What It Takes is an audio podcast produced by the American Academy of Achievement featuring intimate, revealing conversations with influential leaders in the diverse fields of endeavor: public service, science and exploration, sports, technology, business, arts and humanities, and justice.
Songwriters are like painters. They paint pictures in their words and in their songs.
Vince Gill was born in Norman, Oklahoma, just south of Oklahoma City, where his family moved when he was four years old. His father, a lawyer and administrative law judge, was a lover of country music who played guitar and banjo with friends at parties and dances. Vince Gill began playing guitar as a very small child, progressing quickly from the four-string tenor guitar to a full-size six-string. His parents recognized and supported his passion for music, buying him a professional instrument — a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow electric guitar — when he was only ten years old. Vince Gill progressed rapidly in music, taking up the mandolin, banjo and fiddle while concentrating on the guitar. Forgoing formal instruction, he learned songs and licks off of records, absorbing everything from folk music and bluegrass to rock and jazz.
In his teens, Vince Gill played with a series of local bluegrass bands, performing in Oklahoma City bars with the local favorite Mountain Smoke. One night, they opened for the country rock band Pure Prairie League, a group that would play a substantial role in Gill’s future. His parents insisted he keep up his grades in high school, and he enjoyed outdoor sports, particularly golf, but there was no doubt that after graduation, he would pursue music full-time.
At age 18, Gill moved on his own to Louisville, Kentucky to join the band Bluegrass Alliance. After a few tours with the group, he joined the Boone Creek Band, led by mandolin virtuoso Ricky Skaggs. Although Gill’s tenure with the band was brief, Gill and Skaggs would work together often in the years ahead. Always on the lookout for more challenging musical collaborations, Gill moved to Los Angeles, joining a bluegrass group led by the esteemed session fiddler Byron Berline. He also began to do session work as a guitarist and harmony vocalist for other artists.
In 1979, only four years after leaving home, Vince Gill was hired as lead vocalist for Pure Prairie League. With his eclectic musical background, Gill moved easily from the acoustic bluegrass of his earlier bands to the electric country rock sound of his new group. Over the next two years, he toured the country with the band and recorded three albums. A single, “Let Me Love You Tonight,” made the Top 10 on the pop music charts. While playing with the band, Gill met singer Janis Oliver, of the country music duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Gill and Oliver were married in 1980. Their daughter, Jenny, was born in 1982.
Despite his success with Pure Prairie League, Gill jumped at the chance to join The Cherry Bombs, led by singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell. Gill loved Crowell’s traditional approach to country music and felt this was an opportunity for him to grow as a musician. In The Cherry Bombs, Gill first worked with two Nashville veterans, pianist Tony Brown and bass player Emory Gordy, Jr., who would both play a large role in his subsequent solo career. His work with Crowell led to a job as lead guitarist with Rosanne Cash.
Gill settled in Nashville, where there were many opportunities for him to work as a session guitarist and harmony vocalist, but he was eager to record as a solo artist. He signed a contract with RCA Records in 1983 and released three albums showcasing his talents as a singer and songwriter. The first, Turn Me Loose, was produced by his friend Emory Gordy. A single from this record, “Victim of Life’s Circumstance,” was his first song to reach the country music charts. His second album, The Things That Matter, had two Top 10 hits, a duet with Rosanne Cash, “If It Weren’t for Him,” and “Oklahoma Borderline.” His third album for RCA, The Way Back Home, included the song “Cinderella,” his first number to reach the Top 5 on the country charts.
By this time, other artists were beginning to record Vince Gill’s songs; he was in constant demand as a session musician, and was appearing with stars such as Emmylou Harris, who had introduced Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs to a national audience. He had won an enviable reputation in country music circles, but his albums enjoyed only moderate sales, and he was still largely unknown to the general public.
As his career in country music stalled, Gill received a surprising invitation from one of the world’s most popular rock bands. Mark Knopfler, of the British band Dire Straits, asked Gill to join the band as second guitarist, a tempting offer from one of the biggest international touring attractions of the era. The offer was also a considerable professional honor, as Knopfler himself was one of the most admired guitarists in rock. Gill was tempted, but he was not ready to give up on his struggle for recognition in country music. He resolved to continue pursuing his solo career, although he has remained friends with Knopfler and later played on a Dire Straits record as a guest guitarist.
