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Entries in Vince Gill (3)

Tuesday
Feb192008

Wings of Warmth, Pools of Sorrow…

The day after my mother died, I woke disoriented. We had been estranged for years, so it wasn't the loss of a day-to-day presence in my life -- or even someone who'd been part of my thoughts. And yet, I had to grasp the notion that I now really, truly, absolutely was an orphan… the end of the line… the last of the vein.Somehow, numbly and without thinking, I drifted through the day. A day I recollect almost nothing about -- except my best friend's sister's second child was christened, it seemed like there were no chaise lounges at the Colony Hotel's Florida shaped pool and I did some laps across the street at their quiet pool when the sun wasn't searing my flesh in that slightly cool, definitely blunted, but deadly way of early fall. Lying there limp, it was another one of those moments -- in a cranberries-strung-on-fishwire-holiday-garland kind of way -- a moment unnoticeable, yet defining of who I'd come to be. Suspended with no expectation, not even the passage of time registering, and yet it was a moment full of every moment to that point. There is nothing to do. Beyond stay in the moment. And that is how I've come to live these last few weeks. Stay in the moment. Know there's nowhere to go where anything will change. Do what is required. Be hypervigilant for joy and beauty. Seek what is good. Hope it will lift. Have faith that it will. In the blur of what has passed since, much has past. Recognitions of what had to go unseen -- and the wreckage of every moment shattered by the knowledge. It is an almost nails scraping flesh from one's bones sensation, but the numbing that sets in holds, so it's more a heightened state of shock. A zombie-like existence with polaroids and postcards dangling before one's eyes and in the back of one's mind… It is a deal made with the conscious to survive the shock and the pain, an order out of chaos that is neither wanted nor invited, yet must be endured to be survived. There are -- in the wake -- moments of reclamation along the way. People who emerge or return, found like buttons in the deep pocket of a coat, fallen off, but kept to be reattached {rather than merely lost or forgotten about) when a moment presents itself to do so… The riches emerging from sorrow, offering solace and the sparkle of renewed friendship. My friend Ben, always audacious, appearing at the front door with a bottle of French red and a wry smile. He knew my mother, had had an ongoing relationship with her -- one that may've included miles of missed details, but certainly a definite appreciation of the force of her personality. This was a man introduced to me more than two decades ago at my very first Fan Fair, a once downhome gathering of the hillbilly stars and the tribes who adore them out at the hot and dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds, by a talented not-quite-popped-yet musician named Vince Gill who said, “Anything you won't say, she will… and anything she won't say, you will.” Vince Gill was soothsayer. Though my friend Ben and I have less than no sexual attraction, we have had adventures, Christmas shopped, commiserated, been thrown out of bars (we were so much younger then), been used as bait (well, me) and bodyguard (well, him) on more than one occasion. Our lives interwoven, our truths polemic, our intense passion for living defining. But Ben grew up and became a wine broker. I remained a polisher of stars, a confidant of the famous, a writer of all that I saw. In the gap, the friendship faltered -- not out of indifference, but just the actual physical demands of demand, schedules and location. One draw of the cork, though, and two lives pour from the bottle with the bruised/blood colored liquid. Sorrow binds people together. Nothing quite like the valley of the disconsolate to learn about surrender -- and floating to the top when there's no fight left inside. My friend Ben, whose father died in the past year, understood… and he appeared. As did seeming strangers with deep intimacy and phone calls from friends who recognized the abyss-depths of my emotions. Seeming polarities, intertwined in the notion of finding some refuge from the storm -- or the offer of haven unknown until it arose in a moment. Once upon a time, golf pros would take me to Nighttown , a boite in the intellectual stronghold of Cleveland Heights, to make me feel grown-up. But somehow I ended up there with a man my own age, trying to recapture some innocence and youth lost -- tales spun of the gaps between what was seen, what was known and what was imagined. Cavernous distances that can't quite be closed with red wine and stories, laughter and tears. Yet somewhere in all of that, there is enough genuine hope and a willingness to show and be seen that a connection can be forged, one that embodies the notion of who someone might have been with the courage of getting to where they are today. In the midst of it all, a phone call… from a singer of songs, a dreamer of dreams and a companion of the farthest reaches checking in. Knowing all that had transpired with the death and the loss, Rodney Crowell had battled his