One of the reasons Chris Stapleton dropped out of Vanderbilt to pursue music full-time in 2001 was to mimic the career success of Vince Gill.
This − along with the Country Music Hall of Famer also holding the honor of being the first concert Luke Combs ever attended as a child (he called him “Vince Gillis” back then) − are two of many heartwarming tidbits that are gleaned from watching the Friday, Sept. 16 premiere edition of “CMT Giants: Vince Gill,” airing at 8 p.m. CT on the network.
Three decades have elapsed since the 1993 CMA Awards saw Gill take home Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, Song of the Year and Entertainer of the Year for his album “I Still Believe in You.”
The now 65-year-old Norman, Oklahoma, native’s career is as much a study of who he has become as who he almost became. In a nearly five-decade long career, Gill’s work has touched hearts and talents across the musical spectrum. From years spent in Kentucky with Ricky Skaggs’ Boone Creek Band, toying with the promise of ’80s rock superstardom in Los Angeles (he almost became a member of Dire Straits), and eventually merging the two into neo-traditional-meets-pop-country excellence for the past three decades in Nashville, it’s an incredible story.
Notably, too, Gill is possibly the most neighborly musical superstar of all time. Los Angeles-to-Music City residents Sheryl Crow and Keb Mo were both in attendance. They both know the most Grammy-awarded male country music artist as “Vinnie.” From hopping into a session as a background guitarist or vocalist, producer or songwriter, or − as was the case with Keb Mo − driving an artist home on his tour bus and giving them door-to-door service, including helping with their luggage − his legendary humility is boundless.
However, via a red carpet conversation with iconic country rocker Rodney Crowell, a sense that Gill is a rare artist for whom stardom rang on multiple occasions − but that he answered its call when its volume was the loudest − also becomes apparent.
In the late 1970s, Gill, his eventual record producers Tony Brown (present in his viewing box at Belmont University’s new Fisher Center for the Performing Arts for CMT Giants), Emory Gordy Jr., and Crowell would often play at the legendary Sweetwater Cafe in Redondo Beach, California. The quartet became Crowell’s backing band, the Cherry Bombs.
From there, Crowell mentioned a dizzying cross-genre set of names whose schedules regularly intersected with Gill’s time in Los Angeles, including the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson, Roseanne Cash, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Herbie Hancock, Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and J.D. Souther. Regularly, these eventual music industry titans were within a radius of Brian Ahearn’s influential Enactron Truck Studio (where names like Crowell, Dylan, John Prine, and The Band recorded albums) and Mulholland Drive in Beverly Hills.
These names show how Gill’s pop-friendly sensibilities that underpin hits like his 1990 breakthrough “When I Call Your Name” (sung by Cody Johnson for “CMT Giants”) developed.
These notes permeated and elevated the evening overall.
The honoree closed the evening with a new ballad, “I Gave You Everything I Had.” Gill’s work of late − this, alongside recent appearances as a member of the Eagles at Bridgestone Arena, four nights at the Ryman Auditorium, and recent stop-ins at the Grand Ole Opry − show his talent as timelessly unparalleled.
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Other performers for the CMT-broadcast include British pop-rock legend Sting, with whom Gill partnered for a November 2011 episode of the network’s “Crossroads” program at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom.
Notably as well were the evening’s numerous standing ovations. Gill himself stood and excitedly applauded the work of Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s version of his 1993 favorite “One More Last Chance,” Brad Paisley’s rocking guitar work on 1991-released show opener “Liza Jane,” and Chris Stapleton’s near show-stopping, soulful take on Gill’s 1992, top-five country radio single “Whenever You Come Around.” The ordinarily reticent Stapleton noted that he “jumped at” the chance to make a brief statement to honor Gill just before his live performance.
As well, the evening’s blockbuster, must-see moments were two-fold.
The first was provided by Gill’s good friend, background singer, frequent collaborator, and slowly emerging voice of the moment in Nashville, Wendy Moten. Her version of his 1992 hit “I Still Believe in You” showcased the value of her seasoned R&B chops in country music. She simmers a song to a boiling conclusion and lets the lovefest flow afterward − typically, as was in this case, via a standing ovation.
As well, fellow Oklahoman Carrie Underwood’s version of Gill’s 1995 classic”Go Rest High On That Mountain” evolved the bittersweet, bluegrass-leaning homage from a yearning anthem of remembrance to a more modern country-meets-gospel ballad. Underwood’s phrasing and multi-octave stylings made the transition seamless and well received.
A story from Gill’s daughter Jenny summarizes the evening, Gill’s humility, and how well his work and family balance has driven his overall success.
Roughly 25 years before being named a member of the Eagles, Gill was seven years removed from uprooting his career to Nashville and on the cusp of finally topping Billboard’s country music sales charts. Having achieved three consecutive top-10 singles, he was asked to play the Grand Ole Opry.
The Saturday night in question was the same night Jenny was set to debut at her elementary school talent show, singing “You Are My Sunshine” with her father as her backing guitarist.
When presented with the intersection, Gill postponed his debut until August 1991 − when his children were on summer vacation from school.
He offered a simple thought when asked what he wanted his fans to take away from his career.
“I don’t want you to be impressed by how well I sing; I want you to be moved by it.”