Determined to make a change, Gill moved from RCA to MCA Records and began work on a new record, with his friend Tony Brown producing. The resulting album, When I Call Your Name, proved to be the career turning point Gill was looking for. The title song went to Number 2 on the country charts and won Gill the 1990 Grammy for Best Male Vocal Country Performance. The album was certified platinum for selling over a million copies and established Vince Gill as a bona fide country music star.
Gill’s second album with MCA, Pocket Full of Gold, also went platinum. Four singles from the album reached the Top 10, “Liza Jane,” “Look at Us,” “Take Your Memory With You” and the title song. His 1992 collection, I Still Believe in You, was his biggest yet, selling over four million copies. The album featured five hit singles, “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away,” “One More Last Chance,” “Tryin’ to Get Over You,” “No Future in the Past,” and the title song, which became Gill’s first Number 1 single and won two Grammy Awards for Gill as the song’s writer and as singer. Vince Gill had a second Number 1 single when he sang the duet “The Heart Won’t Lie” with Reba McEntire.
As a top star in country music, Gill was asked to host the 1992 Country Music Awards broadcast. With his quick humor, warm presence and obvious affection for his colleagues and their music, Gill was an immediate hit with television audiences. He hosted the show for 12 consecutive seasons, a record for hosting a television awards show.
In 1993, Vince Gill released his first Christmas album, Let There Be Peace on Earth. He followed this with When Love Finds You. This too sold more than four million copies and scored six hit singles: “What Cowgirls Do,” “Whenever You Come Around,” “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),” “You Better Think Twice,” and “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which won 1995 Grammy honors Best Song and Best Male Vocal Performance in the Country genre.
In addition to his solo work, Gill remained in constant demand as a duet partner, joining Dolly Parton in a remake of her signature song, “I Will Always Love You.” Gill also sang the duet “House of Love” with Amy Grant on her album of the same name. At the time, Grant was best known as a Christian music artist; her duet with Gill scored a hit on the pop charts. Although there was no immediate follow-up recording, Gill and Grant were to record more duets in the future.
Gill’s 1996 album, High Lonesome Sound, yielded a diverse selection of hit singles: “My Pretty Little Adriana,” Worlds Apart,” “You and You Alone,” “A Little More Love” and the title song. Released nearly a year apart, the singles “Worlds Apart” and “Pretty Little Adriana “ won consecutive Grammy awards for Gill’s vocal performance.
In spite of his sustained success, the late 1990s were difficult years for Vince Gill. His father died in 1997, and the following year, his marriage to singer Janis Oliver came to an end. As always, Gill found solace in music. His 1998 album, The Key, marked a return to a traditional country sound. It was the bestselling country album of the year, with the Grammy-winning hit, “If You Have Forever in Mind,” and a duet with Patty Loveless, “My Kind of Woman, My Kind of Man.” In 1999, he stepped outside the country mainstream once again, singing the duet “If You Ever Leave Me” with Barbra Streisand on her album A Love Like Ours.
Gill’s life took a positive turn in 2000 when he married singer Amy Grant. Their daughter, Corrina, was born the following year. A new stability in his home life prompted a renewal in his music as well. Gill celebrated his new happiness in the album Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, with the hit single “Feels Like Love.” In 2003, Gill produced the album Next Big Thing, functioning as his own producer for the first time. The title song won Gill another Grammy for his vocal performance. He revisited his roots as well, re-uniting with Rodney Crowell to record an album as The Notorious Cherry Bombs.
In 2006, Gill produced his most ambitious project to date. These Days was a four-disc set, with 43 original songs in styles ranging from acoustic folk and bluegrass to sophisticated contemporary pop, rock and jazz. An all-star team of guest artists joined with Gill on These Days, including Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Diana Krall, Trisha Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt, Gill’s wife Amy Grant, and his daughter Jenny Gill. The massive collection won widespread critical acclaim and received the year’s Grammy Award for Best Country Album of the Year.