own raging flu -- and was now emerging from the miasma to see how his “dear one” was coping, to remind the woman who'd closed down her father's house a few years before with a last letter written from his favorite chair listening to the Grammy-winning songwriter's “I Know Love Is All I Need” with its opening line of “I am an orphan now…” and the recognition that it is in dying that we are set free from our mortal shackles. Indeed, it is. And it is in living, breathing, loving each other that we become so much more vibrant. In our pain and that ache that throbs our veins, makes breathing such an iron-forged-act of will, that we recognize the power of those things we feel. With lunch over, there are still a few hours to be killed. Moments to waste in a way that makes them precious -- recapturing what wasn't with a net of what is ephemerally permanent. It is the actualization of a line by never-quite-huge-rocker-yet-local-hopesafe Michael Stanley that reminds us to be present in the minutes and the seconds: “All you get to keep are the memories/ So you better make the good ones last.” Cold sweat on a green glass bottle, five dollars fed into the jukebox. In a bar with picnic tables littering the floor, scuffed felt pool tables and neon behind the bottles, it is confessions of doubts and what ifs, you didn't knows? and oh, you're kiddings. It is the innocence of Hansel & Gretel, a time reclaimed that wasn't quite lost, just never actually experienced. It is Aerosmith's “Dream On” played through tinny speakers, and the hollow sound of a cue ball striking a 7-ball. In that suspended time, nothing is important, everything resonates and the years wash themselves of everything but what matters. What matters… That's what death shows you. The things that end up being erased and the things that come to the top are object lessons in truth and value. It is the nightmares that shiver you in your sleep, the things that go unseen that become absolute “don't”s in how we walk through the world, but also burdens that become too heavy to continue to carry and too intense to continue to hold back. Sometimes marinating in innocence and wonder, the easy sweetness of nothing more than right now, there is a clarity that emerges. There is an intense past of shared memories -- the roll of a fairway, the feel of a wood floor in a school cafeteria, the bands that were raging, the way being young and not knowing was so thrilling… and that is plenty. As the miles and years roll by, that basic reality gets lost. It's not something you can hold on to, nor something that can exist beyond those rare suspended moments. But it was real -- and it can come to life in the shared recollection, shine and shimmer with the mother of pearl essence of something truly precious. In a pool of grief, those moments are refuges from the anguish. In that clearing of the sorrow, you realize how lucky you are to be able to even see it, taste it, touch it. You're thankful for that beaming smile, that nod of recognition -- and you know that you can somehow go on. It's like putting in The Houston Kid, listening to “I Know Love Is All I Need” again. It is a song that releases the pain and keeps the best intentions. It offers a notion that whatever torture there was, it's over -- and the lost soul is, perhaps, getting the peace they dreamed of. It reminds you, too, that love is something that is created out of appreciation, recognition and embrace. We find love along the way… companions for the journey who see us as our better selves and inspire us to grow in that gentle glow. What we find, we sow… We harvest crops of people who make our lives tender when it hurts, and we try to offer what we have in turn. For Rodney Crowell, calling from Nashville in the wake of the funeral for a friend's mother, it was one more cobblestone in a journey that had been co-mingled most of my adult life… and yet, it was a milestone as much as a rock used as paving. If Guy Clark sang “old friends they shine like diamonds,” it is so. Not much needs to be said in those moments. It is understood -- and just the sound of a voice that is known by heart is plenty. The profundity is as simple as the lost soul turned up: it is understanding that without words, this person understands your pain, your heart, your reason -- and they want you to be okay. Faith in the falter. Faith in the other's ability to rise. They know, and you know they know. Like when Pooh reaches for Christopher Robin's hand only because “I just want to be sure is all…” There is something about the concrete, the tangible that is more than plenty. Nothing more is really needed. Just the there. And in the there, there is everything. Perfectly absolutely all of the solace, the compassion, the mercy that salves us 'til we can make it on our own. And so more time and tears have passed. Sorrow rises and falls, ebbs and flows. It is what it is, and as the tides recede again, it becomes more an act of knowledge than blind faith -- but, whether it's knowing or believing, there's the trust that this, too, shall be weathered with grace, dignity and love. In that, one can let whatever happen however it needs to. That is the greatest truth of all in a valley that seemingly has no end.

