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Vince Gill
Vince Gill
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Vince Gill Interview

Country Music Hall of Fame

July 5, 2009
Singita Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa

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  Vince Gill

Let's just start at the beginning. Where were you born?

Vince Gill: I was born in the United States in Norman, Oklahoma, small college town just south of Oklahoma City. It's a great town. And as a kid -- I guess I was four -- before I started school we moved up to Oklahoma City and I really grew up there, Oklahoma City.

Who were your parents?

Vince Gill: My father was a lawyer, Jay Stanley Gill. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for most of my life. Her name is Jerine, and she's still alive. My father passed in '97. Kind people, sweet people. They both were farm people. Grew up on a farm and had a great sense of the earth, in that they knew hard times. They knew what it was like to really work for everything that they had. So there was a great wisdom of common sense that prevailed in our household, and things you did better make sense or you'd suffer the wrath.

Who was the disciplinarian?

Vince Gill: Oh, they both were. They both got it done. My dad was real strict, very firm. But I'm grateful for it as a grown man. And I knew how far to go, and I knew when I screwed up I'd get in trouble, and I was okay with that. My father passed away in '97. I've enjoyed telling people that he was a judge the last half of his life and a lawyer the first half. And he said, "Son, nobody likes a lawyer until they need one."

My dad was quite a character. He was really strict, really fair. If I screwed up, I got in trouble right away. There was no messing around much. My father was pretty gruff. He was a lawyer by trade, but a redneck by birth. He'd go to work in a suit and tie, slick his hair back and put on glasses and stuff, and then he'd come home, put on overalls, no shirt and a ball cap. He was a very imposing man -- six foot three and over 300 pounds. It was like having John Wayne, Patton and Clint Eastwood all rolled up into one guy. And he was very gruff, and he always smoked a cigarette like this, and he talked like this. He said, "Son, don't make me come over there, 'cause I'll give you something to cry about." Screwed up, you got your butt kicked right away. You know, old school, old school, old school.

Vince Gill Interview Photo

I would like to have seen my father's reaction to somebody telling him that "time out" would be a good thing. "You want me to do what? You want me to set him in a corner for 30 minutes? I don't think so. I'm just gonna kick his ass and that'll be the end of it!" That was my life. Oh, man. But he told me that he had an idea for a song and he told it to me. And through the years, he was so great, and I didn't realize it at the time. When you're young you don't know much. I didn't anyway. Wrong room to say that in! but y'all are smokin'. I knew how to play a few chords on the guitar and sing high and that was about it. But you know, I went out there and took off at 18, and I had a dream of just playing music. And I didn't care where I wound up. I loved to play more than anything. It wasn't about the result. It wasn't about how much money I could make or how famous I could get. I just wanted to play music. Through all the years that I struggled, my dad would often send me words of encouragement when I was really struggling, you know. Stuff like, "Hang in there, boy. You're getting' better. Your songs are getting better and I swear you're gonna make it. Just keep after it." That was the kind of stuff. And then, I started doin' good and started having some hits and selling some records. Then he turned into my biggest critic. I remember the first year -- I hosted the Country Music Awards for twelve years -- and the first year I did it I was excited, had a lot of fun, did a good job, won a couple of awards. I stayed up all night to party and celebrate. My dad decided to call me with his review of the show at about 7:15 on his way into work. I answered the phone. I hadn't been to bed for a couple of hours. I hear this, "Who in the hell do you think you are?" "What are you talking about?" "Let me tell you somethin', pal. I watched you last night. You're no Jay Leno." It was his way of keeping me level.

How did you begin playing the guitar?

Vince Gill: Well, I started playing -- you know, I cannot consciously remember an age where I started playing. I know that I had a very small parlor guitar that had like a lampshade cord on it, and it was broken and probably didn't have all of its strings. I don't remember, but I've seen pictures of me when I was one or two, you know, just getting around, dragging that guitar around. So I know that I had always had one around to play on, beat on, and all that. And I played my father's. He had two guitars, and I played them. And then he also got me, when I was very small, a tenor guitar, which only has the first four strings. So the neck is much smaller, not as wide as a six-string guitar. So I learned to play on a tenor guitar, and tuned it like the first four strings of a regular guitar. There's a lot of different tunings for a tenor guitar, some are much different. But I tuned it like a regular guitar and started learning the rudimentary chords from my dad, and he showed me. But I was playing, you know, at show-and-tell stuff in grade school -- second, third grade. And so I don't have a conscious memory of when I started, but all I know is it's all I've ever done.

