When Vince Gill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, he was honored as one of country music’s most gifted performers. Twenty Grammy awards for chart-topping hits, including “When I Call Your Name,” Look at Us” and “I Still Believe in You,” earned him a place among the most accomplished country artists of his generation.
But when he steps on stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center Sunday, Gill won’t be rolling out his country classics. Instead, he’ll bring a band schooled in the songs of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and other pioneers of bluegrass music. With bluegrass, Gill returns to his roots, to the music he played before his country career took off in the 1980s.
“It sounded like fun, and I don’t have to show up and sing my most recent hits,” Gill said when asked why he chose to do a bluegrass tour this time around. “I haven’t been quite as in vogue at country radio for quite some time, and that’s OK. I get to do what sounds fun to me these days, and it kind of sounded fun to me.”
As a high school student in Oklahoma, Gill, now 55, played in his first bluegrass band. Upon graduating in 1975, he moved to Louisville, Ky., a hotbed of the decade’s progressive bluegrass movement. He played with Bluegrass Alliance and Boone Creek, two legendary bands featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs at the beginning of their careers.
“J.D. Crowe lived there, and Ricky [Skaggs] lived there. And Sam Bush. Louisville had [some clubs] that all the bluegrass people would play. . . . The Holiday Inn or Ramada Inn would have bluegrass in their lounges. Everyone was coming through and playing. You could hear Monroe, Earl Scruggs.”
Banjoist Scruggs, the Shelby native who passed away in March, was one of Gill’s musical heroes. So was North Carolina guitar legend, Doc Watson, who died in May.
Like bluegrass fans everywhere, Gill laments the passing of two of acoustic music’s most influential pioneers. “They were two of my very favorites,” he says. “I wanted to flat-pick like Doc. He was the first guy who ever turned me on to flat-picking.”
When Gill left Louisville, he carried the progressive bluegrass torch to Los Angeles, where he joined fiddler Byron Berline’s Sundance. A three-year gig with country rock’s Pure Prairie League followed, and Gill moved to Nashville to begin his country career in 1983.
Gill says his move to California introduced him to a different community of musicians and a variety of musical styles that would expand his artistic horizons.
“That was probably the right thing to happen to me, because I got to discover all kinds of music out there,” he says. “When I was in Kentucky, it was pretty much bluegrass all the time. When I got out there [California] I could go hear someone like Larry Carlton play; just the diversity on the West Coast was unbelievable. That’s where I met Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, songwriters and great musicians.”
While Gill found his greatest success with country music, he never lost his passion for bluegrass. He was a close friend of Scruggs and his wife, Louise, and would often attend bluegrass picking parties at the Scruggs’ home outside Nashville.
“Louise always made me sing ‘Go Rest High on that Mountain,’ ” he recalls. “She loved that song. But I just love the camaraderie of bluegrass musicians. Guys you met in 1974 and you never forgot each other. You maintained friendships. That’s the remarkable thing, and the most appealing thing, about it. It’s that camaraderie and the way everybody treats each other. It’s very welcoming.”
Following the lead of Watson, Gill honed his chops as one of Nashville’s most accomplished guitarists. Few fans know that he is also proficient on banjo and upright bass. And in Durham, he’ll play mandolin alongside other pickers, including guitarist Jeff White and banjoist Jim Mills, a Durham resident and former member of Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder.
Gill looks back on his years in bluegrass as paving the way for his country success.
“I think what it taught me was – this is going to sound stupid – but how to play well with others. It’s really a democratic kind of music. When you play bluegrass, you need everybody to be on their game. You’ve got to play hard; you can’t let up, you can’t lay out. Everybody needs each other. Everybody gets a chance to shine, everyone gets a solo.
“It’s a democratic way to learn to play music with people. For me, it’s always been a great place from where I learned how to treat other people in all these other situations.”
Gill enjoyed his biggest country hits in the 1990s, and shot to the top as one of Nashville’s brightest and best. In addition to 18 Country Music Association trophies, Gill hosted the nationally televised awards show from 1992 through 2003.
While he has given way to a younger generation of country stars, Gill looks forward to the possibilities that lie ahead.
“I wouldn’t rule out a grassy record in my future,” he says. “I’m not tied to a record company anymore. I have about 20 ideas of what I want to do; I don’t know which one’s going to show up first. My plan is to just – I think Willie Nelson is a great example for me. What he’s done the last 10 or 15 years is probably 10 times more than he’d done the first 30 or 40. That’s my goal.”