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Monday
Feb182008

Phil Walden, Dave Smith + Magical Kingdoms of Song

"Phil Walden's dead" The voice on the other end of the phone was tired, dead tired, but it wasn't the tired of too little sleep and too many miles. It was more the exhaustion that comes from knowing too much, seeing things you never imagined, learning lessons you'd rather not know. For Kenny Chesney, the man who played to over a million fans every summer for the past four summers -- and who found himself in between Bono and Mick Jagger on the cover of the Billboard as one of the three biggest acts of 2005, Phil Walden's passing was the end of the beginning. An innocence lost forever as the man who managed Otis Redding and most recently fostered the jam band movement through his signings of Widespread Panic, 311 and Cake as well as a green hard country singer from Luttrell, Tennessee even though Walden wasn't "in the country music business," but saw something that moved him, had passed away at 66 years of age. For Kenny Chesney, who'd been parking cars, playing third tier writers' nights and gutbucket honky tonks in some of Nashville's seedier parts of town while punching the clock and learning the trade of being a true songwriter at Acuff Rose, where no less than Hank Williams had been signed, Phil Walden was the realization and recognition of the dream. Whether it happened or not, Capricorn Records gave the boy a shot at the prize -- and a shot is more than most of us ever get anyway. Capricorn Records was -- at its zenith - the fertile spawning ground for Southern rock -- though it was so much more sophisticated then than people realized. Blues-steeped, shot through with jazz, aching with ferocious heartbreaks and injected with enough rural soul to give it the complexity of intricate paisley even as it flexed its muscular guitar/bass/Hammond B-3 organ chops with a verve and a density that make one put the pedal down. Starting with the Allman Brothers, but embracing Wet Willie, the Dixie Dregs, Marshall Tucker, Capricorn was as much a lifestyle as a sound scape. Always musically extrusive, there was a reckoning going on that was post-Civil War Southern pride writ large. And it wasn't about waving a flag, so much as it was about "sink into the way we live and understand why kicked back is as intense as anything y'all got going on."I didn't even get to experience it "real time." No, no; for me were the purloined moments with Dave Smith's record collection, the pounding sound of Eat A Peach blaring out of the rolled down windows of his maroon muscle car coming into the back of the house too hard, then pulling up short. That blaring noise, pure siren's song to a Midwest girl curious about it all -- and finding these feverish waves of undulation and consecration between the grooves. Dave Smith, in his polyester pants and white crinkle pseudo-leather Foot Joy teaching shoes -- which looked like golf shoes without the spikes, may well've been the coolest person I'd ever met. A ne'er-do-well golf pro who smoked too much pot, drank too much beer and always had a rejoinder for whatever was thrown at him came to live with us that summer -- and he brought an entire culture with him. The records alone were intense: Horses by Patti Smith, 4 and Physical Graffiti from Led Zeppelin, Tejas on the ZZ Top tip, Blood on the Tracks flexing the urgent inscrutability of Bob Dylan and everything by Todd Rundgren, who absolutely was A Wizard, A True Star. Just as importantly, he'd leave his Rolling Stone magazines lying around, magazines I would look carefully at floor position and angle of open page then gently pull it towards me, crawl under one of the heavy carved wood beds in our attic and inhale dust bunnies and fetid air without oxygen, hungrily devouring all news of that world so far beyond my pink suburban bedroom and 36 holes a day life. Somewhere within the first month, my blind adoration and sheer enthusiasm won him over enough to let me hang around, to allow me to hear his diatribes about music, to be the kid on the pirate ship. And it was in those moments, when it felt like my nerve-endings were outside my body so intense was the pleasure and excitement, that I came to understand the highest temple of them all: Live at the Filmore East. More than a mere live recording, it was the culmination of Duane and Gregg Allman's musical alchemy -- a sound that seamlessly merged so many influences into a whole that was so complicated yet primal, alive yet controlled in its thrilling ability to push a melody, signature riff or even rhythm