Interview: Vince Gill – Eagle Soar

Country superstar Vince Gill has played to packed out audiences all over the globe and has sold more than 20 million albums in his career, but nothing could prepare him for the pressure of stepping into the shoes of the late Glenn Frey with the Eagles. Joe Bosso finds out more…

Vince Gill

When Vince Gill accepted the invitation to join the Eagles last year for two shows, he knew that he was stepping into a potential minefield. “Let’s face it, the Eagles without Glenn Frey was pretty unthinkable to the band’s fans,” he says. “As a fan myself, I can understand that. But I never went into this thinking that I was ‘replacing’ Glenn, if that’s the right word – that would be impossible on every level. So I think once fans saw that, they gave me a chance.”

The two shows were such resounding successes (“they were beautiful, surreal and emotional”) that Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B Schmit decided to carry on with a full tour with a line-up that included, in addition to Gill, guitarist Steuart Smith and Frey’s own son, Deacon, on guitar and vocals.

“They wanted it to be great, and that’s something I could deal with,” says Gill. That was right up my alley. Being a part of it for over a year now, I can say that I go about things a little differently than the other guys, but this is all about playing what’s necessary – and only that much. You’re playing songs that are iconic, and you’re playing in front of a lot of people that would scratch their heads if they weren’t as they remember them. To me, it’s quite important to see these songs get performed the way they do. I’m a little more of a free spirit when I play and sing, but this has been a really great learning experience for me to understand why they do what they do. The songs deserve it.”

The Eagles of today are a far cry from the volatile, hard-living country-rock renegades they were in the 70s. “Aren’t we all?” Gill laughs. When asked if he would have joined the group back in their hedonistic glory days, the much-honoured guitarist (21 Grammys and counting) turns the question around and answers with characteristic modesty.

“The real question is, ‘Would I have been good enough?’” he asks. “And the answer is, ‘I don’t think so.’ I don’t think I played and sang back then to have merited being in the Eagles. The level of musicianship is pretty high in this band. It took me a long time to get where I am now, so to me it’s ‘all things for a reason’. I’m so much better than I was in the early days, and I’m just grateful to have this opportunity. I try to take things moment to moment, and this moment is pretty special.”

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You’ve known various members of the Eagles over the years, but how did you come to join the band?

“Yeah, I have known these guys for quite a while. I think I first met them around 1980. After the band broke up, Glenn and I became friends through our mutual manager, a man named Larry Fitzgerald, and his partner, Mark Hartley. They managed Glenn in his solo years. Glenn and I crossed paths quite often. He would come to some of my early gigs and cheer me on, and then he became with obsessed with golf, like me. So we had some things in common.

“There were other connections. I recorded I Can’t Tell You Why for an Eagles tribute album that they put together – Timothy sang on my version of it. And then Joe and I became friends, and we actually talked about trying to do a Traveling Wilburys kind of band. That would have been fun. I also worked with Don on his Cass Country album. After that, Don and I dueted on an Elton John project. There were so many times our lives converged. I did a couple of songs with the band when they were honoured at the Kennedy Center. So after a while, I think everybody sort of said, ‘Well, this might be possible…’

“I guess I kind of slipped in there. There were some naysayers at first, and I imagine there always will be. But I can’t worry about that – I’d go crazy if I let it get to me. It’s been okay. The way they’ve chosen to go on is by honouring Glenn, and it’s been a great experience for everybody.”

As a guitar player, what kind of impact did the Eagles have on you back in the day?

“Without question I was an Eagles fan. I loved all of their albums and songs. And I was a Joe Walsh fan, too – I was so into him as a solo artist before he joined the band. Joe had a huge impact on me as a guitar player. Before I became a bluegrass kind of knucklehead, I was playing in garage bands. We did all kinds of rock ’n’ roll, and we played Rocky Mountain Way and Funk #49. I was way into it. [laughs] There’s tapes of me playing Peaceful Easy Feeling – I must have been about 16 – and I was godawful. I haven’t got the courage to play those tapes for anybody. It’s hysterical how bad I sounded.

“But as I got older, I understood that the real purpose behind the guitar playing on a lot of those records was to serve the song. It wasn’t just somebody out there blowing a bunch of riffs over some changes. All the guitar parts were beautifully thought out, very well composed and unbelievably memorable. So many of those hooks are etched in your memory, and it’s unbelievable to play them on stage. You know, I’m still a fan. When Hotel California starts and the crowd just erupts, I’m smiling every time thinking, ‘This is so cool’.”

Vince Gill

It’s interesting that you were a fan of the harder rock songs. One might assume that you were more into the Bernie Leaden era versus something like Those Shoes

“I know people might assume that. What’s funny is, as a player, I didn’t fall into the country world until later. Like I said, I played rock before. We were trying to be a tough little rock ’n’ roll band. As for the Eagles, all of their songs spoke to me. They were just a cut above everything else, and that’s what contributed to their longevity. So they have that in common with Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and some of the real giants – a body of incredible work that stands the test of time.

Obviously, an offer to join the Eagles is beyond tempting. But was it a hard decision knowing that you would have to put your solo career on hold?

