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Nashville Scene Laid Bare

Gill gets to the heart of the matter

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Vince Gill realizes that releasing a collection of songs about heartbreak, loss, and new love can't help but spur speculation among fans. After all, his divorce from singer/fashion designer Janis Gill, his wife of 17 years, recently became final. So naturally, listeners will sift through his lyrics, hunting for insights into his emotional state, or for observations about what went wrong.

On The Key, which comes out Aug. 11, Gill certainly gives fans plenty to ponder. Every song addresses relationships, delving directly into such topics as betrayal, losing a longtime love, and opening one's heart to the possibilities of loving another. "You promised to love me forever/Now it's all over town you've changed your mind," he sings in the opening song, "Don't Come Cryin' to Me." It would be hard to be more explicit than that.

The singer-songwriter penned all 13 songs, and most of them are pointedly personal. Gill has always been a prolific writer, but this album is his first to feature so many songs without a cowriter he composed 11 of the songs alone, a rarity for a country-music star in the '90s. A couple of titles suggest how topical the songs are: "There's Not Much Love Here Anymore" and "I Never Really Knew You (Until You Said Goodbye)," to name two, express emotions as directly and as provocatively as possible.

Gill doesn't deny that his personal life influenced his songwriting on The Key. But he won't be discussing his private life in the media, he contends. "I'm not going to sit down and take every lyric and say it's not about this, or it is about that," he says. "People should interpret it the way they want to interpret it. The funny thing is, people's perceptions of what a song is about are usually wrong a majority of the time. But they're still going to read what they want to into it. And that's fine. But I'm not going to put my personal life on trial by going into it in any detail."

That's fair; the songs should speak for themselves. And in Gill's case, his recordings speak volumes not necessarily about his personal life, but about the kinds of emotional trials that all adults experience. By drawing on the turmoil inside him, and by being brave enough to open his soul, Gill has created what likely will stand as a landmark country-music album. The Key is far and away the most moving and most consistently powerful work of his career and the most gutsy as well.

The Key is also by far Gill's most traditional-sounding album, concentrating wholly on sparse arrangements that bring out the singer's bluegrass and barroom country influences. That a star of his stature would make a statement this bold both musically and lyrically says a lot about Gill and about where he would like to see country music go at this critical juncture in the genre's history.

Throughout the album, Gill peels away affectation to sing simple, candid songs that cry with heartbreak or rapture. The bare-boned musical support pedal steel, fiddle, acoustic guitar underscores both his gorgeous melodies and his aching, sumptuous tenor. Gill is also assisted on this record by a host of carefully chosen female harmony partners. This time around, he notes, he was particularly careful about selecting backup singers.

"I really gave a lot of thought to casting the right voice to the right song," Gill says. "It wasn't about who was the best known or the most famous. It was about who was right for what I was doing."

The list of singers includes past Gill vocal partners Patty Loveless and Alison Krauss. Others featured on the album are new country upstarts Lee Ann Womack and Sara Evans, gospel singer Sonya Isaacs, and veteran country singers Shelby Lynne and Dawn Sears (who sings harmony in Gill's road band). "I love every one of those voices," he says.

Gill has occasionally sounded this good in the past such hits as "Look at Us," "Pocket Full of Gold," or "When I Call Your Name" all point to the musical direction he's taken on the new album. But The Key marks the first time that Gill has sounded this somber and this good from the first note to the last.

Asked if he thinks that making such a back-to-basics record is daring, Gill responds, "Yes, I guess it is." But, he suggests, it's daring mostly because it goes against the grain of what's popular in country music in the '90s. "It becomes bolder and bolder because of what everything else is like these days," he says. "I'm not out here trying to say, 'Hey, everybody, come on back to real country music.' It's just that this is what I wanted to do at this point."

That said, Gill hardly considers his new album a radical stylistic move. As he points out, his albums have always included songs in this vein, among them "Go Rest High on That Mountain" and "High, Lonesome Sound." But in the past, because his records often featured a variety of musical styles, sometimes the more traditional stuff didn't get sent to radio. "This time, I figured, I'd release a whole album of real country songs," he laughs.

In the last few years, it seems, Gill has felt increasingly limited by standard Music Row formulas. In 1995, around the time that his greatest-hits collection Souvenirs came out, he started talking about feeling artistically restless. "Go Rest High on That Mountain" was a product of that desire to branch out. So was his 1996 album, High Lonesome Sound, which included Chicago-style electric blues, Louisiana swamp rhythms, Southern boogie, and a string-band tune that underscored the connection between traditional Cajun, Irish, and Appalachian music.

But this time, instead of incorporating a wide range of styles, Gill has chosen to hone in on his deepest musical influences. "I miss songs like [Buck Owens'] 'Together Again' being a part of our music," he says. "Those songs were a real big part of my youth and a big part of why I was drawn to country music in the first place."

In fact, the most heartfelt cut on the album, "The Key to Life," acknowledges the important role that country music has played in his life. Gill wrote the song about his father, who passed away in 1997. He opens the song with memories of listening to his father play the banjo and sing lyrics to old country songs. Such experiences taught the young musician about what mattered in life.

"[My father's death] had a lot to do with why this album sounds the way it does," Gill says. "I wanted it to be something I was proud of and something he'd be proud of too."

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