Among country music demigods, Vince Gill occupies a unique and somewhat unsettled place. He is, first of all, a marketing conundrum, neither a venerable elder nor a young pinup. He’s also hard to pigeonhole, being not just a jack but a master of all trades. His soulful, honeyed voice positions him as the Michael McDonald of country music, at least until McDonald himself decides to cross that line. His deft writing is respected up and down the length of Music Row. His chops as a picker earn him entrée anywhere musicians gather to jam, whether it’s southern-fried rock or mountain bluegrass.
With all these goods in his grip, he stands at a crossroads. Behind him lie the 1990s, his years of greatest impact, when he won fourteen of his seventeen Grammys and released eleven of his twelve gold albums (and all his platinum and multi-platinum ones). Ahead of him are two paths: one climbs toward resurgence as a creative and relevant force, the other descends into a valley of serene but stagnant sainthood.
That first road is the one Gill has chosen, and These Days is his massive mission statement: It features 43 songs spread over four CDs, each with its own subtitle and focusing on a different musical style. Workin’ On A Big Chill is the party set, sizzling with electric guitar and snaky, dance-floor grooves. Some Things Never Get Old harks back to the pre-Garth era, before country music started confusing image with artistry. Little Brother unplugs and shifts its focus between intimate folk and brisk bluegrass. And The Reason Why resonates with the kinds of big, booming productions and heartbreak ballads that enabled Gill to pull off a project this ambitious in the first place.
Most of these performances are top-notch, and more than a few qualify as extraordinary. A lot of credit goes to the cast he is in a position to recruit. Nashville’s hottest session players lay the foundations, over which a procession of stellar guest vocalists parades; listing them is almost beside the point, except to note that Gill summons his assembly at a far younger age than that of Tony Bennett or Jerry Lee Lewis, to mention two recent subjects of superstar-cameo projects.
One difference between those records and Gill’s is that These Days consists entirely of new material. It feels that way too; the participants play with an infectious spontaneity, especially on the rockin’ stuff, while providing discipline on the ballads and other numbers that require clean articulation as well as compressed emotion. Gill is the source of this energy; there’s urgency in his writing, singing, and playing, whether expressed as aw-shucks humor on “Son Of A Ramblin’ Man”, robust sensuality on “The Rhythm Of The Pourin’ Rain”, righteous morality on the swampy “Molly Brown”, homespun faith in his duet with Amy Grant on “Tell Me One More Time about Jesus”, or in a dozen different ways elsewhere.
Only one flaw mars this picture, though even here Gill can be commended for trying something new. On “Faint Of Heart”, he joins Diana Krall in a smoky duet that’s more martini than moonshine — not a bad song, really, but the piano is boosted way too high in the mix, practically squashed into the faces of those who might have gathered near the stage in this swanky nightclub. Further, the leaden tread of the drums and bass feels all wrong. Chad Cromwell and Michael Rhodes tear it up on every other track they enhance throughout These Days, but here they fail to provide the airier accompaniment the song requires.
But one clinker is no reason to apologize, especially when measured against the collection’s best moments. Begin with “This New Heartache”, an almost perfect barroom lament, locked into precisely the right tempo and swaggering over a classic A-team, unison guitar-and-bass riff. Take it from there to a pair of ballads: “The Rock Of Your Love”, on which Bonnie Raitt, cutting her part and mailing it in from a hotel room in Amsterdam, seems to be singing just an inch away from Gill’s heart, and “What You Give Away”, on which Sheryl Crow’s backup is more minimal yet right on the money in reflecting the apocalyptic intensity of the melody and its message. Divinity whispers twice on “Some Things Never Get Old”, first in the impeccable presence of Emmylou Harris and then in a four-bar solo by steel guitar legend Ralph Emery that rises skyward like mist at sunrise. And if you’re looking for the line of the year, check out the coda Gill sings with John Anderson on “Take This Country Back”, a rowdy lament for the lost soul of the music they love: “When we all gather up in heaven, how’re we gonna face the Man in Black?”
The strongest moment, though, is “Little Brother”, in which Gill stands alone, just his voice and guitar, and delivers a breathlessly beautiful narrative with a restraint that conveys love, pain and wisdom more vividly than anything else here.
While that observation doesn’t tarnish the excellence of These Times, it does suggest Gill might have made an even stronger impression through more economic means. There are exquisite details, too many to number, but in the end one wonders what would have happened if everything had been stripped away, leaving Gill on his own, with just his passion and skill.
After all, that’s what he had to offer when he broke into this business. And as Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin have proven, that’s all that matters in the end. As These Times attests, in aiming toward that place, far away as it is, Gill clearly has taken the right road.