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Vince Gill

Next Big Thing

(MCA)

Few music stars are willing to publicly accept that their heyday will inevitably pass. Fewer still have the insight to write a song capturing the experience of spiraling downward in their profession. So I was surprised to discover that Vince Gill, a country star not generally known for his deep lyrics, had written just such a meditation. The song in question, "Young Man's Town," is the centerpiece of his strong new CD, Next Big Thing (MCA), and it goes like this: "You wake up one morning and it's passed you by / You don't know when and you don't know why / You feel like an old memory hangin' round / Man you gotta face it, it's a young man's town."

Gill captures that moment in every country star's career when the stylistic vogue shifts and the slide from the top begins--a process that gets short shrift in country-music discourse even though it's been going on ever since the music's commercial beginnings in the 1920s. Songs about the changing of the guard tend to be superficial laments that conveniently avoid the messy facts of history. The Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone," written by Darrell Scott, voices the party line when it complains about country radio: "Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard / They got money but they don't have Cash / They got Junior but they don't have Hank."

The Chicks aren't alone in bewailing how antiseptic artistry has replaced a roots sound in modern country music, but their blanket assessment ignores the fact that Cash, Haggard, and Hank, at their heights, were stylistic innovators who drastically changed country music. All three were young once, and each, in his way, helped drive an earlier generation of legends off the charts and into the dustbin. Gill's "Young Man's Town," by contrast, takes in the complexity of the situation. Its most striking quality is its generosity in the face of utter annihilation, a near Elisabeth Kubler-Ross-ian acceptance of events that cannot be changed: "Sometimes you gotta stand back and watch 'em burn it to the ground / Even though you built it it's a young man's town."

Those are ballsy lines, at once sad, horrifying, and liberating. The new generation may fuck it all up, setting unstoppable changes in motion. So what if they do? It would hardly be the first time. If you want to be snotty about it (and I do) you could point out that it was the sainted Patsy Cline, recording her hits with Nashville Sound architect Owen Bradley, who helped integrate pure pop and country--using lush strings, shaving off the twang--and paved the way for the likes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill. 'Twas always thus: the young supplant the old, they assimilate and discard and alter their influences, the great wheel turns, and so on and so forth. To borrow a line from writer Michael Herr, it's an old story--unless of course you've never heard it.

Or lived it, more to the point. And that's what Vince Gill is doing at this moment. His generation came to rule Nashville in the contemporary age. His most crucial alliances were formed during his early-80s tenure in Rodney Crowell's backing band the Cherry Bombs, an outfit that also included future powerhouse producers Tony Brown and Emory Gordy Jr. It was Brown, by 1989 a record honcho at MCA Nashville, who helped launch his old pal Gill into solo stardom, just when artists like Merle Haggard were slipping off the charts for good. Gill knows his history, and maybe his ability to connect the dots between his rise and the fall of his elders accounts for his charity toward the newcomers who'll replace him. "It's a young man's town full of young men's dreams / And all God's children gotta learn to spread their wings."

"Young Man's Town" is built on a hypnotic midtempo rhythm, with weeping fiddle and pedal steel snaking smoothly around echoing electric guitars. Gill's vocal is as subtle as it gets--he walks the thin line between acceptance and resignation, conveying a melancholy just this side of self-pity. Emmylou Harris's fragile harmonies hover ghostlike behind the pained physicality of Gill's tenor. He's a middle-aged man, naked in the face of mortality and his own impending irrelevance. She's the stand-in for all the apparitions of country, nearly a century of the living and the dead, the ones like Ernest Tubb who remained active and self-actualized till the end and the ones like Lefty Frizzell, who died at 47, battered by the vagaries of the music business.

Frizzell was young once too. During his glory days in the early 1950s, he was a massive hit maker; it's no overstatement to say that he remains the single greatest influence on contemporary male country singers. If not for the leavening effect of Lefty's style, the young George Jones might have fallen by the wayside as just one more Hank Williams imitator. Mel Street, Keith Whitley, George Strait, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson--all bear the deep and unmistakable imprint of Frizzell's heartbreaking, vowel-caressing croon. But how many of today's country fans even know who Lefty Frizzell was, much less lament his absence from the airwaves? It was Merle Haggard, Frizzell's greatest acolyte, who absorbed Lefty's style, passed it down to future generations, and inadvertently helped end his hero's career. By the time Hag's star was ascending, Frizzell had slid into a painful cycle of sporadic comebacks and bitter, boozy retreats.

It was after the death of his beloved idol that Haggard wrote "Footlights," which is similar in some ways to "Young Man's Town"--writer Daniel Cooper says it "may be the most honest, bitter comment on the plight of a midlife country entertainer anyone has ever sung." "I'm 41 years old / And I ain't got no place to go when it's over," sings the mournful Haggard. "But I'll hide my age and make the stage / And try to kick the footlights out again."

Vince Gill is now four years older than Haggard was when he first sang "Footlights." But not only is he not bitter about aging, he's found artistic freedom in it. Facing his future has allowed Gill to at last break loose from his past--a past filled with a lot of lame songs. Watching Gill onstage last month at the House of Blues, I found myself genuinely moved by the power of his metamorphosis. Little trace remained of the bland superstar of yore, the mostly polite singer of mostly trite songs. Even past Gill confections like "What the Cowgirls Do" became scorching jams. Forsaking the arena for a smaller room, he seemed reborn, wailing on his Telecaster as he oughta and rocketing his tenor into that high-lonesome land. This was a guitarist and singer freed of the burden of 22 million units moved.

I never woulda thunk he had it in him. After his House of Blues show, I rifled through my archives and retrieved an old Reader piece, a hatchet job I'd written in 1994, containing such nasty sentiments as "If his recent show at Poplar Creek and his latest release, When Love Finds You, are proof of what nice guys do to country music, please, bring on the shitheels." It was riddled with phrases like "big, saccharine ballad" and "doughy tenor delivery." At one point I observed that his guitar licks were "as personality free as a spanking-new Lacoste shirt." Nearly ten years after that diatribe, here I am gushing over a guy I once accused of having the power to "turn just about any tune into a vanilla train wreck."

"Young Man's Town" is more than a song for Gill--it's a leap across the chasm from affable celebrity to real-deal artist. The song is potent because Gill is still a solid marquee name. Yet he sounds cognizant that one day down the road, he'll step down or be tossed out. He's glancing over a high cliff, and his contemplation of the eventual fall makes the song harrowing.

Writing a song about the much-mocked "midlife crisis" is a gamble. Artistically, middle age is often treated as lukewarm water, lacking the visceral angst of youth and the twilight intensities of old age. Today it's generally caricatured as a pathetic flurry of comb-overs and sucked-in guts and desperate dates with the Botox needle. But the midpoint is never so simple. Gill confronts this complicated, misunderstood juncture head-on. Ironically, by recognizing the need to step aside, Gill presents Exhibit A in defense of our need for mature performers in country music. Only a seasoned artist could have such a clear view of the past--and such a realistic view of the future.

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