I got my own guitar when I was 10 years old, and that was -- I can still remember finding that gift under the tree. What an amazing, you know, I didn't know it at the time but it was easily the most incredible Christmas gift I'd ever got, more than a football and more than any of that other kind of stuff. Because at that time, being a 10-year-old kid...

My folks scrimped and saved, and they actually took that old tenor guitar of mine and traded it in on this new electric Gibson guitar called an ES-335. And for me to have the opportunity to learn on a great instrument! I think, unfortunately, what happens to a lot of young kids that want to maybe learn to play, or have an interest in playing is -- because they don't want to invest in a good instrument -- they get them something that's not good enough, and nobody could play it no matter how great of a guitar player they are; the instrument wouldn't be ever decent enough to really play. So at 10 years old, the fact that my folks got me something that grand and that great and so playable that it was inspiring, you know, even at 10 years old. And I still have that guitar today. And you know, as it turned out, it wound up being a guitar I would have sought as a grown, matured player, because of the type of instrument it is. You know, there are a lot of great guitar players that play the 335. And so I had no idea at the time, when I was 10, that it was a great instrument to have, but it sure was inspiring to have something that great to start to really learn on.

Vince Gill Interview Photo
Was guitar the first instrument that you learned to play?

Vince Gill: Yeah, I played the guitar first. I was telling Joshua Bell, who comes to the Academy of Achievement -- we've become friends this trip and we have a lot of mutual friends that play music. I was telling him that I started taking violin lessons and playing in the school orchestras and stuff when I was in grade school. And I said I got a mean teacher in the sixth grade and that was the end of the violin for me.

Were you a good student, or were there subjects in particular you were good at?

Vince Gill: I don't think I was. I was never as smart as my sister. My sister always made better grades. She was a couple of years older than me. I was a fine student, but I wasn't a hard worker. I wasn't any trouble, I just went through the motions and loved my music and loved playing sports. I was a Beaver Cleaver kid. I was pretty normal.

Was there anything you read as a kid that inspired you?

Vince Gill: I don't know that there's anything that I read as a kid that was inspiring to me, musically. I like reading, I like reading books about history. I loved Civil War books, things like that. And I loved biographies of sports people that I admired. If there was a book on Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, or whoever the great baseball player of that era was, I would love to read stories about sports, because I played all the sports.

As I look back, I really feel that the records were my books, you know, and I would study the -- it was back in the day when the albums were large. You could read the credits, you knew who played on things, you knew who wrote the songs, who sang on things. And I was one of those kids that loved all the information on a record. I spent years buying records of artists I'd never heard of, just because I knew the guitar player, or I knew somebody that played a certain instrument that, I said, "Well if this guy played on this record maybe there's something good in there," because I liked that musician. So I felt like those records told me stories in a way that related to me more, because of -- my brain was stimulated by sounds more than sights, I think. I loved listening to records and trying to emulate what I was hearing. I'm self-taught and all by ear, and just by hearing it come through the speakers. I'd say, "How do they do that?" and just sit and practice and noodle and mess around until I made the same sounds.

So you never took singing lessons or music lessons?

Vince Gill: No. I took some guitar lessons in junior high school, but as I look back, I don't think they were really informative. It was something to do, and he was a neat old guy, and I enjoyed him. But I just basically learned songs. I didn't learn any theory. I wish I'd have stayed with the violin lessons, the piano lessons, to where I could have learned the theory of music on paper, so I could be able to read, you know, because I don't read music. I can kind of go through there and remember the very rudimentary things of how the notes are, and what they are, but I couldn't sight read and play what I was reading. So that's all I know about that. I sound like Forrest Gump, don't I?

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This page last revised on Aug 31, 2009 16:19 EDT
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