This didn’t start out as a set of four very different CDs.
There was no plan to record forty-three original songs and gather them into an unprecedented offering of diverse, accomplished artistry. When Vince Gill went into the studio with some trusted musical colleagues back in September 2005, he intended to assemble another in a long line of first-rate albums, mixing a little hard-core country, maybe a bluegrass number or two, perhaps a sacred tune. But—thanks in part to the Beatles—things turned out differently.
It’s not that he hadn’t thought before about undertaking a lengthy exploration of the various musical sides of his creative self. Indeed, with an adventurousness rivaling Willie Nelson’s, he had imagined releasing a bluegrass record, a country record, a contemporary record, and an instrumental record all in a row. But, for whatever reason, he had never won support for his idea, and such a series of different releases was not in the cards as this project got underway.
When Gill started in on the new album, however, something unusual and wonderful began to take shape. For starters, his prolific songwriting had given him a body of some forty new songs, from which he was to choose ten or eleven to record—a daunting task. Instead of trying to pick the winners on the front end, though, he simply went to work, determined to capture a song a day in the studio.
At this relatively relaxed pace, Vince and his musicians were free to work on arrangements, on sonic textures, on making changes that occurred to them in the democratic recording process that Gill—a musician himself, after all—encourages when he’s in charge. This method quickly yielded remarkable results—the songs sounded good, and the musicians enjoyed the experience.
“I had so many songs I wanted to record, and I really had no deadlines.” Gill recalls, “I just kept checking with the guys to see if they were available.”
Five weeks later, when Gill and his musical cohorts came up for air, he discovered they had cut thirty-one songs, which meant that he would have to cull two-thirds of his work to turn in a single album. This is where the Beatles come in. Working at Blackbird Studios, some paraphernalia on the wall caught Gill’s eye and reminded him that the Beatles had released multiple albums in a single year. That set him to thinking. The songs he had recorded fell pretty neatly into distinct styles: traditional country songs, ballads, and some up-tempo, contemporary stuff. Why not release one album every three or four months, over the course of a year.
Gill took the idea to Luke Lewis, Universal Music Group Nashville Co-Chairman, who supported his notion of multiple releases. Since Gill had an established fan base, more albums on the market would mean more sales in a year—and the music was good. Then, when the question loomed of which batch of songs to release first, Lewis came up with an even more radical strategy: record one more set of songs—Vince wanted to do an album exploring acoustic sounds and bluegrass—and release all four as a single package. Collectively, they would tell the story of the full depth and range of Gill’s creativity at this stage in his highly successful country music career. And that’s what happened.
Each disc in this set explores a different musical mood, which encourages sustained listening in the same way that satellite radio’s musically themed stations do. Each song on these discs has been carefully shaped and formed by Gill the songwriter, Gill the musician, Gill the singer, and Gill the producer (collaborating with engineer-producer Justin Niebank and musician-producer John Hobbs).
Gill cast the songs in the same way that a movie director would cast a film, looking for role players who would help tell the story best and give character to the finished product. Every player, every singer, every part had to ring true to his ears, to what he heard in his head. Even the backing vocalists—perhaps especially the backing vocalists, considering how often Gill has been that for other singers—had to mean something.
“I could go sing all those harmonies myself,” Gill says, “but then there’s only one heart, only one spirit, only one kind of thing on there. I think those textures, and the characters of Emmylou Harris’s voice and Sheryl Crow’s voice and Bekka Bramlett’s voice and Amy’s voice are what make them more interesting to listen to. I’m asking myself, ‘What voice do I hear on here?’”
In one sense, Eric Clapton inspired Gill to follow his creative impulses. In 2004, Clapton called to invite him to participate in Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, a one-time gathering of master guitarists in Dallas. When he phoned, Clapton told Gill he was only inviting people whose work he admired. Gill follows a similar approach here, making musical artistry his yardstick. “I’m not ever trying to fill up my records with famous people,” he says. “I try to fill ‘em up with the most talented people I can find on the face of the earth. I feel like every time you try to make something better than it could be, you’re doing your job.”
Gill has deftly matched his songs to the singers he asks to sing them. “The Rock of Your Love” is tailor-made for Bonnie Raitt, just as “Take This Country Back” is for John Anderson. Diana Krall loved “Faint of Heart” and was eager to record it. Phil Everly appreciated the Everly Brothers nod of “Sweet Little Corrina.” For Emmylou Harris, Vince inserted a “bluebird wine” reference (the title of a Rodney Crowell song that was the first track on her major label debut) into “Some Things Never Get Old.” The wistful “If I Can Make Mississippi” took on special meaning for Gill and Lee Ann Womack when they recorded it on the very day that Hurricane Katrina slammed that state’s Gulf Coast. And Vince says he has waited his whole life to hear the family harmony that he and daughter Jenny, now fully mature as a vocalist, got when they sang together on “A River Like You” and “Time To Carry On.”
The songs themselves range in subject matter from the sacred (“Tell Me One More Time About Jesus,” co-written with—and featuring—Mrs. Gill, Amy Grant) to the naughty (“Cowboy Up,” with Gretchen Wilson), to the dark (“Which Way Will You Go”) and daring (“Molly Brown”). In style, they’re as quiet as “Almost Home” (featuring Guy Clark), as lush as “What You Don’t Say” (with LeAnn Rimes, and strings arranged by David Campbell, Beck’s father) or “This Memory of You” (also with Campbell-arranged strings, and guest vocalist Trisha Yearwood), and as rowdy as “Smiling Song” (Michael McDonald) or “Don’t Pretend With Me” (one of a half-dozen recordings graced by steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons).
Finally, though, it comes down to this: never has a country artist so fully explored—or revealed—his creative soul in a single work. With These Days, Gill makes a major statement about who he is and where his musical journey has brought him. “I am as passionate today as I have ever been about playing music,” he says. The proof is in these four outstanding discs. “I believe I’m better now than I’ve ever been, and my wish is for everybody to come along on this journey and really get the opportunity to see what I’m doing. The crux of it, for me, is that the desire and dream have not waned one bit. I am still moved by music, and wish others to be as well.”