to new heights. And in that blood and kerosene guitar tone of Duane's, a sound that would set whole coasts aflame with the burning desire and searing regret that is the blues, a whole new way of playing slide and electric guitar was cast into the universe -- all you had to do was lean your head back and close your eyes to be taken places that were full-immersion in the truth and experience. And so it was that I learned to drink beer, to listen to the depths of a record, to feel the energy collecting and pooling in my chest, my gut, in the place just above the root of my being. This was not an intellectual experience, it was something else, something more -- almost a melting and merging into this deeper way of embracing music.Dave Smith was, most likely, a reprobate. A complete scoundrel. He drank way too much, drove entirely too fast, dated the wrong kind of women and played his music voraciously at volumes that defied cogent thought. He loved Filmore East; the aching shake in Gregg's voice as "Whipping Post" threatened to explode from the core of his diaphragm-- and the chugging heartbeat of the straining and relentless thundering in those drums.Oh, the innocence of it all. A young girl not quite understanding the house-rocking references. A child -- truly -- of the night, lost in the swirl of bars she shouldn't have been in, the sparkle of local bands bringing these songs, and their own, to life before her eyes. It was seedy, a little dangerous, absolutely transfixing -- and it was the kind of thing you never recover from.The good news, though, about sitting in that maroon Charger with the speakers rippling from the intensity of the sound is that you bond from such a naive place, your wonder can never truly be taken from you. When you put "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" on, you're immediately transported to a place where even what you knew -- and I knew more than quite a lot -- is transformed into something almost sweet. The hardness that should've set in, just beads up and rolls off.It is how true believers are forged. Innocence flash-fired into a shining, jubilant surface that sparkles with the pure love that can only come in those sorts of moments. For a 12-year old in a short forest green plaid skirt, it was more than deliverance. It was an entrance to a world so much cooler, so much more alive than the measured Jr. League and charity work fast track to corporate housewifery that I'd already been set on. Those songs, bubbling with emotion, rife with insight into life that most people wouldn't acknowledge let alone talk about, gave me wings. Lying on my back, listening to Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon on his headphones, I was taken into a world of such depth, intensity and subtlety that it was -- seriously -- almost hard to breathe, yet to not listen, embrace, embody was certainly to suffocate. And at ground zero of that sensibility was a hodgepodge: the free'n'easy "Heard It In A Love Song," with the shimmering flute punctuation bobbing up on the rides like some kind of cork, the staccato bump and dropped-to-knee wail of Wet Willie's empowering "Keep On Smiling" or the cocky contretemps of any version of "One Way Out," the Allmans percolating with hormones and being treed any way they cut it. Just thinking about all those notes that defied words falling from the tips of Steve Morse's fingers whenever the Dregs got pulled from the stack. Like an impossibly dry field that becomes the final resting place for a still glowing cigarette butt, so was my imagination and passion that summer Dave Smith arrived. What he gave me gave me everything I'd need to get through the rest of my life; and in that, it inadvertently set me on the course of a polemic destiny. Five years later, skinny legs and all in a wrap skirt and a monogrammed t-shirt, I sat facedown in Richard Wright's Native Son -- having had a bit too much giddy fun with my "peers" at Grad Nite. Preferring to right my equilibrium with something a little bit serious and certainly more adult, I decided to wait for the next Pure Prairie League show by sitting on a wall near the Tomorrowland Stage at Disneyworld. The singer seemed to play some pretty electrifying electric guitar, molten emotion that dug deeper than the words that melted off his tongue -- and I'd rather a closer look at that than listen to a little more inanity from a bunch of kids who'd never been anywhere. Some guy named "Jeff" in a satin jacket thought that was hilarious. Actually walked me down to the stage before the park employees unchained the area, and when he walked