NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The band shows up here just about every Monday night.
So do the devout.
There’s a guy from Switzerland up in the balcony.
There’s that guy from Train out on the floor.
And here comes a casually gorgeous Miranda Lambert flanked by a few casually gorgeous friends.
“They’re amazing,” the country superstar gushes between songs, her golden pigtails cinched in a sequined headband like some glam-rock Willie Nelson. “Very inspiring.”
When the guitarist on the bandstand calls for a cool, bruised version of Hank Thompson’s A Six Pack to Go, it inspires Lambert and her clique to bounce in their seats until the air smells of expensive hair care products.
Music this old rarely sounds this alive. But Vince Gill and his bandmates in the Time Jumpers actually confess to feeling halfway dead between sets at 3rd and Lindsley, a Nashville nightspot where they meet up every week to play forgotten Western swing tunes.
Of the 11 decorated session players onstage — their stacked resumes could intimidate a phone book — Gill hides his exhaustion best, nailing his solos with phrasings that signal old-school country and a vim that resembles jazz.
But he’s feeling crispy, fresh off a plane from California where he and steel-guitar maestro Paul Franklin have been promoting Bakersfield, their stellar new album honoring the Left-Coast balladry of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Gill remembers when he was just another slack-jawed face in this crowd.
He’s been dropping in on Time Jumpers gigs since the band formed in 1998, subbing for AWOL guitarists here and there, and finally joining officially in 2010, eager to vanish into the music.
“I love this point in life because I’m not a current, radio-hit-maker guy,” Gill says.
“For the past 30-plus years I’ve been the focal point of just about everything that I’ve done. And that’s OK. But there are times when I like to just sit there and be a guitar player.”
Backstage at Bridgestone Arena the night after the Time Jumpers gig, the 56-year-old’s words come slow, calm and quiet — making him sound wise and exhausted.
He’s definitely feeling the latter after rehearsing a bluegrass-stained version of Taylor Swift’s Red for last week’s 47th annual CMA Awards.
Gill hosted this annual extravaganza for 12 of those years — 1992 to 2003 — and in recent telecasts has been called on to perform with outsiders in need of a little hand-holding.
Last year, it was a duet with Kelly Clarkson. In 2010, it was Gwyneth Paltrow.
There are many paths to country music’s biggest award show these days.
Just look at the American Idol winner who’s been co-hosting the CMAs since 2008.
“That kid Carrie Underwood sings on that show and 100 million people know who she is before she even makes a record,” says Gill.
“I had to go play in 8,000 honky-tonks. But trust me, I would have done [Idol], too. It’s a different day.”
Raised in Oklahoma, Gill got his start playing bluegrass as a teenager, eventually cutting his teeth under Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell, and finally making the pilgrimage to Nashville in 1983 to crack country stardom.
Three albums into his career and barely able to pay his rent, he famously turned down an offer from Mark Knopfler to join Dire Straits. Whether that young confidence was foolish or brave, he still doesn’t know.
“I’ve always operated with a musician’s mentality,” Gill says.
“Just do the work to the best of your ability. … So I was always just comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t need to be the biggest thing to be a happy guy.”
He was the biggest thing, for a while. In 1991, his breakthrough album, Pocket Full of Gold, made him a bona fide star.
In 2000, his marriage to Christian pop singer Amy Grant cemented his celebrity.
His 2006 disc, These Days, found him cooling on the radio, but it was nominated for album of the year at 2008’s Grammy Awards, where Gill sat in the losers’ circle with Kanye West and Amy Winehouse.
Now, things are quieter. And not being on top stings for one only reason: Gill thinks he’s a much better singer, songwriter and guitar player than he was 20 years ago.
“That’s the mind bender,” he says.
“I’m not an athlete. It’s not like I couldn’t run fast anymore.
“So it’s a little disappointing, but it doesn’t cause me any angst at all.”
Gill’s most highly publicized flash of angst may have come in September, when members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church showed up outside his concert in Kansas City, protesting the fact that Gill had divorced his first wife and married Grant. Gill confronted them and ended up on YouTube.
“I don’t give a rip what they say about me,” Gill says two months after the flap.
“Not one rip. But they’re not gonna call my wife names. And their hate for gays and lesbians? Their hate for Jews? … If you’re not gonna stand up against that, what are you doing?”
It’s too bad that a brush with Westboro generates more headlines than great music.
He sang on Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories and co-produced Ashley Monroe’s exquisite Like a Rose, two of the finest country albums released this year — a year when country artists and fans have been mired in generational friction.
Ask Gill about this, and the man zooms out. “Everyone gets the opportunity to love what they love,” he says.
“So why would you begrudge a 20-year-old kid from singing and playing and loving what he loves? Might not be your deal. But why should you wear him out because he doesn’t want to do it like you did? That doesn’t make any sense, anyway. My granddaddy used to joke, ‘Son, if we all liked the same things, everybody would be hitting on your grandma.’ ”
His collaborators say that his openness is exactly what continues to draw so many musicians into his orbit.
“Musically, he’s like a kid in a candy store,” says Franklin, backstage at the Time Jumpers gig.
“Every time you play music with him, it’s new. He’s pushing himself. No matter what he’s done or where he’s been, the most important night is the one he’s playing right now.”
Because living in the right now is how you get to be a part of forever.
“I think there’s a way to do something new that feels timeless,” Gill says.
“Put on a Beatles record and it sounds fricking great today. A Ray Charles record? Sounds amazing. The things that really last are the things that aren’t completely stamped with all of the trappings of a fad. To me, that’s how you move forward. Create new music that feels old.”
Chris Richards is a Washington Post reporter.