In 2007, Vince Gill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has since served as President of the Board, instituting a series of benefit concerts to raise funds for the recognition and preservation of America’s musical heritage in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
In addition to his many honors for solo singing and songwriting, Gill has been recognized as a guitarist for his contributions to the instrumental recordings “Red Wing” and “Bob’s Breakdowns,” and for a 2001 supergroup rendition of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” In 2008, he shared another Grammy with a supergroup of country guitar pickers for their performance on the instrumental “Cluster Pluck.” Gill won 20 Grammy Awards between 1990 and 2008, the most awards ever given to a male artist in country music, but there were more honors yet to come.
In a single week of November 2014, Vince Gill received two awards for lifetime achievement from major music industry organizations: the Icon Award of the Broadcast Music Association (BMI) and the Country Music Association’s Irving Waugh Award of Excellence. Gill is only the fourth person to receive the latter award since its inception in 1983; the last musician to be so honored was Johnny Cash. In 2016, Vince Gill received his 21st Grammy Award for the song “Kid Sister.”
The following year he joined country rock legends The Eagles on their national tour, singing and playing many of the parts once performed by the late Glenn Frey. He spent the next year writing the songs for a new record celebrating his roots in Oklahoma. Released in the summer of 2019, the album was titled Okie. Once a derogatory epithet directed at the migrants who fled the state during the drought and dust storms of the 1930s, Gill sought to reclaim the word as a badge of pride, linked to values of faith and family embodied in the collection’s opening song, “A Letter to My Mama,” and in its last, inspired by his wife, “When Amy Prays.”
Since the release of his breakthrough album, When I Call Your Name, in 1990, Vince Gill has been a dominant figure in the world of country music, earning 20 Grammy Awards in only 18 years, for his singing and songwriting, and for his many collaborations with the elite of country music, bluegrass, rock and pop. He won his 21st Grammy in 2016, the all-time record for a country music artist.
His 2006 collection, These Days, is a four-disc, 43-song set showcasing his versatility in country, folk and contemporary styles. His sweet tenor voice has made him a favorite collaborator with the biggest names in American music. He has sung with everyone from Dolly Parton to Barbra Streisand, but his favorite duet partner is his wife, singer Amy Grant. His authoritative guitar picking has made him a sought-after guest artist with six-string heroes such as Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton.
He is celebrated in the country music world for his dedication to humanitarian causes, playing hundreds of benefit concerts, and sponsoring the Vince Gill Pro-Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament. In 2007, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and has become a pillar of the organization, dedicated to the recognition and preservation of America’s musical heritage.
Let’s just start at the beginning. Where were you born?
Vince Gill: I was born in the United States in Norman, Oklahoma, small college town just south of Oklahoma City. It’s a great town. And as a kid — I guess I was four — before I started school we moved up to Oklahoma City and I really grew up there, Oklahoma City.
Who were your parents?
Vince Gill: My father was a lawyer, Jay Stanley Gill. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for most of my life. Her name is Jerine, and she’s still alive. My father passed in ’97. Kind people, sweet people. They both were farm people. Grew up on a farm and had a great sense of the earth, in that they knew hard times. They knew what it was like to really work for everything that they had. So there was a great wisdom of common sense that prevailed in our household, and things you did better make sense or you’d suffer the wrath.
Who was the disciplinarian?
Vince Gill: Oh, they both were. They both got it done. My dad was real strict, very firm. But I’m grateful for it as a grown man. And I knew how far to go, and I knew when I screwed up I’d get in trouble, and I was okay with that. My father passed away in ’97. I’ve enjoyed telling people that he was a judge the last half of his life and a lawyer the first half. And he said, “Son, nobody likes a lawyer until they need one.”
