That Vince Gill devotes roughly a dozen shows a year to a predominantly bluegrass-oriented repertoire shouldn't come as a surprise to his more long-standing fans. After all, the veteran country star's roots run deep into string music, from the year he lived in Lexington at the height of the city's mid-'70s bluegrass boom to a 2001 Grammy Award — one of the 20-plus he has won — for an all-star version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
What does rattle expectations, however, is that on the day before our conversation, Gill wound up on Good Morning America singing not bluegrass or country but a pop jazz version of Randy Newman's Losing You alongside Chris Botti. The trumpeter is the latest entry in a growing roster of diverse collaborators that includes Emmylou Harris, Joe Bonamassa, Gladys Knight, Dire Straits, Daughtry, wife Amy Grant and Kermit the Frog. Does such company reflect a fondness for music that runs beyond country borders?
"I sure hope so," replied Gill, who presents one of his bluegrass concerts Friday night at the Lexington Opera House. "I love all kinds of music. Always have. I tell people I learned as much from Led Zeppelin as I did Bill Monroe. All things, anything in between — I just love anything that's great.
"But what's really cool about bluegrass music is the democracy it has always represented within a band. Even if it was Bill Monroe, it was still Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. It was always Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Bluegrass always had a band mentality to it, and that offered a great learning curve for me. It's like being a kid. You learn how to play well with others. You really depend on each other. And you support each other.
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"It's not just the frontman out there and you're the stuff in the background that nobody notices. With bluegrass, you notice the entire thing. It's one unit. And when it works together, it rocks as hard as The Rolling Stones."
Long before Gill was playing to full arenas in the '90s, armed with sterling high tenor vocals and equally radiant country originals like When I Call Your Name and Pocket Full of Gold, he was honing his vocal and instrumental prowess with the Bluegrass Alliance in Louisville and with Boone Creek in Lexington. The latter was a short-lived gig (about eight months) but teamed Gill with two young alumni from J.D. Crowe's landmark version of the New South: Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas.
"I wound up playing bass with Boone Creek. And I was not a bass player. I mean, I could play bass. But here were all these great virtuoso musicians out there doing what they do, and I was playing bass and not getting to sing. Jerry and I used to play some twin dobro stuff in Boone Creek, too. But I don't play dobro so much anymore. Jerry will do that to you. He'll make you never want to play the instrument again.
"So even with as much as I was learning, it just wasn't the best fit. After about eight months, I went back to Louisville for a short time and then wound up going to the West Coast. That opened my mind to a lot of new music, a lot of different things. So in hindsight, it was a great move for me.
"But I loved Lexington while I was there. Great college town. Became a Big Blue fan and all that. Crowe was there, so Lexington was a mecca. And Louisville, too. Those two cities, just an hour apart, presented music that proved to be really pivotal for me. That time in Kentucky impacted my entire career. So I'm excited to come back and play and have the night be about bluegrass and not so much about the big country artist who had a nice career."
Gill referred to his country career in the past tense several times. That doesn't mean he has forsaken it. But with a 23-year stretch as a country artist contracted to Universal/MCA Records now behind him — his final album for the label, Guitar Slinger, was released last fall — Gill is eager to hit the studio for some altogether different music.
"I would probably be a fool if I didn't make a bluegrass record now," he said. "Life, at this point, should be about having some fun. I have a long history of loving bluegrass music, so a record of that may be ahead for me. Plus, I'm not under contract with Universal/MCA anymore. That kind of thing, for the most part, would prohibit you from doing a lot of outside, off-the-wall, whatever-you-want-to-call-it type projects. So I am pretty excited about my future.
"I don't want to say I'm starting over, but it's like I get to go do anything I want now, and I'm sure that will include making a bluegrass record. Maybe it will include an instrumental record. I love big band music. I love standards. I've got several ideas in my brain for 10 or 15 ways I could go and the kinds of records I could make. I think, in all honesty, I'm going to do them all."