As 2006 nears its end, no one can argue that the world of country music isn't, at this moment, the most adventurous in the mainstream pop music industry and that Nash Vegas is taking more chances on its acts as the rest of the biz relies more on narrowing things into smaller and smaller niches that can easily be hyped and digested. Sure, as always, artist's images and many recordings are calculated to score big as in any pop industry. The difference is in approach. The country-listening audience/demographic has widened considerably; therefore, there is a need -- as well as an opportunity -- for experimentation to see what sticks. This is the most exciting the music's been since Willie and Waylon hit the charts in the '70s, or perhaps to be a bit more fair, when Garth Brooks turned them upside down in the early '90s. Country music's fan base is growing because it still relies largely on radio, and video channels like CMT and GAC, both of which are very supportive of directors and artists taking artistic chances in the way they choose to dramatize, animate, and portray songs -- check the work of the brilliant director Trey Fanjoy just for starters. Country's latest audience grew up on rock & roll, MTV (when it still played videos), soul, blues, funk, early rap, and in some cases even punk. And while the marketing approach is still singles-driven, country music artists and producers, as well as the labels that house them, are still concerned with the "album" either as a whole, or as a completely crafted collection of varying singles (in this case meaning "good songs"). What's more, these folks still buy CDs (titles are readily available at the local in mega-marts and department stores) and don't rely on the internet as much as pop and rock fans do for information. Given the long run of the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way at number one on the country and Billboard charts, one can't simply dismiss the music as being the religious right's stronghold or pop culture front for "traditional family values" anymore, either, though admittedly there's plenty of that around. In the 21st century it's country music and hip hop -- not rock -- that have been taking on the topics of race, class, basic human dignity and diversity, more than any other popular (chart measured) American musics.
This current mindset in both the Nash Vegas offices and in the fan base is what makes Vince Gill's These Days, a 43-song, four-disc set, possible. Gill had been planning on making a standard single-disc record in 2006. He wanted it to be musically diverse. Given his long career as songwriter, picker, producer, singer, recording and performing artist, he had a right to expect his label MCA Nashville to go along with his choices. What he didn't count on was recording 31 songs with various groups of musicians and not knowing what to do with them. He approached Luke Lewis, the label's president, with an idea he got from the Beatles multi-release-per-year tactic (the same one everybody used in the '60s), which was to issue three albums approximately three months apart in a single calendar year. Lewis, visionary that he is, went one better. He encouraged Gill to go back into the studio and cut enough quality material for a fourth disc and release them all as a box set. Unlike most boxes on the shelf, this one retails for a fairly modest $29.98 -- less than eight dollars a disc -- an attractive package in time for the holidays.
However, adventurous Nashville music industry or not, it all eventually comes down to the quality of the music after all, right? Yes. These four discs are thematically arranged: there's an acoustic bluegrass-flavored record called "Little Brother" (disc four), a rock record called "Workin' on a Big Chill" (disc one), a trad country & western album called "Some Things Never Get Old" (disc three), and a modern soul and jazz-inflected disc of ballads and more gentle pieces called "The Reason Why" (disc two). What's more, though Gill wrote or co-wrote everything here, he called in numerous guests to help him out. These include Gretchen Wilson, his wife Amy Grant, daugher Jenny Gill, Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, pedal steel guitar boss Buddy Emmons, Phil Everly, Rebecca Lynn Howard, the Del McCoury Band, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, John Anderson, Katrina Elam, Lee Ann Womack, LeAnn Rimes, Guy Clark, Trisha Yearwood, Bekka Bramlett, and Michael McDonald. The end result is a magical mystery tour through Gill's own wildly varying aesthetic interests and his uncanny ability to pull off his diverse ideas on tape. These Days is not only a showcase of Gill's multidimensional musical persona, but a virtual treatise on the expansive, open-minded, under the umbrella viewpoint that has taken over Nashville in the current era.
"Workin' on a Big Chill" lives up to its name as a rock record as reflected in the tunes, the beats, and the instrumentation. The title track alone, with Gill's own considerable bluesed-out guitar-slinging skills burning down the house, punches a hole in expectations; the track also includes a Wurlitzer, a B-3 and Bramlett's killer backing vocals. "Love's Standin'" was written with co-producer John Hobbs (Justin Niebank and Gill, of course, also inhabit these chairs), and the wonderfully iconoclastic songwriter and producer Joe Henry (it could have been a smash for Fleetwood Mac), and showcases the sheer white soul backing chorus of Bramlett (who was a member of the latter day Fleetwood Mac), Gene Miller, and Gill. Wilson guests on "Cowboy Up," is more an upscale blues tune than a country song and proves Wilson can sing anything she wants and belongs where she is -- at the top. While there isn't a weak moment on this set, some of the other standouts include the popping "Sweet Thing," with a full-on horn section, the Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired "Nothin for a Broken Heart," with Crowell, and the utterly sexy and soulful country rocker "The Rhythm of the Pourin' Rain," with Bramlett. The only complaint here is that there isn't more of this material: four CDs of rock & roll tracks would have been welcome, and if rock radio were worth a damn Gill would easily crossover with a couple of these songs.