My dad was quite a character. He was really strict, really fair. If I screwed up, I got in trouble right away. There was no messing around much. My father was pretty gruff. He was a lawyer by trade, but a redneck by birth. He’d go to work in a suit and tie, slick his hair back and put on glasses and stuff, and then he’d come home, put on overalls, no shirt and a ball cap. He was a very imposing man — six foot three and over 300 pounds. It was like having John Wayne, Patton and Clint Eastwood all rolled up into one guy. And he was very gruff, and he always smoked a cigarette like this, and he talked like this. He said, “Son, don’t make me come over there, ’cause I’ll give you something to cry about.” Screwed up, you got your butt kicked right away. You know, old school, old school, old school.
I would like to have seen my father’s reaction to somebody telling him that “time out” would be a good thing. “You want me to do what? You want me to set him in a corner for 30 minutes? I don’t think so. I’m just gonna kick his ass and that’ll be the end of it!” That was my life. Oh, man. But he told me that he had an idea for a song and he told it to me. And through the years, he was so great, and I didn’t realize it at the time. When you’re young you don’t know much. I didn’t anyway. Wrong room to say that in! But y’all are smokin’. I knew how to play a few chords on the guitar and sing high and that was about it. But you know, I went out there and took off at 18, and I had a dream of just playing music. And I didn’t care where I wound up. I loved to play more than anything. It wasn’t about the result. It wasn’t about how much money I could make or how famous I could get. I just wanted to play music. Through all the years that I struggled, my dad would often send me words of encouragement when I was really struggling, you know. Stuff like, “Hang in there, boy. You’re getting’ better. Your songs are getting better and I swear you’re gonna make it. Just keep after it.” That was the kind of stuff. And then, I started doin’ good and started having some hits and selling some records. Then he turned into my biggest critic. I remember the first year — I hosted the Country Music Awards for twelve years — and the first year I did it I was excited, had a lot of fun, did a good job, won a couple of awards. I stayed up all night to party and celebrate. My dad decided to call me with his review of the show at about 7:15 on his way into work. I answered the phone. I hadn’t been to bed for a couple of hours. I hear this, “Who in the hell do you think you are?” “What are you talking about?” “Let me tell you somethin’, pal. I watched you last night. You’re no Jay Leno.” It was his way of keeping me level.
Vince Gill: Well, I started playing — you know, I cannot consciously remember an age where I started playing. I know that I had a very small parlor guitar that had like a lampshade cord on it, and it was broken and probably didn’t have all of its strings. I don’t remember, but I’ve seen pictures of me when I was one or two, you know, just getting around, dragging that guitar around.So I know that I had always had one around to play on, beat on, and all that. And I played my father’s. He had two guitars, and I played them. And then he also got me, when I was very small, a tenor guitar, which only has the first four strings. So the neck is much smaller, not as wide as a six-string guitar.So I learned to play on a tenor guitar, and tuned it like the first four strings of a regular guitar. There’s a lot of different tunings for a tenor guitar, some are much different. But I tuned it like a regular guitar and started learning the rudimentary chords from my dad, and he showed me.But I was playing, you know, at show-and-tell stuff in grade school — second, third grade. And so I don’t have a conscious memory of when I started, but all I know is it’s all I’ve ever done, is beat on one of those things.
How did you begin playing the guitar?
I got my own guitar when I was 10 years old, and that was — I can still remember finding that gift under the tree. What an amazing, you know, I didn’t know it at the time but it was easily the most incredible Christmas gift I’d ever got, more than a football and more than any of that other kind of stuff. Because at that time, being a 10-year-old kid…
My folks scrimped and saved, and they actually took that old tenor guitar of mine and traded it in on this new electric Gibson guitar called an ES-335. And for me to have the opportunity to learn on a great instrument! I think, unfortunately, what happens to a lot of young kids that want to maybe learn to play, or have an interest in playing is — because they don’t want to invest in a good instrument — they get them something that’s not good enough, and nobody could play it no matter how great of a guitar player they are; the instrument wouldn’t be ever decent enough to really play. So at 10 years old, the fact that my folks got me something that grand and that great and so playable that it was inspiring, you know, even at 10 years old.And I still have that guitar today. And you know, as it turned out, it wound up being a guitar I would have sought as a grown, matured player, because of the type of instrument it is. You know, there are a lot of great guitar players that play the 335.And so I had no idea at the time, when I was 10, that it was a great instrument to have, but it sure was inspiring to have something that great to start to really learn on.
