Vince Gill: “Guitar Slinger”
How do you follow a four-disc collection of brand new material, an extravagantly forward-thinking and generous collection that reframed the entire notion of what contemporary country music could be while remaining steeped in its history and lore? If you’re Vince Gill, the answer, it seems, is to do it all over again—only this time, contain in to just a dozen songs. Gill’s new Guitar Slinger comes five years after These Days; can you blame him for taking some time off? The new recording is, obviously, a more compact set than the 53-song beast that came before it, but its brevity makes it no less expansive. The album touches on everything These Days did and more. With every album Gill releases, it seems the boundaries of what constitutes modern country music are pushed further and further back, and Guitar Slinger encompasses an entire spectrum of popular song that very few recording artists, of any genre, could wrap their head around.
In some ways, it packs an even greater punch than These Days. That album, you’ll remember, was sectioned off according to genre—there was a disc for rock, a disc for smooth ballads, a disc for classic c&w, and a disc for bluegrass. Those different modes intermingle on Guitar Slinger, caressing each other and spilling into each other in a way that makes it hard to draw strict distinctions; sometimes you can point to a certain song and say it would have fit well on the Ballads disc, or on the Bluegrass one, but not always. Gill obviously isn’t mining these idioms for as much depth, but he is finding new variations, and ultimately expanding his music even further. There are songs on Guitar Slinger that wouldn’t have fit very easily onto any of These Days’ discs.
Really, it takes a couple of songs before you come to anything that’s even recognizable as country. The title track opens the album, and if it’s got a little twang to it, it’s more in a Sun Studios sense than anything else. It’s an uproarious 50’s-style rock and roll number that tips its hat to Gene Vincent’s guitar licks and Jerry Lewis’ pounding piano in equal measure. Yes, it’s got some pretty stellar guitar heroics; it takes a certain size of cajones to title an album Guitar Slinger, but Gill’s got the slash-and-burn to earn the title. But the shredding isn’t as big a part of the album as the title might lead you to believe; this is a songwriter’s showcase, something the title song makes evident with its autobiographical narrative and winking humor (he went and married him a contemporary Christian singer, the song reminds us). The song that follows is a complete 180 from the first—“Tell Me Fool” is a blue-eyed soul ballad that’s smooth and soulful, and a kick-in-the-ass to any would-be cheater—but here again, it doesn’t sound like anything you’d hear on country radio.
What makes the album great is simply how professional Gill is; both as a songwriter and a record-maker, he is a consummate craftsman, and while that may not sound exciting on paper it leads to music that’s rooted in history but not restricted by it, music with a real sense of curiosity at all that pop songs can be but never seems show-offy in its execution. It also leads to some moments that really ought not work, but do, brilliantly. The third song, and first single, is called “Threaten Me with Heaven.” It’s sung from the perspective of a man facing down mortality; he consoles his wife by saying the wonderful life they’ve had together can never be taken away, and death is only the beginning of life eternal. It’s a straight-up tearjerker, its harmony-rich refrain almost shameless, but it works like gangbusters. You can’t not be moved by it.
I have a hard time imagining “The Old Lucky Diamond Hotel” on any of the four These Days discs. In fact, Gill says it was this song that really kickstarted this album, assuring him that he was able to write material that didn’t simply rehash something from the last one. It’s a story-song, recounting the colorful patrons of the titular hotel. It’s pretty country, but too old-timey to fit on the last album’s c&w disc. I’d say the same about the mountain gospel song “Bread and Water,” or the eerie “Billy Paul,” a tale of murder and suicide belied by its rather upbeat arrangement.
Two of the best songs come at the end. “If I Die” is a light Texas swing, and one of several songs here that deals with mortality. Its lyric reveals just how good Gill is at crafting songs that fit within country parameters while exposing just what a difference a smart writer makes; the way he fills in the details of the song with what I assume to be part autobiography, part fiction, and part philosophical musing, then bringing it all back around to a matter of faith, is stirring. And “Buttermilk John” is a kind of mountain music coda—but it’s stretched to six minutes in length to give the musicianship room to sparkle. All told, Guitar Slinger is an album built on songs but ultimately bigger than the sum of its parts; it shows us how a little imagination and out-of-the-box thinking can cause contemporary country music to really sing, and proves again that Vince Gill does this better than anyone else.