When country music legend Vince Gill was first starting out, his ambitions were fixated on musicianship, not stardom.
“As a young musician, I don’t remember setting goals,” Gill told the Lake County News-Sun. “I just wanted to get better, be a better player and a better singer and songwriter, regardless of the success when it came or if it came. It didn’t matter to me.”
Gill performs April 23 at the Embassy Theatre.
Some might suggest that Gill has enjoyed a dream career, but Gill said his life is no less characterized by peaks and valleys than anyone else’s life is.
“I don’t know,” he told the Ventura County Star. “I think you wind up confronted with the moment: ‘I’ve got a choice to make right here — what’s it gonna be?’ Sometimes they turn out good and sometimes they turn out bad, but you learn from each one of them.
“Am I happy? Yeah, at times,” Gill said. “Everybody’s happy at times, everybody’s sad at times. Life just keeps continuing to teach you and humble you and do a lot of things to you. It’s funny to go back and see and hear old things you might have done and think, ‘Geez, who’s that idiot?'”
Born in Norman, Oklahoma, Gill went on to become a much sought-after Los Angeles sideman and backing vocalist in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He probably isn’t touted enough for his guitar skills, which earned him an invitation from one of rock’s great guitarists, Mark Knopfler, to join Dire Straits (Gill declined).
Gill told cmt.com that he had no aspirations in his late teens beyond becoming a session musician.
“I was given enough talent to be able to do that and did a lot of that,” he said. “It’s how I paid the bills. I loved doing it. I love being part of the supporting cast because it’s harder. It’s a more difficult role to fill than being the leader and doing everything you want and asking everybody to follow you. That, to me, is a better testament of my talent than me as the artist. So I never quit doing that. I never lost sight of who I was.”
Gill scored a hit as the lead vocalist of the country-rock group Pure Prairie League (“Let Me Love You Tonight”) and he supported Rodney Crowell on tour before going solo in 1983.
He has since charted more than 40 Billboard singles and amassed 20 Grammy Awards.
Like many an aging country artist, Gill is mostly ignored by country radio and he sees this as inevitable rather than tragic.
“Everybody has a run, and [radio stations] even quit playing Elvis at some point,” he said. “It was really crazy in the 90s. Now records don’t sell like they used to.”
Because he has always defined success in creative rather than ostentatious terms, Gill said his career is still on an upward trajectory.
“Whether I make a record today and nobody buys it and it doesn’t get airplay, it doesn’t change any of the notes of that music,” he said. “So I’m good. I’m in a great place.”
When Gill listens to his old music, he becomes his sharpest critic. But it makes him happier with where he is now.
“I go back and hear those early records and think, ‘They’re not very good; the songs aren’t very good,'” he said. “You’re the best you can be at the time. The whole journey has been inspiring because I’ve gotten better. I haven’t gotten to the age where I’ve lost the ability to sing. That’s bound to happen, but you should be able to get better at this. But we all seem to only equate the value in the successes and I never looked at it that way. Even in the failures I thought, ‘I sang that the best I could. That’s the best song I had at that time in my life.'”
Gill said he tends to write sad songs because his life, with wife Amy Grant, is the opposite of sad.
“Happy, zippy music doesn’t do much for me,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I think there’s more angst and emotion in the painful side of music. Because my life is so kind and sweet and normal, I like to go to music for all that other stuff. The sadder, the better.”
More important to Gill than continued hit making is the knowledge that success didn’t turn him into a jerk.
“I look back and think, ‘When you were the hottest you ever were, you weren’t an a-hole and it didn’t change you,'” he said. “‘And when you failed, you weren’t bitter and you weren’t an a-hole then.'”