away, I saw the PPL logo on the back. I'd been rescued by "one of them," the people who go "back there" and are not like the rest of us mere mortals. It was exciting -- in that way of moments that are now, but nevermore. They played their show. They merged that Southern rock/country thing with a silky pop sheen -- the kind of thing that had them on the radio with songs like "Still Right Here In My Heart" and "Let Me Love You Tonight," songs that led them a long way from the plain burlap enchantment of the signature "Aimee." Maybe overwhelmed, possibly just exhausted from the 11 pm until 5:30 a. m. timeframe that is Grad Nite's trajectory, or else, perhaps just fate and the hand of God, I didn't rush away when the lights came up and the high school seniors began streaming back towards the rides and the park. In my basking in the moment and the music, I just waited, weightless almost, and then the unconsiderable happened -- some of "them" came out.Real live rock stars, mingling with the kids. Talking about whatever, eyeing the pretty girls, exulting in the adulation. It was benign, and it was also off the charts in term of cool for what the kids attending most Florida high schools back when could comprehend. And in that moment, a kid used to hustling, drew up in those pink canvas espadrilles, smiled knowingly and cast her line. "I hear you play golf," she said flatly. The singer's ear pricked up, he turned, clearly hooked. "You play?" he asked. "A little" I hedged, as my pulse quickened. "Any good?" he asked, not making this reeling in easy. "Depends on who you ask," I deflected, hoping subjectivity would serve as showing off for the rock star, rather the minimizing for conquest. "You have a handicap?" he continued pressing. "Yes," I responded, a little annoyed, hoping that would turn him. "What is it?" he countered, edging towards testy. Cornered, lying wasn't an option. Trying to look as demure as possible, I smiled softly and said with absolutely no flourish, "Six.""You're a six?" It was probably shock, but I read it as doubt -- and it chapped me. "Yeah, I'm a SIX," springing to defend my honor -- guitar player or not. "I was also all-tri-county for my high school.” With that, all barriers between rock stars and high school kids were dissolved. We were both golfers-- and he looked happy. Very happy. Their show in West Palm Beach -- to be played on Thursday -- gave him four days off in one place and a young person of enough skill to keep him engaged on the golf course. And so it was that a rock star didn't kidnap John Gleason's nice Midwestern daughter the way it happened according to William Miller's mother in Cameron Crowe's coming of age as a baby rock critic film "Almost Famous;" but the way a wunderkind musician made friends with a brought-up-on-the-fumes-and-falterings of playing golf-tournaments-on-the-road girl that set her on another path. It was crazy, really. That phone call when I was sure it was all for naught; no rock star would really think about me beyond the moment -- and rushing to the lime green mustang and Ft Lauderdale to pick him up and play; only to realize, I had no idea my new friend's name. Detouring to the Spec's in the mall by my high school, where many lost hours of cutting class had been invested, the manager took pity -- opened a record for me and announced dryly, "His name is Vince Gill." Armed with that knowledge, I continued my speed of sound journey to the Galt Ocean Mile, commandeered my almost famous friend and hit the golf course. It was teasing and barbs and all the cutting and nudging that comes from good natured rivalries. It was talking about cold beer and barbeque, about hearing your songs on the radio and a pretty wife left back home. It was the best round of my life -- a 73 -- and a physics lesson about gravity, mass and motion stemming from a Lincoln that was clocking needing to swing around me because I stopped a little short of a light that was changing. It was also forcing the singer into the humiliating fate of a high school paper interview -- and later harvesting that desperation play on my part following another round with his gentle suggestion that if my injured hand meant I couldn't play golf, I should think about writing about music. "I'm a 17-year old girl," I protested. "So" "Look at me," I protested. "I do interviews all the time," he responded. "You're better than 95% of the people I talk to, and you actually love music. I've read your writing. You can do this. "Rock stars do drugs. It had to be. Squinting at him, I echoed and expanded upon my previous sentiment, "I'm a 17 year old