NASHVILLE — The word "crazy" pops up often in conversation these days with country musician Vince Gill, and more often than not, the tongue it's rolling off of is his own. He knows that's the way much of the music world will perceive his release Tuesday of a four-CD album of all-new recordings -- widely considered a first for a major pop-music recording artist.
More than three decades into a career in which he's sold more than 20 million albums, won 17 Grammys and two dozen more awards from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, the Oklahoma-born singer, guitarist and songwriter decided it was time for a bold break from business as usual.
The set, constituting no less than his magnum opus, is titled "These Days," after one of its 43 songs, all of which he wrote or co-wrote. They're organized into four individually themed and titled albums: "Some Things Never Get Old," a traditional country collection; "Workin' On a Big Chill," a harder-rocking set heavy on roaring electric guitars; "Little Brother," an acoustic bluegrass effort; and "The Reason Why," a session heavy on romantic ballads.
Pundits will be quick to suggest other titles that might have been more appropriate in this era of retrenchment and lowered expectations: "No Easy Way," perhaps, for the job facing his record label, MCA Nashville; "Nothing Left to Say," for the potential aftermath of his creative outpouring; or the country ballad that might just sum it all up: "Out of My Mind."
Crazy or crafty, he credits it all to a bathroom visit during a recording session.
"We were in the studio knocking around working, having a big time doing all this recording," Gill, 49, said while relaxing in the den of the elegantly comfy two-story home he shares with his wife of 6 1/2 years, Christian pop singer Amy Grant, and their 5-year-old daughter, Corrina.
"I was going to the bathroom, and on the wall was a Beatles poster that had all their records on it and all their release dates. I looked at that and thought, 'They released that record, that record and that record within a year of each other?'
"It blew my mind," he said. "I thought, 'Well, shoot, why couldn't I do that?' "
At the time, he'd been agonizing over choosing tunes for a single album from among some three dozen songs he'd recorded during an especially fruitful period last year. He went to label president Luke Lewis and proposed putting out three albums within a relatively short time.
Lewis not only liked the idea, he urged Gill on. "He's been crediting me with the fourth album," Lewis said in a separate interview. "But after hearing the first three, I just asked if he felt like he was through. I think he said, 'I'd like to do some acoustic bluegrass stuff.' ... I kind of like to break the rules anyway, because I can't figure out who made them in the first place," said Lewis, who's betting there are plenty of listeners ready to respond to Gill's desire to explore all facets of his passion for music, from country to bluegrass to rock to gospel to jazz. "We don't have to sell a huge amount to break even on this, and I've put out three or four Willie Nelson records in a year and three Ryan Adams albums, so it wasn't a big stretch in that regard."
The set's list price is $29.98, so many retailers will sell it for around $20. It's aimed, both men say, at the core Vince Gill fan.
"It's not so much about trying to convince 50 million people to jump on board to a new record," Gill says. "It's really to give all this music to people who have been there from Day One for me."
A call from Clapton
The wellspring of Gill's musical gusher can be traced back a couple of years to a phone call from one of his heroes.
"This voice on the other end said, 'Hello, Vince? This is Eric Clapton,' " Gill says, affecting a gentle British accent. "I said, "Right, and I'm the pope.' But he went on, 'No, it's really Eric. I'm having a guitar festival down in Dallas, and I'm only inviting players I admire. I'd like you to be there.' "
Gill was the only country musician featured on the main stage of Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004, along with such fret board luminaries as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Carlos Santana, Larry Carlton and Clapton himself.
"I can't tell you what that did for me," Gill said. "That was very freeing. All I ever wanted to do was play music with other people, and here was somebody I admire respecting me for the thing I always wanted to do."
After that, Gill hunkered down with renewed vigor to write and record. "When I came up for air, we had about 35 songs ready. Then it occurred to me, 'Oh, God, now I've got to whittle it down to 10 or 11 for an album.' "
Having talked his way through that conundrum, Gill recently invited about two dozen guests into his dining room to sample the four CDs at a small-scale session. He talked about the songs and the two dozen guest performers, periodically nearing tears as he elucidated how much they mean to him.