“Being in the Eagles is a different animal from my solo career or even doing what I do with the Time Jumpers [the Western swing band Vince joined in 2010]. To me, the real beauty of it is I get to honour my pal Glenn. And I think he’d be okay with me being in this band and doing my best to sing and play his songs. So from a spiritual place, it was a no-brainer.

“You know, I’ve had a nice solo career, but it probably pales in comparison to my career as a sideman. I once tried to count how many records I’ve appeared on, and I think it’s close to 1,000. But I just look at it as helping friends out. As long as they want to have me to play on a record, I’m thrilled be take part.”

You don’t have anything to prove to anyone, but was there any kind of audition for the Eagles – just to make sure you were a good fit?

“There was no ‘audition’ per se. I don’t want to put words in anybody else’s mouth – that would be foolish – but Don did say to me once, ‘You’re really the only guy I thought of’. And that meant a lot to me. I could think of lots of people they could have called. You know, I don’t sing like Glenn, and they certainly don’t need another guitar player. But I fit in and it’s been nice.“

You guys do close to 30 songs every night – how much individual rehearsing did you have to do before you got in the room with the band?

“Well, I did quite a bit, but I didn’t really know what to learn. It wasn’t predetermined what I was going to sing and play; it all kind of evolved. This music is very structured, and a lot of times I’d start playing something, and somebody would say, ‘That’s not on the record’. And I’d say, ‘I know. All the parts are taken.’” [Laughs]

Tell us a little bit about the first show you played with them at Dodger Stadium. You said it was pretty emotional…

“Oh, man, I’m sure it was for everybody – for the crowd, for them. It was emotional for me, too, but it was also a terrifying experience. If anybody was going to take a little heat and suffer some slings and arrows, it was gonna be me – I’m the country guy coming into this iconic rock band. I had a tremendous amount of white noise going on in my head at that Dodger Stadium gig. You should always be a little scared before a show. If you’re not, then it doesn’t matter to you. And it mattered a lot to me. I wanted to do a great job and make them not regret the decision they made.

“I’ll tell you, the funniest thing at that first show was, I’d worn one too many layers of clothes. It was LA and it was hot, and I was sweating so much, it was like I couldn’t breathe. Finally, I had to take off this cool-looking leather jacket before I died!”

There are a lot of guitar players on stage in the band – you, Joe Walsh, Steuart Smith, Deacon Frey, and sometimes Don plays guitar as well. Did that cause you to make any kind of changes to your regular guitar rig?

“Yeah, it is a little bit different. I stand on the side of the stage with the Eagles, instead of being in the middle, where I usually am with my own gigs. I’m the one guy who doesn’t use in-ear monitors, too. As for guitars, I would just think, ‘Okay, what’s going to help this song? What’s gonna sound right?’ So I play a nice variety of everything. I play a lot of Telecaster for my own shows, but I only use it for one or two songs with the Eagles. There’s a lot of Les Pauls, and a lot of acoustics for songs like Peaceful Easy Feeling and Lyin’ Eyes. You find what’s appropriate. I’m using a lot of the same rig that I normally use, and I’m just trying to play the guitar that I know is going to cast the right glow on the song.”

Vince Gill

So you’re still using your Little Walter guitar amps?

“Oh, yes. They sound really good with the Eagles. Everything is crunched a little bit more, especially on songs like Those Shoes, for example. The Little Walters rock pretty hard most of the night. Those are just great, versatile amps.”

How many guitars are you bringing out with you for the Eagles?

“Probably eight or nine. I’ve got an Italian Esquire, two Strats, two Les Pauls, two Martin acoustics… I convert one guitar to a five-string – I do an open tuning to get kind of a Keith Richards rhythm. It gives everything a really neat, different sound. I haven’t brought a 335 out yet. I just picked up a nice old one, so I might find a spot for it.”

Are you using a lot of pedals for this tour?

“Not so much. You play these big places and you don’t need a lot of delay or reverb. I use a little bit of compression a couple of overdrive pedals – or distortion pedals. I don’t know the difference between an overdrive pedal and a distortion pedal!”

Have you been tempted to play Steuart Smith’s double-neck?

“Oh, no. He plays that on Hotel California. But no, I haven’t picked it up. I wouldn’t even know where to turn it on.”

Was the lead guitarist in you hankering to play any parts of those legendary Hotel California solos?

“Well, that would be fun, but it’s not necessary. It’s all kind of daunting. To watch what Joe and Steuart do is pretty magical. Steuart’s been my friend for 30 years or so. He played on a bunch of my records, and we both played with Rodney Crowell. So I’ve got a great old friend over there on the other side of the stage. And just because I showed up, it doesn’t mean he should change one note about what he’s contributed, because he’s really magical. He replicates so many parts that Bernie and Don Felder played. He’s really something.”

As a guitar player, what’s been the biggest revelation to you from this experience?

“Well, the thing you have to consider with the Eagles is, this is the furthest thing from a jam band as it gets. Everything is very orchestrated and precise. These are records and songs that have meant a lot to people, and they know each part and line by heart. You want to honour that and not change anything. Some situations call for you to do an interpretation of a song, but this isn’t about that. Each note is key, and each note means something. So for me, the biggest thing is listening to what each person is doing – listening and reacting. I’m not up there to play just anything that comes into my head. If I’m not adding something of value, I don’t play it.”

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