girl -- and I look 12. "With a gentle smile, he nodded and quietly said two words: "Cameron Crowe." Crowe, the 15-year old writer for Rolling Stone in the late 70s, had just seen his undercover as a student look at high school life Fast Times At Ridgemont High turned into a movie. He'd done everything I didn't even know to dream of, yet yearned for; it was so perfect. And he looked young, too. With that, Vince Gill won. And so did I. The thing about living the rock & roll life -- even if you do it with "hillbilly rock stars, out of control" -- is that it puts you in the fastest current, the most concentrated moments. Everything is bigger, harder, more if you're connecting into it; the highs where the air is thin and the rush overloading, the lows where you feel sucked into the mud and then throb with the pain, the doubt, the fear and yes, the frustration. You see the dream; you can touch it, whirl it, swirl it, twirl it; polish it and cut it into the jewel that it is. It's like riding sunbeams or lightning bolts -- fast and hard and blinding, yet thrilling, exhilarating, absolutely in the moment. But to get to that point, there is patience, good decisions, heartache, tiny victories that have to last. And, if you're doing it right, much laughter along the way -- for without that merriment, that sense of the humor within the suck, you'd never make it. And those things are the ties that bind, the doors that open, the reasons to continue. Kenny Chesney knows all this, just like he knows the sound of my voice. It's the fuel that brought him, that drove him, that delivered him. And being tender-hearted, he is sentimental in a way that allows him to connect into the main vein of America's youth. They know what it's like to dream; to believe; to seek. They may not have attained what the young man who plays guitar in football stadiums and has Bruce Spingsteen dedicate songs to him have, but they know that he is what they would be like if they got their shot at the prize. He is them writ superstar -- and while that's not something Kenny Chesney thinks about, it's a reality he carries with dignity and grace. Everybody needs a break, along with a dream to capture their soul. Without those things, you're never going anywhere. Without someone saying, "you can," how can you?And for Kenny Chesney, en route to a party to celebrate three weeks at #1 with "Living In Fast Forward," Phil Walden's death is all about losing not just a piece, but the genesis of the dream coming true.It is a serious thing for a true believer.Just like that at the other end of the phone, a woman bows her head and sheds a tear. Not that anyone cares about my loss -- the loss of not a close friend, but rather a man who paved the way out of the expectations of a good family onto an expressway of emotion, moments and lives lived beyond the rules.Out where the cowboys roam, the rock stars sway, the young girls believe in what the songs offer, it's a whole other kind of outlaw justice. There is an honor among thieves and an elegance to the way the memories turn. If you're brave enough and strong enough to dream, then anything you can believe, you can achieve -- with a little luck, a lotta hard work and more than a passing bit of talent. All you gotta do is hold on -- and be willing to listen to your heart and the voices of those that know the game and the ropes and especially what you're made of. It's easy, if you don't give up. People like Phil Walden got that, made that truth real, created the faith to carry in the falter -- and carried however many dreamers, literally or even by way of the songs, to where they could make their stand. For Kenny Chesney, somewhere in the midst of another tour with a fistful of hits and enough decibels to rock 20,000 a night, it's a comfort in the sadness. For Vince Gill, in a studio, making 4 records at once, it's a harvest. For the Allman Brothers, it's all about the road going on forever. For Dave Smith, lost in the flood of whatever -- purportedly lost to misadventure, he is a memory that blazes like the pilot light in the furnace of who I became. And for me, hiding somewhere unlikely and writing a book, it's about being selfish; making a dream come true for myself rather than someone else; and that, like losing the flickering pulse of a sound that set me afire, may be the scariest thing of all. Still, it takes courage to be happy -- and happiness, like dreams, is a matter of decision. Close your eyes, make up your mind and let go. You're gonna float before you fly, but it you Eat A Peach, the falling will be sweet as the moment it all comes together.

