Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My pal Vince Gill talks about how much fun it is to make sweet music with lovely Amy Grant

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.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

A reflection of Christmas lights and birthdays with Little Jimmy Dickens, a giant of a human being

Little Jimmy Dickens is one of my favorite people, deservingly loved for his charm and personality. People sometimes forget he's one hell of an artist. But that's an aside. Saw him Saturday night at the Preds game and we all sang Happy Birthday to Little Jim. Anyway, in appreciation of a great man's 91 years -- his birthday is today -- I thought I'd resurrect a story I wrote for my friend, Susan Leathers, and her Brentwoood Home Page last Christmas. Remember,this story is a year old, so it doesn't reflect anything happening today. I haven't been out to see if Jimmy has his lights back. In any case, the story you are about to read is true.

Little Jimmy Dickens sits in his house on West Concord Road in Brentwood and chirps, softly, about the activity on his one-acre lot.
“I’m just kicking back and watching the birds,” says the Grand Ole Opry legend, adding quickly that something is missing from his yard this year.
For the first time in more than two decades, the homestead in Brentwood Hills is absent the elaborate light display that has raised children’s smiles and bedazzled holiday sightseers.
Closing in on his 90th birthday, he simply decided not to partake in the elaborate decorating this year. You see, he’s not one to hire yard decorators. This salt-of-the-earth soul always has done it himself.
“It’s such a struggle to put them up by myself. I just let it go this year,” says Dickens on a blustery Williamson County afternoon.
Then he pauses. “I miss it. A lot. I been doing it for so long.”
He explains that this year he and his wife, Mona, and their two daughters and their families – “I’ve got two granddaughters and a great-grandbaby, a girl. I’m surrounded by pretty girls” – are going to spend Christmas away from Brentwood.
“We have a chalet up on the mountain in Gatlinburg that we’re being given to use,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
While up there, they’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Christmas Eve marriage to Mona. “We’ll just be with everybody,” he says, of that celebration.
Because of the plans to Christmas in the mountains rather than home in Brentwood, the genial heart of the Opry figured he’d limit the decorating to a lonely wreath or two.
He doesn’t blame age, although he could, of course. He was a mere youth, perhaps not even 70, when he began turning his home place into a holiday showplace.
It sounds like even he has a hard time believing it when he says: “I’ll be 90 Dec. 19.”
That birthday, by the way, will be celebrated at home. But Dickens doesn’t know yet what’s in store for him.
“My wife is full of secrets. She don’t tell me much, but I’ll be in the middle of it,” he says, breaking into the laughter that has delighted Opry fans since he joined that historic broadcast family in 1948.
“Tater” – as his pal Hank Williams dubbed Dickens after the 4-foot-11 performer’s song “Take an Old Cold ’Tater (And Wait)” --reckons that since his birthday is on a Sunday, at least it will be one of his days off. He still works the Opry regularly, performing Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights as well as being available whenever the show needs him.
“They keep me busy,” he says. “But I don’t do any recording or any touring much anymore. Oh, I’ll do a few things with Bill Anderson and the casinos here and there.”
Other than that, he’s content with his work for the Opry. He also admits delight at the newest generation of fans hatched after he began appearing in videos and televised appearances with reigning CMA entertainer of the year Brad Paisley, who as a teenager opened for Dickens and who still regards the older, smaller man as a mentor.
“Brad’s been so very kind to me to use me in his videos and stuff. He’s just a prince,” says Dickens, who began his show biz career in 1938 on the radio in West Virginia.
For the next decade, he plied his musical trade for radio stations throughout the Midwest, where in addition to singing and picking “I was selling anything from baby chicks to trees.”
He found his permanent home in 1948, when “Mr. (Roy) Acuff brought me to the Opry.”
That King of Country Music died in 1992, but this firecracker of an entertainer continues to thrive.
When Dickens isn’t at the Opry, there’s a good chance he’s talking about it. “I do a lot of interviews and things like that. I enjoy talking to people. I appreciate their interest. I worry when they don’t call me.”
When he’s not engaged in Opry pursuits, he keeps busy taking care of the house and his acre yard in Brentwood Hills.
“There’s always something to do around here daily,” he says, of the chores he’s tended to in the four decades or so spent in “the third house built on this hill.”
As noted earlier, the wildlife rank pretty highly on his list of passions. “We feed a lot of birds,” he says, pointing out “at least a dozen” feeders within eyeshot.
“We have those little bitty wrens and whatever you call them. They’re beautiful. Got a lot of redbirds, too.”
He also tends to the pond filled with “big Japanese coy. They go to the bottom, though, this time of year.”
But on this cold and gray December day, he admits regrets about not putting the lights up this year.
“Oh it’s a lot of work. It takes me about a week to put them up,” says this lively nonagenarian.
He’s unlike many holiday decorating enthusiasts, in that he can’t quantify his work by rattling off the number of lights he has put up in years past.
“Golly, I have no idea. I just kept putting them up until I ran out.”
And there are some special reasons he laments not taking the effort to get his yard decorated and lighted up by the day after Thanksgiving, as has been his tradition.
“I like it when the kids in the neighborhood come by and look at them. And down at the Orphans Home, well, they bring the children by and see them lights. That was worth it.
“They would just bring them buses by. That’s the part I miss more than anything. The people in the neighborhood thanking me for putting them up and the kids enjoying them.
“That meant a lot to me.”
There is a long pause and a twinkle. “I think I’ll probably do them again next year.”