Stand next to this money like ay ay ay
October 16, 2006
Last year, Lee Ann Womack released There’s More Where That Came From, an album of soft and tasteful old-school country. Before that, she’d been a country star with a couple of big hits behind her but a career that seemed to be slowing down. There’s More didn’t sell all that much, but it racked up a pile of CMA awards and critical accolades. Apparently, there wasn’t more where that came from, since she’s since gone back to scenery-chewing ballads. But the album seemed to awaken something in Nashville; all sorts of aging country stars are suddenly burning to reconnect with whatever they see as their roots, to leave behind the slick factory-style songwriting that’s run Nashville since forever and making soft-focus retro-moves instead. That urge has taken a few different forms. Alan Jackson released a gospel album. Tim McGraw covered a Ryan Adams song as a sweet bit of 70s-style whiteboy soul. All of a sudden, everyone wants to work with Alison Krauss, who’s sort of the country version of DJ Premier, the person whose name is thought to equal total authenticity. And today Vince Gill is releasing These Days, a four-CD box set of original songs. I can’t really imagine any artist in any other genre being allowed to put out four albums’ worth of new music at once; it’s the sort of thing crazy people do. But Gill isn’t exactly a rebel by nature. Gill made his name playing with country-rock bands in the late 70s and early 80s, but he became a star by singing a virtually endless streak of sweet and sincere ballads. And These Days has populist appeal stamped all over it; every one of the discs is loaded down with big-name collaborators, and it’s not like he’s indulging an abstract-jazz muse or anything. The four discs come neatly slotted into four categories: trad-country, bluegrass, ballads, and awful MOR casual-Friday bar-rock. People might actually buy the thing.
Last night at the Nokia Theatre, though, Gill made all sorts of sly and self-deprecating jokes about how uncomfortable he’s always been making ballads, and he sounded something like a disgruntled record-label employee. He basically admitted that both the bluegrass and bar-rock discs were self-indulgent exercises, joking that nobody would like them. He spoke rapturously about the process of making These Days: “At no point did I ever want to settle for something or rein something in or be less than authentic.” Unfortunately for Gill, country, like virtually every other genre ever invented, doesn’t benefit much from authenticity. Gill played for three hours last night (including a twenty-minute intermission that wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t pipe in Beatles songs), and he organized the show into four separate parts to highlight each of the individual discs. Unsurprisingly, the section of ballads was far and away the best. “God was kind to me and blessed me with a high voice like a woman,” Gill said at one point, and it’s true: he’s got a thin and shivery but durable tenor, and he wraps it around frilly horns and woozy guitars like a soul singer. When he goes for softness, that voice is crushingly pleasant, but it isn’t really built for more raucous endeavors. The show-closing rock set was particularly egregious. Gill explained from the stage that he’d written many of the songs with his guitarist, who used to be in NRBQ, and that he’d been partly inspired by a phone call from Eric Clapton, both of which explain the shitty bar-rock aspect. The songs were all charged-up horn-infused weekend-warrior anthems, the sort of things whose recent popularity has given Jimmy Buffet a new lease on life in Nashville, and they really didn’t benefit from being grouped into a clump. The bluegrass set was a nice little bit of self-consciously old-school showmanship, with all the musicians grouped onstage in a tight circle, singing harmonies into one mic even though there were plenty of other perfectly good mics sitting right there onstage. I missed most of the trad-country set because the show started at 8:00 sharp and I was busy finishing up yesterday’s column, but the stuff I heard had a polite and amiable chug, tepid but nice.
Gill’s band was remarkably huge and virtuosic in a way that wasn’t really show-offy, its members saving their solos for their allotted time-slots. Other than the bass player (who looked like Schillinger from Oz if he’d become a Shaolin monk, really scary), all the band’s members looked like the anonymous session-musician types that make good livings playing in studios and almost never venture onstage. The band was huge: fourteen people at one point, including a thoroughly superfluous conga player. The show didn’t come with any of the TV-screen whizjets or attention-grabbing showman-stunts like the ones Brad Paisley brought to the same venue last year. The lights were all restrained and tasteful, and there was a sort of amber glow in the air; watching the show in person felt almost like watching it on TV. Instead of the open standing-room area at the foot of the stage, the theatre now had seats everywhere, and most of the people in the crowd wore their office clothes and looked old enough to be my parents. During the rock set, a couple of people got up and did some spectacularly awful dancing, but they were the exception; every song got polite applause, and the end of the show got the requisite standing ovation. This was just about the most atmospherically placid show I’d ever seen, and it’s a tribute to Gill’s charisma that he managed to keep the whole thing entertaining even through that. Gill is blandly handsome, sort of like a small-market TV weatherman, and he’s put on a bit of a spare tire since his career’s heyday. He radiates goodwill; despite its ominous title, “Take This Country Back” turned out to be about partying. His told jokes in between most of his songs: “I hate playing the fiddle because it looks like I have six chins when I play it,” that sort of thing. And he really seems to love the stuff he’s playing. But the show’s best moments came when he took a break from his glut of new stuff and dug back into his catalogue. During the encore, he brought out his wife, contempo-Christian OG Amy Grant, for a deeply pretty duet, and the show could’ve used more of those widescreen entertainer moments. Giving the people what they want is a noble calling, and not everyone can do it. Even if they’re charmingly gracious like Gill, it feels like a loss when performers turn their aim away from the cheap seats and follow their muse.