Vince Gill's earliest memory is of his father singing.
"'Old Shep,' and it just used to rip my heart out when my father would sing it," says Gill in a call from his Nashville-area home that he shares with his wife, singer Amy Grant. "The guy shoots his own dog at the end of it and my father used to sing it to me all the time just to make me cry. It's one of my very fondest and tenderest memories of my life."
Gill has had his own share of making listeners teary-eyed with his music. He's one of country music's all-time great balladeers, While he'd had some hits in the 1980s, it wasn't until the 1990 hit "When I Call Your Name" that he cemented himself as the guy who could use his high tenor to rip your heart out. From that point on, Gill was one of country's most consistent hitmakers and, in concert, his fans could appreciate that he was as adept a guitar player as a vocalist.
Gill is touring in support his latest album, "Guitar Slinger," which marks the final album of his contract with MCA Records.
"It's the first time in a long, long time that I haven't had a record deal," he says. "But I'm going to make the next record and take it right back to them and see if they want to put it out. There's not been any kind of unhappy or disgruntled thing at all. It's just that the time was up."
Born in Norman, Okla., in 1957, Gill joined bluegrass bands as a teenager and joined the already established Pure Prairie League as lead vocalist in 1979. He later moved to country music both as a performer and a songwriter.
Although he's sold more than 22 million albums overall, Gill readily says he's "not exactly burning the charts up anymore."
"I'm still trying, but I've been shown the door, so to speak. There's great freedom in that."
In 2006, Gill released a four CD collection called "These Days." Inspired a stack of his own songs that he hadn't been able to record on earlier albums, he dedicated each disc to a different style or type of song. It was a critical hit.
"That was six years ago now, in the height of the single-download movement and here this idiot shows up with four records!" Gill laughs. "It was very much against the grain and against logic, but it was creative and that's all I ever tried to be."
Gill says that he's lucky to have a fan base that allows him to have a successful career even though country radio isn't playing his music.
Gill has had more recent success on television and the Internet. He recently participated in a TV program with trumpeter Chris Botti after singing Randy Newman's "Losing You" on Botti's most recent album, "Impressions." He played guitar and sang back-up to Carrie Underwood's performance of "How Great Thou Art" for the TV special "ACM's Girl's Night Out." The performance has been viewed nearly 14 million times on YouTube. He says there's a reason he didn't sing it as a duet with Underwood. One of his other first memories is hearing his mother play the song on piano.
"I still get a little bit lumpy throated when I hear that song. Everybody fought me. Her manager, TV people ... They said, 'You have to sing it.' And I said, 'No, I promise you this will work and it will be special. This will be the one moment that might get to be a little different.' But deep down I knew I would have a hard time singing it. Every time I've tried to sing it, it's got me."
In whatever capacity, making music, says Gill, is something he never takes for granted.
"Not once in my life have I thought about doing something else. I can't imagine living without playing music. I love it too much, regardless of the results. The results have never been the driving force. I would do it no matter what. I would do it working in a cocktail lounge happy hour, a rathole six nights a week playing covers, I'd do it. It's the best feeling in the world to me, playing music."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!