Nashville, Tenn. • Vince Gill thinks "Guitar Slinger" is his best album, and that's saying something. Yet he figures the average country fan won't hear it.
That listener usually picks up her music on the radio, and precious few mainstream country stations will be playing Gill's music in heavy rotation. As a player with a keen sense of country music history, he's seen it happen time and again. He was saddened when they stopped playing Merle Haggard and George Jones. He understood why, but that doesn't make it easier to take.
"I just felt like, 'Don't stop playing them because of their age,'" Gill said. "If they're not as good, if the records aren't as great, if the crap coming along is better, great. That's all I ever wanted any of the people coming along to be was great. But if you get replaced by what you feel is not even close to as good, that messes with you, I guess."
Gill is 54. There are a few artists in the over-50 set who get a pass like George Strait and Reba McEntire. But Gill thinks he's a better songwriter, player and singer than at any time in his life, and the proof is on "Guitar Slinger," his follow-up to his 2006 Grammy-winning album "These Days."
It's a deeply personal album, recorded in his new home studio with close friends and his wife Amy Grant and daughters contributing. Some of the songs are among the most powerful he's written, including a pair of tributes to friends he's lost recently. It's an album that sounds like, to Gill, what country music should sound like. It's powerful, story-driven music that doesn't bow to the trends.
He thinks if radio programmers gave it a chance, they might be surprised at the response.
"I kind of feel like now I'm old enough to have a comeback," he joked.
That would take the right song, said Wade Jessen, Billboard's country charts manager. He said Gill remains one of country music's "most loved and adored" stars, but that if he wants to return to the top of the charts, he's got to meld his music to today's sound, which skews raucous and alcohol-soaked, for the most part.
He noted Kenny Rogers became the oldest artist to have a No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot Country Songs Chart when he conformed to the sounds of the times on "Buy Me a Rose," which topped the chart on May 13, 2000.
"My take on the gatekeepers at radio is they're looking for songs they feel strongly are country rotation hit records," Jessen said. "It's no question that the scrutiny veteran artists get is probably a little more stringent, absolutely. Radio is still driving listeners of a certain demographic to please radio advertisers, and they don't take a lot of chances."
Gill questions the logic behind chasing trends and alienating your core audience. Look beyond the radio dial and there's a world full of loyal lifers who don't ebb and flow. His fans know he's a two-time Country Music Association entertainer of the year with 20 Grammys for a reason. When he hits the road, his shows sell out and those followers are loyal with their wallets.
Radio is just a small part of his world.
"It's all youth-driven, youth-based," Gill said. "How're we going to stay young? How're we going to stay fit? How are we going to be relevant? Blah blah blah blah blah. It's just how we've chosen to be as a culture, so none of it surprises me. What I find the most interesting is by that push towards that, you've alienated your core audience, to me."
And Gill is in tight with that core audience. He's begun to take on a role he jokingly refers to as "elder statesman."
He just reached his 20th anniversary with The Grand Ole Opry, a milestone he likes to think of as a young one, considering all the old timers still holding down regular spots on the roster.
And while he's always been the guy around town you call when you need someone to stand in, he's transitioned into the guy you call on when introductions need to be made, golf clubs need swinging, funds need raising and politicians require a little glad-handing.
John Anderson, who was on hand to salute Gill during his Opry celebration, calls him a "great, great ambassador to our business."
"Vince is one of the guys that will carry the torch and will carry it in an honorable and right way," he said. "That's the part of Vince that I'm proud to know, the fact that he is a great writer, a great singer and a great player, and on the other hand, he's a very hard worker and a very good man. Sometimes it's hard to find that combination. But Vince is one of them."
At the same time, he can slip in the side door at The Station Inn, Nashville's bluegrass epicenter, and sit in on a regular gig with The Time Jumpers, just another player plucking his way through the night.
"It speaks volumes to his character that he's able to just pull up a stool on Monday nights and join us in a little club in Nashville and play music," Time Jumpers fiddler Kenny Sears said. "He doesn't have to be up on the big stage with the Vince Gill name up in lights. Haven't seen him change. I think he's still the same Vince when he came to town. That's so refreshing."
One of the things that haven't changed is how Gill feels about making new music. The chance to collaborate and make something new in the studio, even after selling 26 million albums, continues to give him a charge. He hopes you can see that in "Guitar Slinger."
"I still sit in the car when I hear my song on the radio, and in this stretch of the last few years where I haven't, that hurts," Gill said. "It's still no fun. It's a drag to do what you do and they're not interested. 'Come on, man, this is good.' You can't help be a little bit deflated by all that. You desire doesn't change. Mine hasn't changed. I still want what I'm doing to reach people and touch people. I'm not going to quit trying."