This review is a contribution from Shannon Turner, who we hope will be a regular contributor. The photos were taken by Daniel Mullins.
Vince Gill is what we often call a “triple threat” in the industry, one of those blessed souls gifted with the muses of singing, songwriting and jaw-dropping musicianship. He has spent 35 years spreading those talents across a number of genres, including the pop of the ‘70’s, the country of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and even a little rock here and there.
But as a young kid back in Oklahoma, the bluegrass band Vince cut his teeth with occasionally had the thrill of backing the great Chubby Wise when he came through town, which cemented the love he already had growing for the music. Calling Wise “the sweetest man, always had a smile on his face,” Vince told us a couple of weeks ago when we spoke with him that Chubby often used the young band when they played local festivals back in the early ‘70’s.
With that kind of training and encouragement, it’s no wonder that bluegrass stayed close to Vince’s heart, even as he earned international success in country music. He never abandoned bluegrass entirely, however, often recording bluegrass numbers to include on his country albums, making appearances with bluegrass artists, showing up at bluegrass events, and generally continuing to sing the genre’s praises. This summer, Vince again decided to scratch his bluegrass itch by putting a band together and taking the music on the road, making a short 12-city run that began on June 13 in Richmond and will close on the 30th in Wabash, Indiana. Last night, June 21, the tour stopped at the very hall that gave bluegrass life, the hallowed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, for the first show in the theater’s annual summer Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman series.
Gill and Company were relaxed and feeling good before the night’s performance, and could be found backstage chatting good-naturedly with visitors and telling jokes. At one point, Vince was picking around on a gorgeous black Gibson L-5 guitar, the same model that Mother Maybelle Carter used to play. Since he played mandolin for the bulk of the performance, however, the guitar didn’t make it to the stage. The jokes and stories did, though; from the start, Gill charmed and regaled the crowd with tales of everything from getting older (although he’s a mere 55) and qualifying for the “senior” selections on hotel room service menus, to memories of his late father’s parenting style (“I just wish my dad would have been around to hear about giving your kid ‘time out!’”).
When it came to playing the music, though, it was time for some serious skill and heart. Joining Vince in the band were Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jim Mills on banjo, Dennis Crouch on bass and Jeff White on guitar. Of this particular lineup and playing bluegrass in general, Vince told us that “[Bluegrass] is music that’s real conducive to everybody getting a chance to play. It’s a real democratic, in the purest form, way of doing things. You support the other ones, you get your turn, and you sing together, you sing with each other, and it’s great.”
The democracy of bluegrass picking was demonstrated in full force throughout the show. Jeff White proved he could match and even surpass Vince’s high tones on then tenor harmonies. “Just think what you have to do to sing higher than me,” Gill deadpanned of White to the crowd. “One of the reasons I love bluegrass is because it’s cool to sing high.” Crouch set the foundation while Jim Mills played a ferocious banjo in the rolling style of Earl Scruggs, and Stuart Duncan got the first standing ovation of the night when he blazed through an electrifying rendition of “Lee Highway Blues.”
The program paid wide homage to a range of the bluegrass masters, featuring everything from How Mountain Girls Can Love from The Stanley Brothers, My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore by Jimmy Martin, and Big Spiked Hammer by The Osborne Brothers, as well as perennial favorites like Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Of course, Vince paid special attention to Bill Monroe when he gave the audience the first thrill of the night, as his soaring tenor rang out to the rafters on Blue Moon of Kentucky, and the recently-departed Scruggs would not be forgotten when Mills sparkled on Earl’s Breakdown. After the enthusiastic response on Blue Moon of Kentucky, Vince leaned into the mike and said, “Bluegrass – can’t get enough of it, can you?” The crowd cheered its agreement.
The band also included a few bluegrass songs Gill had written himself, including the popular 1996 cut High Lonesome Sound, which he originally recorded with Alison Krauss & Union Station. In addition, he showcased a couple of songs he recorded for the 2006 4-CD box set collection These Days, including two that featured the Del McCoury Band on the release. Before singing Give Me the Highway and Cold Grey Light of Gone, Vince said he had a secret wish to join the DMB as “Vinny McCoury,” and said that “there is nobody finer or better in bluegrass music than Del McCoury.”
The band left the stage to Vince for a 30-minute or so solo set, where the stories continued (“I’m calorically-challenged – I love food!), and the music turned to country for just a bit. Vince knows there will always be a portion of his audience that is there to hear at least a few of his hits, and he’s happy to oblige. The crowd was treated to abbreviated versions of When I Call Your Name, Look at Us, The Key of Life, and the now-iconic Go Rest High on That Mountain. Jeff White and Stuart Duncan re-joined Gill for the latter, and it almost seemed that White’s harmonic singing and Duncan’s melodic fiddling were wisping beyond the stained glass windows of the Mother Church of Country Music to Heaven itself.
Before closing the night after a few more rousers, opening act Sarah Jarosz returned to join the gentlemen on vocals and mandolin for Deep River Blues and Crying Holy Unto the Lord. Already a gifted singer and musician, the young college student had earlier presented a set heavy with folk, bluegrass and Americana influences that was well-received by the audience. Joined by promising fiddler Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith on the cello, Sarah is what the New York Times calls “one of acoustic music’s most promising young talents.”
Those joining Vince on his bluegrass tour can expect a great night of entertainment. For him, it’s as natural a fit as peanut butter and jelly. As he told us recently, he continues to play bluegrass at this point in his long career “because it’s as part of who I am as any of the other. It’s an equal part of who I am. My greatest fear, you know, is if I show up and play bluegrass and everybody rolls their eyes and goes, ‘Oh, not another rocker, not another country singer who thinks he can sing bluegrass.’ I think it’s an honest thing for me. So as long as it has authenticity, and an honest place of where it comes from, I don’t feel like I’m jumping on a bandwagon or where I shouldn’t.”