Arguably one of the most successful country music artists of the late 20th century and beyond, singer-songwriter Vince Gill reaped 19 Grammys in the course of a career that led him from bluegrass to the top of the Nashville scene. A rare artist who could garner mainstream appeal while retaining critical acclaim as both a songwriter and a guitar player, Gill broke into the business in the late 1970s as the singer of the country-rock act Pure Prairie League, but soon established himself as a promising solo act. By the late 1980s, he was dominating the charts with warm, well-crafted singles like "When I Call Your Name" and "I Still Believe in You," and would continue to remain one of country's most acclaimed performers for the next decade. Though he could have coasted on his body of hits for the remainder of his career, Gill continually challenged his image with bluegrass albums and the impressive four-album set These Days (2005), which devoted a full side to each of his inspirations. As both a top-selling artist and a restless talent with a desire to produce the best music for his audience, Vince Gill was among the industry's most accomplished figures.
Born Vincent Grant Gill on April 12, 1957 in Norman, OK, he was the son of J. Stanley Gill, a lawyer who also played banjo and guitar in a country band. Gill's father encouraged him to take up those instruments as well, and by his teenaged years, he had also mastered fiddle, dobro, mandolin and bass. While still in high school, he built a strong local following as a member of the bluegrass group Mountain Smoke. After graduation, Gill moved to Louisville, KY, where he played in a number of bluegrass bands, including Ricky Skaggs' Boone Creek, before relocating to Los Angeles to join fiddler Byron Berline's group, Sundance. In 1979, he auditioned for Pure Prairie League, best known for their timeless 1974 hit "Amie," for whom he had opened years before while in Mountain Smoke. Gill became the group's lead singer, eventually recording three albums and their sole Top 10 hit, "Let Me Love You Tonight," before leaving the act in 1981 to join Rodney Crowell's backing band, The Cherry Bombs, which also featured Emory Gordy, Jr. and Tony Brown, both of whom would produce his solo albums.
In 1983, Gill landed a recording contract with RCA. He moved with his wife, singer Janis Oliver of the country duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and their daughter, Jennifer, to Nashville, TN, where he recorded his debut album, Turn Me Loose (1984). Produced by Gordy, Jr., it yielded three singles that reached the tail end of the Top 40 on the Billboard country singles chart, including "Victim of Life's Circumstances." Its follow-up, The Things That Matter (1985), was his breakthrough release, with "If it Weren't for Him," a duet with Roseanne Cash, and "Oklahoma Borderline," both breaching the Top 10 on the country singles chart. The album's success made Gill an in-demand songwriter and studio musician for other artists, most notably Emmylou Harris.
Gill's ascent to the top of the country music heap came with his move to MCA in 1989. His fifth album, When I Call Your Name (1989), reached the Top 20 on the Billboard country album chart, and produced a No. 2 hit with "Oklahoma Swing," a duet with Reba McEntire. Gill claimed his first Grammy and Country Music Association Awards with the song, which was quickly followed by "Never Knew Lonely," a No. 3 hit that helped to boost the album to platinum sales. By this point, Gill's career was in such an upswing that he was able to decline an offer to join rock group Dire Straits by leader Mark Knopfler, who was an avowed fan of his songwriting and guitar playing.
Gill continued to mine chart-topping hits throughout the early 1990s, including his second platinum album, 1991's Pocket Full of Gold, and first No. 1 singles with "I Still Believe in You," from the 1992 quadruple-platinum album of the same name, and its follow-up, "Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away." This period also began a remarkable string of yearly wins at both the Grammy Awards and Country Music Association Awards; Gill claimed Male Vocalist and/or Song of the Year from the CMAs from 1991 through 1995 while also netting Grammys for Best Country Vocal Performance, Best Country Song, and others, starting in 1991 through 1999. He also began his tenure as host of the CMAs, which he would hold for the next 12 years.
After releasing the 1993 Christmas album Let There Be Peace On Earth, he scored his first album to break the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart with When Love Finds You (1994). Another four million albums were sold on the strength of its five Top 5 country hits, including the title track and "Whenever You Come Around." His popularity as a vocal partner for other artists continued to thrive, most notably with gospel/country singer Amy Grant on the 1994 single, "House of Love." Rumors would later abound in country music circles about the nature of their relationship, which had reportedly become personal as well as professional
Rather than follow the predictable route of staying the course laid out by his early albums, Gill struck out on an adventurous note with High Lonesome Sound (1996), which brought him back to his bluegrass roots. Though reviews were mixed, it delivered several more Top 5 hits. Though the 1990s were a period of incredible success for Gill, his marriage to Janis Oliver had begun to falter, and the couple was divorced in 1998. The dissolution of their lengthy union, as well as the death of his father served as the subjects of his album The Key, which became his first LP to land at the top of the Billboard country album charts. His continued crossover appeal was underscored a year later with "If You Ever Leave Me," a surprising duet with music legend Barbra Streisand.
Gill married Amy Grant in 2000, which preceded the birth of their daughter, Corrina, in 2001. His first album of the new millennium, Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, was also his first to draw a substantial number of negative reviews from industry critics, many of whom found its focus on his new relationship rendering his songwriting overly sentimental. Perhaps feeling something of a sting, Gill took the reins on his next record, 2003's Next Big Thing, which broke the Top 20 on the Billboard 200 and spawned two Top 40 singles, as well as his first Grammy for his own work since 1998. Gill had partnered with a number of supergroup acts during this period, including a cover of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" featuring country banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, veteran session players Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell, and comedian Steve Martin. It took home a 2001 Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance, and preceded a reunion with Rodney Crowell and Tony Brown as The Notorious Cherry Bombs in 2004. The following year, Gill was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2006, Gill released his most ambitious musical project then to date, the four-CD set These Days, which explored his various influences and styles, from bluegrass to up-tempo ballads. A vast array of guest stars, including Grant, his daughter Jenny, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt, helped to win the set the 2008 Grammy for Best Country Album. In 2007, Gill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but refused to rest on his laurels. After a five-year absence, the 2011 record Guitar Slinger returned him to the Top 5 in the country albums chart, with a Grammy nomination going to its lead single, "Threaten Me With Heaven."
By Paul Gaita