Was guitar the first instrument that you learned to play?
Vince Gill: Yeah, I played the guitar first. I was telling Joshua Bell, who comes to the Academy of Achievement — we’ve become friends this trip and we have a lot of mutual friends that play music. I was telling him that I started taking violin lessons and playing in the school orchestras and stuff when I was in grade school. And I said I got a mean teacher in the sixth grade and that was the end of the violin for me.
Were you a good student, or were there subjects in particular you were good at?
Vince Gill: I don’t think I was. I was never as smart as my sister. My sister always made better grades. She was a couple of years older than me. I was a fine student, but I wasn’t a hard worker. I wasn’t any trouble, I just went through the motions and loved my music and loved playing sports. I was a Beaver Cleaver kid. I was pretty normal.
Was there anything you read as a kid that inspired you?
Vince Gill: I don’t know that there’s anything that I read as a kid that was inspiring to me, musically. I like reading, I like reading books about history. I loved Civil War books, things like that. And I loved biographies of sports people that I admired. If there was a book on Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, or whoever the great baseball player of that era was, I would love to read stories about sports, because I played all the sports.
As I look back, I really feel that the records were my books, you know, and I would study the — it was back in the day when the albums were large. You could read the credits, you knew who played on things, you knew who wrote the songs, who sang on things. And I was one of those kids that loved all the information on a record. I spent years buying records of artists I’d never heard of, just because I knew the guitar player, or I knew somebody that played a certain instrument that, I said, “Well if this guy played on this record maybe there’s something good in there,” because I liked that musician.So I felt like those records told me stories in a way that related to me more, because of — my brain was stimulated by sounds more than sights, I think. I loved listening to records and trying to emulate what I was hearing. I’m self-taught and all by ear, and just by hearing it come through the speakers.I’d say, “How do they do that?” and just sit and practice and noodle and mess around until I made the same sounds.
So you never took singing lessons or music lessons?
Vince Gill: No. I took some guitar lessons in junior high school, but as I look back, I don’t think they were really informative. It was something to do, and he was a neat old guy, and I enjoyed him. But I just basically learned songs. I didn’t learn any theory. I wish I’d have stayed with the violin lessons, the piano lessons, to where I could have learned the theory of music on paper, so I could be able to read, you know, because I don’t read music. I can kind of go through there and remember the very rudimentary things of how the notes are, and what they are, but I couldn’t sight read and play what I was reading. So that’s all I know about that. I sound like Forrest Gump, don’t I?
Teachers aside, was there somebody who inspired you or opened up new possibilities to you?
Vince Gill: All of those musicians did. They were countless. I had my favorite records. I loved Chet Atkins, and I loved the Beatles, and I loved the people that I loved. But just that element of collaboration, of people gathering together and playing music. I saw it as a kid, didn’t realize it. You know, my mom played a little bit, she played a harmonica, and she played two or three songs and ran out of breath and she was done.
My dad played the banjo and the guitar, and he had some friends, and they had a little band that would occasionally go play at an outdoor thing. You know, not professionally, but always just for fun. And I always got to play along, and just being around musicians was to me the neatest thing. I had garage bands, you know, where you found two or three guys in school that played. “Hey, let’s start a band!” you know, and away we went. We’d go in the garage and bash away. I still work with a kid that I grew up with since seventh grade. We started playing music together when we got in junior high school and we’re still together. He works with me and travels on the road and takes care of all my guitars. So it’s remarkable to have your oldest friend out there, going through this experience with you. I called him when I had a couple of big hits and said, “Hey, do you want to go on this ride with me?” He was like, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” He was a musician too. And that to me was — the beauty of collaborating was what I was really drawn to. I never wanted to just be me by myself with music. I liked a lot of people playing it.
What did your parents think when you first told them you wanted to be a professional musician? Did you tell them? Did you know yourself?
Vince Gill: I think they knew early on that that was the only thing that was in store for me. I mean, I was a decent golfer. I played on the high school golf team, and I went through high school and I played out a lot.