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Friday
Jan042008

In Praise of Vince Gill

March, 1990. Vince Gill's genuflects at California country's high altar: North Hollywood's legendary Palomino Club, where Merle and Buck, Emmylou and Jones all did time from time-to-time. A sleazy, greazy kinda bar -- it's either played as homage to the heritage or for the low-ball guarantee to cover expenses and some West Coast hillbilly cred. For Vince Gill, just off RCA -- then home of superstars Alabama, the Judds, KT Oslin and Sylvia, it was absolutely the latter. The former Pure Prairie Leaguer (the voice of their AC hit "Let Me Love You Tonight") and free agent Cherry Bomb (the band shared by Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Albert Lee) was a shoulda that hadn't. After all, he had the voice of an angel, played guitar like the devil, was pretty enough and seemed easygoing. Once the old cigarette smoke and cheap booze was gone, Gill and his crew needed to mount a not-so-new Silver Eagle and ride north to Cal-country's crucible: Bakersfield. For the singer/songwriter, it was a moment when the future was fixin'-to-be-defined. In many ways, it was an all-or-nothing roll, and it was okay by the lanky Okie. Signed by Tony Brown -- an alum of Elvis, Emmylou and the aforementioned Cherry Bombs -- to MCA Records, Gill had finally made the record he'd wanted. And as the white lines fell beneath the wheels, he played that record that was his heart, his soul, his hand on the rock. In the interest of full disclosure, I was on that bus -- a lost acquaintance who fell into his life in the name of golf back when I was a kid and he was a Prairie Leaguer only to have my destiny changed in the name of rock criticism. "Almost Famous"? I lived it -- and if I was the boy writer, he was the inadvertent rock star/catalyst. Time had passed since my senior year of high school and his trajectory was more horizontal; I'd spent four years being the West Coast call for Rolling Stone, Creem, Musician and others. But I missed that hillbilly boy with the blues who could fire'em up and burn an ache to cinders. So the tape played and the moments passed. We listened once, then again. It was a startling record: unburnished heartbreak sung in a sweet tenor haunted with lonely. It evoked the desperation of Merle Haggard, with a bit of Bob Wills' swing, plus the jocular spirit radio like. If it were a different world, I thought, it could work. But the world was brutal. To reinforce that truth, the gig was a bowling alley lounge where the soggy carpet smelt of stale beer, the naugahyde of the bar stools was cracked and peeling, the juke box stopped at '79 and the formica on the tables was chipped like a cheap manicure. Standing beneath a sign that read, "Tonite VINC GI L," the conversation was reinforced by the tableau's bleakness. "I love your writing, but nobody gets it… If they wanted that, it would've happened," I said wincing, guilty, the voice of hard truth. "Maybe that Reba duet (the two-step friendly 'Oklahoma Swing') will work…you know, use her momentum to break. But 'When I Call Your Name'? They hate sad stuff, especially sad stuff that's classic country music. "And that 'Never Knew Lonely'? My god, they want shiny, happy -- not the depths of despair." It's a long story… "When I Call Your Name" topping the country charts. But one of Nashville's finest moments. And it created the dichotomy that defines Vince Gill's legacy. Vince Gill is a good guy, with a rapier wit, no need to suffer in the open or flex his artistry, so it's easy to make him Kenny Rogers. Mr. Middle America with an awards show gig, a set of golf clubs, a willingness to help out and a gift so profound, it's effortless. How good can he be? After all, we like our redneck romeos wild-eyed, swaggering and spitting and looking for trouble. Vince Gill's too tame, too well-spoken the naysayers argue. But that negates the utter naturalness of his affinity for traditional forms. When the Hargus "Pig" Robbins cocktail piano slinks through the ever-after come-on "If You Ever Have Forever In Mind," it's testimony to a lost time when country came out of bars with broken hearts and shattered promises… Ditto the cheaters' waltz "Pocket Full of Gold" that was remorse and recrimination bathed in pedal steel and burnished with high lonesome harmonies. Or the searing "Go Rest High (On That Mountain)" intertwining his battered valentine high tenor with Patty Loveless' raw holler grit and Ricky Skaggs' bluegrass whine that's as mournful an Appalachian elegy as the Carters, the Louvins or the Stanleys ever mustered. Even at his most pop -- the sleek "Whenever You Come Around" or the good-natured purgatory-(maybe) -raisin' romp "One More Last Chance" -- there's still the truth of the moment that demands witness. Real life is like that. It ain't fancy and it isn't always profound. Gill -- who plays Gund Arena with wife Amy Grant as part of their Christmas tour, another move neither Hank Williams Sr. or Jr would make the naysayers can grumble -- understands that. He's so not so full of himself he's going to miss the simple joys that make surviving the valleys or climbing the mountain worth it. Indeed, he don't much care what the critics think. Which is a shame. Because when conventional wisdom misses albums like The Key or High Lonesome Sound, it deprives country's legacy not more watered down pop-lite country crooners, but a writer/artist who enriches the genre with a deep sense of what matters about a musical form that's suffering an identity crisis. Vince Gill is the real deal, a country singer from the inside out. He weeps with the best rather than embracing two dimensional emotions that're pure Hallmark rather than landmark. He offers fans songs to define what they may not have the vocabulary or introspection to explain. -- Holly Gleason

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