In Praise of Vince Gill

March, 1990. Vince Gill's genuflects at California country's high altar: North Hollywood's legendary Palomino Club, where Merle and Buck, Emmylou and Jones all did time from time-to-time. A sleazy, greazy kinda bar -- it's either played as homage to the heritage or for the low-ball guarantee to cover expenses and some West Coast hillbilly cred.

For Vince Gill, just off RCA -- then home of superstars Alabama, the Judds, KT Oslin and Sylvia, it was absolutely the latter. The former Pure Prairie Leaguer (the voice of their AC hit "Let Me Love You Tonight") and free agent Cherry Bomb (the band shared by Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Albert Lee) was a shoulda that hadn't. After all, he had the voice of an angel, played guitar like the devil, was pretty enough and seemed easygoing.

Once the old cigarette smoke and cheap booze was gone, Gill and his crew needed to mount a not-so-new Silver Eagle and ride north to Cal-country's crucible: Bakersfield. For the singer/songwriter, it was a moment when the future was fixin'-to-be-defined. In many ways, it was an all-or-nothing roll, and it was okay by the lanky Okie.

Signed by Tony Brown -- an alum of Elvis, Emmylou and the aforementioned Cherry Bombs -- to MCA Records, Gill had finally made the record he'd wanted. And as the white lines fell beneath the wheels, he played that record that was his heart, his soul, his hand on the rock.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was on that bus -- a lost acquaintance who fell into his life in the name of golf back when I was a kid and he was a Prairie Leaguer only to have my destiny changed in the name of rock criticism. "Almost Famous"? I lived it -- and if I was the boy writer, he was the inadvertent rock star/catalyst. Time had passed since my senior year of high school and his trajectory was more horizontal; I'd spent four years being the West Coast call for Rolling Stone, Creem, Musician and others. But I missed that hillbilly boy with the blues who could fire'em up and burn an ache to cinders.

So the tape played and the moments passed. We listened once, then again. It was a startling record: unburnished heartbreak sung in a sweet tenor haunted with lonely. It evoked the desperation of Merle Haggard, with a bit of Bob Wills' swing, plus the jocular spirit radio like. If it were a different world, I thought, it could work.

But the world was brutal. To reinforce that truth, the gig was a bowling alley lounge where the soggy carpet smelt of stale beer, the naugahyde of the bar stools was cracked and peeling, the juke box stopped at '79 and the formica on the tables was chipped like a cheap manicure.

Standing beneath a sign that read, "Tonite VINC GI L," the conversation was reinforced by the tableau's bleakness. "I love your writing, but nobody gets it… If they wanted that, it would've happened," I said wincing, guilty, the voice of hard truth. "Maybe that Reba duet (the two-step friendly 'Oklahoma Swing') will work…you know, use her momentum to break. But 'When I Call Your Name'? They hate sad stuff, especially sad stuff that's classic country music.

"And that 'Never Knew Lonely'? My god, they want shiny, happy -- not the depths of despair."

It's a long story… "When I Call Your Name" topping the country charts. But one of Nashville's finest moments. And it created the dichotomy that defines Vince Gill's legacy.

Vince Gill is a good guy, with a rapier wit, no need to suffer in the open or flex his artistry, so it's easy to make him Kenny Rogers. Mr. Middle America with an awards show gig, a set of golf clubs, a willingness to help out and a gift so profound, it's effortless. How good can he be?

After all, we like our redneck romeos wild-eyed, swaggering and spitting and looking for trouble. Vince Gill's too tame, too well-spoken the naysayers argue. But that negates the utter naturalness of his affinity for traditional forms. When the Hargus "Pig" Robbins cocktail piano slinks through the ever-after come-on "If You Ever Have Forever In Mind," it's testimony to a lost time when country came out of bars with broken hearts and shattered promises…

Ditto the cheaters' waltz "Pocket Full of Gold" that was remorse and recrimination bathed in pedal steel and burnished with high lonesome harmonies. Or the searing "Go Rest High (On That Mountain)" intertwining his battered valentine high tenor with Patty Loveless' raw holler grit and Ricky Skaggs' bluegrass whine that's as mournful an Appalachian elegy as the Carters, the Louvins or the Stanleys ever mustered.

Even at his most pop -- the sleek "Whenever You Come Around" or the good-natured purgatory-(maybe) -raisin' romp "One More Last Chance" -- there's still the truth of the moment that demands witness. Real life is like that. It ain't fancy and it isn't always profound.

Gill -- who plays Gund Arena with wife Amy Grant as part of their Christmas tour, another move neither Hank Williams Sr. or Jr would make the naysayers can grumble -- understands that. He's so not so full of himself he's going to miss the simple joys that make surviving the valleys or climbing the mountain worth it.

Indeed, he don't much care what the critics think. Which is a shame. Because when conventional wisdom misses albums like The Key or High Lonesome Sound, it deprives country's legacy not more watered down pop-lite country crooners, but a writer/artist who enriches the genre with a deep sense of what matters about a musical form that's suffering an identity crisis.

Vince Gill is the real deal, a country singer from the inside out. He weeps with the best rather than embracing two dimensional emotions that're pure Hallmark rather than landmark. He offers fans songs to define what they may not have the vocabulary or introspection to explain.

-- Holly Gleason