Interview: Vince Gill Sticks Up for the Underdog on New Album ‘Okie’
Vince Gill may just be the most tenderhearted patriarch in country music. The singer-songwriter has played many roles over the past several decades -- country rocker in Pure Prairie League, solo artist endeavoring in both country and worship music, duet partner, member of the Eagles -- but his values have remained consistent throughout his career.
Gill is the antidote to toxic masculinity in the entertainment industry, a positive role model who’s garnered enough respect to talk about what matters without worrying about who may take exception, because it’s the right thing to do. “At 62, I’m not afraid of much,” he told The Boot and other outlets in a recent interview.
On his latest album, Okie, released on Aug. 23, Gill’s ethics are front and center, cushioned with the vulnerable emotional intensity he’s an expert at communicating in song. The record tackles tough issues that are finally being talked about in a wider cultural sense, including racism, sexual assault and teen parenthood ("What Choice Will You Make"). Despite a humble self-assessment -- "I still think it's taken me a long time to become a good songwriter," Gill says -- Okie is Gill at his most refined and outspoken, an example of how to do right in a time where the lines seem more blurred every day.
“I know my intent, and I know that these songs are without judgment. I think if your intent is right, then it’s okay. It’s fair to stick up for folks. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do is maybe have a voice for those who don’t feel like they have one,” Gill says. “I’m trying to let everybody know 'I’m for you, whoever you are.'”
“I’m trying to let everybody know 'I’m for you, whoever you are.'”
Gill’s motives are pure: sticking up for the underdog. While the issues the Grand Ole Opry member and Country Music Hall of Famer confronts on Okie are topical, they’ve always been present in the world. The timing is just right to speak up.
“If somebody ever thought I was trying to cling onto a hot topic, it’d break my heart," Gill says. "I feel like sometimes innocent people need a voice. They just need somebody to put their arm around them. Most people want to be heard more than anything.
"We have a long history of mistreating each other. It’d be real easy to be judgmental about it, but I try not to be," he adds. "I’m trying to just have the conversation.”
“Forever Changed” is a visceral pull on the heartstrings that particularly touches on the #MeToo movement, about which Gill can speak from experience. Several years ago, the musician opened up about his close call with sexual abuse at the hands of a basketball coach when he was in seventh grade. He got away, but the moment gave him a greater element of understanding for others who weren’t so lucky.
“Even getting outed and being held accountable for all this kind of stuff -- it’s fair. It’s what should be. I just wish people didn’t have to be afraid to get dragged through the mud and try to tell their story of what happened,” Gill says. “I just wish we could be a little more trusting and more honest. That would serve us all a whole lot better.”
Okie is not directly autobiographical, but it is a portrait of Gill’s experiences at this stage in life. “In so many ways, these songs are woven out of truth of me and my life. They’re not quite so verbatim in that it’s not exactly my story, but there’s an element in there that had something to do with my journey," he says. The album's tracks discuss wife Amy Grant's redemptive love ("When My Amy Prays"), regret and missing his late mother; others honor Gill's heroes Guy Clark and Merle Haggard ("A World Without Haggard"), or use Dust Bowl-era train-hopping as an apt metaphor for life as a touring artist.
"A train could very well be the [tour] bus for me. I’ve ridden on that bus for 45 years," Gill says of the latter track, "I Don't Wanna Ride the Rails No More." "Once again, at its core, it paints all these really neat pictures of that timeless element of trains and traveling and being a drifter. The real beauty of that song is it’s a song of longing, it’s a song of yearning and somebody finding companionship."
In "The Price of Regret," Gill is pensive and self-aware. "People often say [they] have no regrets in life. Well, I do. I have plenty," the singer admits; however, he adds, "I have them in their proper perspective and their proper place.
"I learned from my mistakes," Gill says. "I know the mistakes I’ve made and try to be better because of them."
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