin Niebank, and with able backup throughout from fellow guitarists Richard Bennett, Tom Bukovac, Dann Huff, Dean Parks, and pedal-steel maestro Paul Franklin, Gill stretches out and finds his soulful center.
He credits a key part of that growth to his able-bodied rhythm section, which consists of longtime friend and bass legend Willie Weeks and newly recruited drummer Steve Jordan, known for his collaborations with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. “Willie has played with me for 25 years on a lot of records, and we’re great friends,” Gill says. “And with Steve, I got the opportunity to see and feel and hear first-hand what makes him so great. It’s not just a banging groove—there’s a depth to it. There’s something palpable. I can’t really say what it is, but I sure know how it made me feel and how it made me sing. This is one of the best singing records I’ve ever made, and I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, so it was powerful what these musicians bring to the table. That groove is so badass that you’d better find your way into it, or you’re gonna sound like a fool.”
Pictured on the cover of Bad Habit with a beautiful 1960 Gibson ES-335 sunburst (just acquired last year, so it wasn’t actually used on the sessions), Gill plugged into so many different guitar-amp setups that assistant engineer Matt Rausch kept a song-by-song notebook for posterity (see sidebar). A cache of vintage Les Pauls, Teles, Strats, J-45s, and Martin acoustics, along with Fender Champs, Little Walters, and other classic combos, all made the rounds, with each chosen for the color and character it would lend to the song.
“Every guitar that he has, Vince will tell you a story about it,” Niebank marvels. “One’s funny, one’s heartbreaking—I mean, it’s amazing. And that’s the great thing about him. As a guitarist and a singer, he’s so humble that he doesn’t want to show up anybody. He’s all about subtlety, but at the same time, live, he’ll blow up a little more. So in the studio, that’s what we wanted: to be organically tough groove-wise and to give him the opportunity to soar. Without showing off—just dig in and fire up your guitar. And he nailed it.”
Gill detailed his 6-string exploits on Down to My Last Bad Habit, his sources of inspiration, and his philosophy on what makes guitar playing timeless and poignant when we spoke.
This album really brings home the sense of someone looking back over his life and drawing love, strength and sustenance from those memories, whether they’re sweet or painful. It’s a really bluesy album.
I’ve always been drawn to a melancholy spirit, musically. It’s more interesting to me. It’s that simple. Townes Van Zandt’s most famous quote is, “There’s really only two kinds of music—the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” [Laughs.] And I don’t really do zip-a-dee-doo-dah. It’s just a matter of what I really like.
But I had a great time making this record, from a musician’s point of view. I think with all my records, I’ve always tried to come more from a musician’s heart than anything else. And there’s a lot of really great guitar work on this record by the other guys that set me up to shine. It’s Dean and Tom and Dann—the way that they play, it’s all a conversation. All this music is guys playing together, and you don’t notice anybody stepping on anybody very often at all on this record. Everybody’s listening to each other and playing off of each other, and that’s what makes it interesting to me.
Another angle of Gill during his album release party at Ernest Tubb's Record Store on lower Broadway in Nashville.
You worked on this album over the course of a couple of years, and meanwhile you were also busy recording with the Time Jumpers, Ashley Monroe, Paul Franklin, Sheryl Crow, and even Don Henley. How do you keep up the pace?
I’ve got so much left that I want to do, but it really helps to have the studio here at home. You get to go to work barefooted and not have to put on a collared shirt [laughs]. But it’s a really neat environment there, too. Amy [Grant, Gill’s wife] and I really love to let a bunch of musicians run around the house. It’s quite a gift, and just a creative place with a great spirit.
Was there one guitar in particular that you relied on to make the album, or did you mix it up on every song?
I played a little something different on every song. Les Pauls, Strats, Telecasters … I played a 335 on a couple of songs. I just played whatever was appropriate for what I was doing. I’m always looking for a new sound, something unique, and obviously I want to play what’s most appropriate to honor the song. Justin Niebank is a great musician himself and a world-class engineer, so we’re always getting a good sound and we make it better to up the ante. There’s a few things on here where I think I wound up with some sounds and played some things I’ve never played before, and that’s encouraging—to improve as a player, and not play your nine licks that you know, and the one sound that you might always gather.
I’m willing to experiment and I’m trying hard to be an economist when I play. I’m not a fan of lots of notes and flashy things like that. The “wow” factor is more in the subtlety of someone’s playing—the brevity of it, more than a lot of it.
Your daughter, Jenny, joins you on harmony vocals for “Reasons for the Tears I Cry,” which is a great song to open with. And speaking of brevity, you take a short solo that really showcases how you use your fingers. What would you say is the basis of your different picking techniques? Do they come from bluegrass or are they rooted in a few different styles?
Well, I think it’s all over the map. In that solo, it’s the way I’m bending the start of it. That’s what I really enjoy—bending notes in a way that the length of time you take to bend to the note is critical; the intonation, and when it gets to its apex, is critical. Some of it came from me figuring out how to make my fingers emulate a steel guitar, and the way those pedals work. A lot of people think I have a B-bender in my guitars, but I don’t.
When you hear someone like Derek Trucks, he’s a great example of someone who plays with the most exquisite intonation. It’s so precise and so amazing to hear, but he never ever even thinks about losing its real soul, you know? It’s inspiring, and I try to take the same approach. My ears are pretty good, so all those little nuances are in there to make me better, but also to drive me nuts [laughs]. So it’s a neat solo, but it’s a “part” solo more than “Okay, watch me riff now.” It’s a chance to make a musical statement that’s a little bit more concise, and not just playing some blues licks over changes, you know?