Among the many memorable moments in Ken Burns’ new Country Music series, one scene stands out.
It’s a simple hymn that hits you hard because of the conviction with which it is delivered. Few performers can match Vince Gill’s combination of honeydew vocals (Jones dubbed him Sweet Pea), masterful songwriting, and deft touch on guitar. But something else sets him apart.
This guy’s got more heart than a convention of cardiologists.
That heart was on display Saturday at Morristown’s sold-out Mayo Performing Arts Center. Listeners were treated to Gill classics such as Trying to Get Over You, Look at Us and I Still Believe in You — and future classics from his new album, Okie.
At 62, Gill has stacks of awards and gold records. But the Oklahoma native is not ready for cruise control. Okie shows a songwriter with an ever-sharper eye and ear, and the confidence to trust them after 45 years in the music business. Crafted with care, his lyrics are sung from the heart and pack an emotional wallop.
Forever Changed is a searing rebuke of a pedophile:
Can’t you just leave the child alone?
I can hear the angels in Heaven moan
God was watching and He knows your name
Because of you, she’s forever changed
Tributes to idols can come off as stilted and cliched. But A World Without Haggard, Gill’s thank you to Merle Haggard for changing his life, is personal. It works.
Another new one, When My Amy Prays, was inspired by Gill’s wife, Amy Grant. It can take its place alongside any of the most beautiful love songs. Pick your genre.
Saturday wasn’t all hankies and Kleenex. Gill, a recent addition to The Eagles whose first hit came with Pure Prairie League in 1980, can turn on a dime and get an audience dancing with his speed-of-sound guitar licks and such rockabilly foot-stompers as What the Cowgirls Do, Guitar Slinger and Liza Jane.
“No more than two fast ones in a row,” he joked, citing his doctor’s orders.
As one might imagine, Vince Gill has no trouble finding top-flight musicians to back him. Australian Jedd Hughes opened the show with a satisfying acoustic set of original tunes, then strapped on an electric guitar for the rest of the evening.
Harmony singer Wendy Moten sang lead on a swampy, Creedence-like version of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit, Ode to Billy Joe. She followed that with a soulful version of Don’t Touch Me, a 1966 hit for Jeannie Seely.
Guitarist Charlie Worsham took the lead vocal on Black and White, a song he co-wrote with Gill for the Okie album. John Jarvis, Gill’s co-writer on I Still Believe in You, manned the piano. Renowned session player Jimmy Lee Sloas handled bass and Billy Thomas anchored the group on drums.
And then there was Paul Franklin.
His pedal steel guitar was a highlight of Gill’s 2015 visit to Morristown. He shined this time, too, twanging other-worldly solos on covers of Merle Haggard’s The Bottle Let Me Down and Buck Owens’ Together Again. If the moon could howl back at coyotes, it might sound like a Paul Franklin solo.
Nights at MPAC don’t get much better than this. The crowd was so appreciative that Gill, who plays Nashville clubs with a Western swing band called The Time Jumpers just for fun, concluded he might have to buy a cottage in Morristown.
Go for it, Vince. We can hook you up with some folks over at The Troubadour when you feel like jamming.