My mom and dad were not real strict, in the fact that they would let me go play in bars, you know, while I was in high school in different bands.And they said, “You get to school and keep your grades up and don’t give us any reason to not let you.” So I tried to be respectful of all of that. So I had so many years under my belt, even when I was a freshman, junior, and all through high school, that I was out playing gigs and traveling around some with bands and to different parts of the States.I think they saw the writing on the wall, and they weren’t surprised when I didn’t really have a plan to go to college when I got out of high school. I wouldn’t advise that for anybody, it just worked for me. Somebody called me — I was 18 — and said, “Hey, do you want to come be in this band in Kentucky?” and I said sure.So I packed up everything and I moved there and started playing with that band for a while. That led to another band, and then I moved to California, and that led to another band. It’s just interesting. Everything that happened to me was a result of just going and trying to get better.
I’ve tried to always play with better musicians. That’s how I got discovered, I guess, if you want to use that word. But that camaraderie that you had. You know, one musician would say, “Hey, if you’re looking for this kind of player, this guy is really good.” And your reputation would then be with some of the people you were associating with and playing with. I didn’t have goals, I didn’t have dreams of stardom. I wasn’t saying I have to be famous.
I have the best time playing music. And my folks saw that. And so they never said, “When are you going to go get a real job?” because I had really put a lot of effort into it long before it was time to move on and go to college and think about something else. I think that’s another reason maybe a lot of young musicians fall by the wayside. They’re not willing to do what I did, which is go out there and play on street corners once in a while to make enough money to pay your rent and be willing to starve. You know, they only want that safety net. They want that cushion. And I never needed it. I don’t feel any different today at 52 than I did at 18. And what’s in the bank account has never changed one ounce of what I loved doing. I’d still be doing it at 52, if I was still playing those same beer joints.
I think that was the objective of my mother and father in a sense. I talk to my mom these days. She said, “I think my job as being your parent was to make you be a happy person.” And that to me is what parenting is. It’s not about how much money can you make. She said, “I feel like I’ve done a good job, because he’s getting to do what he loves and he’s happy doing it, and he doesn’t seem to care that he’s struggling to pay the rent most of the time. So why should I worry? He’s a happy boy.”
Setting out on your own, were you ever afraid of failure?
Vince Gill: No, I wasn’t. I didn’t know any better. There’s some beauty in that, you know. The best part was I didn’t need much. If you don’t have much, you don’t need much. That felt good to me.
To me, progress was not how much more money I could make, but how much better I could be. How am I as a guitar player, at this point, versus what I was three years ago? And then, who am I playing with? Am I playing with better musicians? Yes.So every step that I felt like I made was progress in my mind. It might not have been financially the same thing. There was one point when I was in my early 20s, I’d spent a few years playing with Pure Prairie League, and I had a few hit records and was on television shows and was the front man. I was the lead singer, and I quit to go be a side man with one of my favorite musicians and songwriter-singers, a guy named Rodney Crowell, to just be his guitar player, harmony singer. He said, “What are you doing? You were the guy in the front!” “Yeah, but this band’s better. These songs are better.” To me it was a move up. To most people it wouldn’t look like that, but I knew in my heart, and my ears told me this is a better thing.
It’s not always about the attention you get and the dollar bill and how many of them you get. Sometimes you make decisions that defy logic, I guess. But I made one, and years later I was invited by Mark Knopfler to join Dire Straits. And it was at a time where I was pretty broke, you know, I was really struggling. I had had a record deal for several years, but couldn’t turn that into hit records, and couldn’t turn that into a big career, and even though I was trying. And this would have been a very lucrative, very great move financially, and in a lot of ways. Musically it would have been a great move. But I said, “I can’t do it right now.“ I said, “I just changed record companies and I’ve invested a lot of my life in country music,” and I said, “I don’t want to bail on it, because I think I have something to offer it.” And you know, it was like, it was the golden egg being dangled in front of me, and I turned it down.And I was lucky, because then the next record I had was this massive hit, and it completely turned my life around. So I made a decision based on my heart, and it hasn’t let me down very often.