With its subdued tone, and generally slicker productions that include strings, some muted synthesizers, jazzy arrangements, and pop music stylistic tropes, one might think that "The Reason Why: The Groovy Record" would be the least desirable here. Not so. From the opening cut, "What You Don't Say," with Rimes and a full-on string section with ringing pedal steel, Gill proves he is an American pop songwriter par excellence. If all the music on the charts was done this well, with this much passion and soul and pomp, radio would never have lost its appeal. This is the album in the set that reveals the depth of Gill's craft as a songwriter. The early rock & roll waltz trappings and vibes, as well as distorted piano on the title cut with Krauss, is a gorgeous love song with some of Gill's finest vocals on tape. Period. "Rock of Your Love" could have been featured on any of Raitt's latter recordings, and that's a compliment. The slow, dirty guitar line and Raitt's R&B slow burning voice carry it home. Where Gill uses guest vocalists -- female vocalists have always provided a wise counterpoint to his own husky tenor -- the tunes work so well most could be singles. Check "What You Give Away," with Crow, and "The Memory of You," with Yearwood. They're solid; full of honest emotion and pop brilliance. The beautiful love song and gospel tune, "Tell Me One Time About Jesus," with Grant, and "Time To Carry On," with Jenny Gill, are excellent album tracks and give depth, dimension and warmth to this set and are indispensable to it. The duet with Krall is the greatest chance Gill could take. He works in her idiom -- and, of course, she plays that wonderful piano of hers -- and pulls it off with grace and aplomb in the same way Tom Waits pulled off his duets with Crystal Gayle on the soundtrack for One from the Heart.
"Some Things Never Get Old" is subtitled "The Country & Western Record." This is an important distinction because what Gill has assembled here is nothing short of a honky tonk set. Though Gill's voice is a little smooth and high, it hardly matters because he's got the two things that count most on an old-school C&W set: the songs and the band. With Emmons on pedal steel (he's one of the great sonic and stylistic innovators on the instrument) guitarist Billy Joe Walker, Jr., fiddle boss Stuart Duncan, and a slew of backing vocalists who include Dawn Sears, Liana Manis, Jon Randall, Andrea Zonn, and Wes Hightower, as well as his core band, he's in the pocket. The music here collects styles from hardcore honky tonk, countrypolitan, late-night loving and torch songs done as only country singers can, and of course, hillbilly anthems. Some of the top-notch tracks here include "Out of My Mind," with Patty Loveless, the title cut, "Sweet Little Corrina" with Everly (which harks back to those classic Warner Brothers Everly sides), "If I Can Make Mississippi" with Womack, the rowdy good ole boy outlaw anthem, "Take This Country Back," a duet with the truly incomparable John Anderson.
This leaves, finally, "Little Brother, The Acoustic Record." True; some fans of country -- especially modern country, may have a harder time with this disc because it is both a bluegrass record full of banjos, dobros, mandolins, white Southern gospel, and mountain music -- and simply recorded country ballads. Fans of Gill's shouldn't be surprised; his membership in the Grand Ole Opry, his deep reverence for this tradition, and his ability to write, play, and sing in it like an old master, -- and his previous recordings featuring these qualities -- qualify him to indulge that Muse. But Gill's approach, as old-school in thinking as it may be, uses both the music's early reliance on blues and folk styles of the British Isles as a way of expressing the mountain tradition and also the modern scholarship and musical innovations informing it. He is accompanied by the Del McCoury Band on a couple of selections here -- "Cold Gray Light of Gone," "A River Like You," with Jenny Gill, "Ace Up Your Pretty Sleeve," co-written with the great and criminally under-noticed Mark Germino, and "Give Me the Highway" -- but his own takes on country are actually quite creative in his interpretation on the form. But the chiller here is "Girl" with Rebecca Lynn Howard. Here, the deep, high lonesome sound is informed by all of the early folk musics that came before it, and Gill gives them all free rein as this tune wafts from the Appalachian mountain country to Celtic, Irish, and Scottish meadows and coastlines. And although the set's final cut, "Almost Home," with Guy Clark, has no commercial potential, it's a fitting way to close an album; it's a storyteller's tune, one where Clark speaks in that age-old wizened rogue manner of his, and helps to create a myth of near-epic proportion.
What it all adds up to is that this is Gill's masterwork. It's an exhaustive, profound, fun and fulfilling set that not only gives fans something to delight in, but goes wide and if given half a chance could and would attract many new ones. It is one of the major recordings not only of 2006, but of the decade so far -- in any genre. This is the treatment a seasoned artist like Gill deserves, and along with the benefit and support of being able to indulge in such a project, it lives up to the responsibility of delivering the goods in abundance. This is yet another example that the new media-savvy form of country music introduced by Brooks in the '90s has yielded something far more interesting and exciting than some folks are willing to accept, and yet still others are able to believe.