OK, so it's Christmastime. I guess it was three years ago I wrote this piece for the Nashville Symphony. They didn't use this version because I mention that Vince Gill enjoys sleeping with Amy Grant and other light-hearted things. I was proud of the version that was used, but figured you might like to read this one. By the way, I'll be back in full bloom soon.
“Earthy elegance” is how Amy Grant describes her husband’s cross-genre appeal.
Country icon George Jones says the man he nicknamed “Sweet Pea” has “the kind of voice for just any type of music,” whether sung in a high lonesome saloon or the grandest of symphony halls.
The guy in question, Vince Gill, says he’s just a “hillbilly” who respects his surroundings and audiences.
“I always try to play what’s appropriate,” he says. During his three nights at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, “I’m not going to do the crying-in-your-beer, cheating songs. I want to do what’s beautiful for the room, honor the room for its integrity and honesty.”
Some argue country music is best when played in a barroom. If so, for three nights, Turner Hall in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center will become the most acoustically pure honky-tonk in the business.
Grant points out her beloved is at home in the most-reckless joints as well as in the elegance of the Schermerhorn. “I’ll say this about Vince Gill: The one thing I’ve always loved about him is he’s such a combination of elegance and rough around the edges.
“His voice, the way he carries himself can be absolutely down-home. He could get along comfortably in the roughest barroom – that’s his roots – and he can put on a tux jacket and walk out with the symphony.”
She notes, though, that playing with a world-class symphony offers challenges not found in the smoke-filled roadhouses where Gill honed his pure-tenor voice and guitar-playing skills. For example, the music must be orchestrated and the singer must resist any whim to call out set list shifts. Plus there’s a certain pomp, or at least propriety, when playing to the tie, gown and Chardonnay crowd.
Gill admits the challenge, but mostly he simply relishes playing the venue he says will become “Nashville’s Carnegie Hall.”
While he is a heralded artist – 19 Grammys, 18 Country Music Association Awards and six Academy of Country Music Awards are just some of his hardware – he also is the music world’s “class clown.” As showcased during his dozen years as CMA Awards host, Gill’s self-effacing, roll-your-eyes charm allows him to tip-toe the line that defines good behavior.
Again, he tries to fit his tongue to the circumstances. Perhaps he tuned up – or toned down -- for his symphony stand during a three-week Christmas tour with his wife.
“It’s always a lot of pressure performing with Amy,” he says. “I mean, I’ll say just about anything between songs. But I’ve always got to be on my best behavior with Amy.”
Regardless, this funny man -- who jabs at himself for being “calorically challenged” -- says the “awesome” thing about touring with his wife is not just that he’s traveling with his best friend: “I get to sleep with the other act,” he deadpans.
That “other act” isn’t on the Schermerhorn bill (“But I’m in town and I’m available,” she teases), but her remarkable passion for the Nashville Symphony might apply a dose of musical performance anxiety to Gill.
Beginning in 1993, when the symphony was in dire fiscal straits and perhaps facing extinction, Grant began performing with them in a series of fund-raising concerts that helped retire the debt. Beginning in 1996, she and the symphony barnstormed the land with Christmas concerts, raising the orchestra’s profile.
The Nashville Symphony arose with flourish to become a world-class, Grammy-winning, Carnegie Hall-playing outfit beneath the baton of late Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn.
Instead of fading to black, the orchestra now performs at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a monument which meshes the best of the world’s great halls with modern technology.
Gill hardly takes performing in the Schermerhorn’s Laura Turner Hall for granted.
“I want to honor the room in its most glorious state,” he says.
Gill remains mindful of his surroundings and audiences wherever he plays.
This modern-day soul of the Grand Ole Opry inserts vitality into that institution by performing regularly there and by challenging younger country artists to take that venerable stage. He stays true to principles nurtured by Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. “I never play the electric guitar out there. I like the way acoustic music plays there. I play bluegrass. I try to honor the tradition of the place where I’m doing the music.”
One might argue the Schermerhorn is too young for traditions, but Gill uses his career’s fail-safe tool to scour the songbook for tunes suitable for the hear-a-pin-drop confines.
“I follow my ears,” he says. “My ears are my greatest asset. It’s not my hands. It’s not my voice. It’s my ability to hear.
“And if I can hear what’s appropriate to sing or play, that’s what I point toward.
“My ears haven’t let me down in a long time. I just trust them and try to do what they tell me is the right thing for me. And I still hear pretty good.”
His symphony choices are songs that “orchestrate well.”
“I hope I can keep it fairly organic and try to honor the symphony and honor the room.”
Don’t expect the electric guitar wizardry that long-ago earned him an invitation to join Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits (“Money for Nothing”).
He’ll keep it acoustic. “I’ll be trying to do the things that are beautiful, do ballads. There’s no
point in trying to rock the crowd.
“It’ll be more in the jazz or subtle blues world. I don’t see a lot of flash and dash.”
Expect the “Go Rest High On That Mountain” vocal purity that earned him legions of admirers, among them country icon Jones, whose own voice turned many a barroom ballad into a thing of beauty.
It is said that Jones, in his prime, possessed the best voice in the history of country music.
Jones, the man they call “Possum,” disagrees: “I think Vince has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. He’s the man and the singer that everyone would like to be like. He just overwhelms me.”
Jones, who worked package tours with Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Gill, adds “I don’t think there’s a nicer person in country music or any music.”
Jones says “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” and the like never belonged in a symphony hall. “I don’t have the type of voice that fits in, but Vince does.”
Gill has played the Schermerhorn before. And while he takes his job seriously, he is, after all the impish Vince Gill…. So to the genteel souls in the audience: Be forewarned ….
One night, while dazzling a Turner Hall crowd, he got it in his head that he really, really wanted
to sing a tongue-in-cheeker he’d recorded with The Notorious Cherry Bombs, a country super group that included, among others, pals Rodney Crowell and Tony Brown.
That song: “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.”
“I looked at Amy and I told her: ‘I’m sorry, dear, but I’m going to have to do this.’ ”
Christian-pop star Grant, who’d signed on for the better and the worse, didn’t stop him.
While he doesn’t rule out a repeat performance this month, he says it would have to occur during his solo segments. “I would have the good taste, at least, not to ask the symphony to play along on that one.”
Once again, his mind turns to the special environment. “I’ve been to Carnegie Hall. And I heard the symphony at the Schermerhorn the first night. I have not heard rooms that respond to the music the way the Schermerhorn did.
“The sound of the instruments, when played lightly, it was beautiful. When they bear down on the violins, you could hear the actual wood of the instrument.
“That’s a testament to how great the room sounds. It’s magical.”