Catching Vince Gill on the phone for a few minutes in the middle of his long bus trip through Indiana, it sinks in: being an adored country music superstar isn’t always glamorous.
“There is a definite tradeoff,” Gill says with a chuckle.
Over his 40-plus years as a musician, Gill has done it all, from small gigs with his high school band to selling more than 26 million albums and accumulating more than 50 Top 40 country hits. Now he finds himself in the position of being considered an “elder statesman” in an industry that has never been known to treat performers from older generations all that kindly.
Gill, who performs Wednesday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, is nothing if not mindful of country music’s past.
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The last track on his latest album, “Down to My Last Bad Habit,” features a tribute to a fallen legend: “Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones).” He followed that record’s release with the moving “A World Without Haggard,” a song he wrote and performed during an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry for longtime friend Merle Haggard.
“I think, more than anything, it’s just important to know where your music has been historically,” he explains. “If you don’t, it’s kind of hard to know where it should go. It’s important for us to show the reverence to those who came before us, and to say, ‘Thank you for teaching us what you’ve taught us.’ There’s a new generation of country performer out there that are finding their voice right now, and I think it’s very important for things to evolve and change. . . . but there have been periods of time that country music has lacked that reverence for the older generations.”
Gill is one of the few older stars who has been a vocal supporter of the latest generation of country singers. While many make no bones about the fact that they don’t care for today’s pop-influenced country music, Gill – who invited such current stars as Cam and Little Big Town to appear on “Habit” – points out that the public’s perception of the genre’s past too often boils down to a selective memory.
Gill says the fair way to evaluate music is by comparing it with its own time period.
“Look at country music in the 1950s,” says Gill. “Everyone thinks it was so traditional, but it wasn’t. Eddy Arnold was doing pop songs, with very lush arrangements and crooning. It wasn’t fiddle and steel guitars and crying and whining; they were very cosmopolitan. Then a period came in the ’60s with Buck (Owens) and Merle, Ray Price and some of those guys, and it got real country. Then it evolved into something else. Sometimes time can make an artist seem more country than they ever really were. . . . Merle Haggard wasn’t exposed in his early days to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Queen and all that. . . . he was influenced by guys like Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills. Now, a kid that is trying to make it in country music today is going to have hip-hop influences, so many influences outside of country that are in his head from when he first discovered music.
“At the end of the day, this guy either sings good or he doesn’t. The song he’s singing is either good or it isn’t.”
Who: Vince Gill
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham