This year’s Legends issue pays tribute to a number of old warhorses, each singular in their own way. If there is a common thread to the body of work produced by these musicians, it is steadfast allegiance to one’s artistic vision, one that has evolved and shifted over time without regard to the dictates of fashion or commercial pressure. These are songwriters making music built to last.
Vince Gill, this issue’s cover subject, has enjoyed one of the more interesting careers in country music. He tells writer Andrew Leahey that he has never had a master plan, preferring instead to “wing it” and let his artistic instincts take the wheel.
As a young Oklahoman living in Los Angeles in the ’70s, Gill joined Pure Prairie League for a spell and fell into the orbit of kindred spirits like Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash. The road led to Nashville in the ’80s where he became a solo recording artist, finding chart-topping success nearly a decade later with the arch-angelic tenor he is known for till this day.
When the tides shifted in mainstream country music in the aughts, Gill did not whine and fall on his sword, but instead embraced his inner guitar god, playing events like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival and achieving renown as a masterly picker. Around this time he also joined the Time Jumpers, an ensemble of crack Nashville session players who play weekly gigs to this day. If that’s not enough, he’s also become an adjunct member of The Eagles, playing guitar and singing with the group since Glenn Frey’s death in 2016, and is currently prepping a new solo album that is purportedly more Americana than mainstream country. In short, Gill is a man on a mission.
Elsewhere in this issue, we break down the latest release in the Bootleg Series from Bob Dylan, an artist who has always zigged where he was supposed to have zagged. This edition of the series features every surviving take from Dylan’s mid-’70s masterpiece Blood On The Tracks. On this project, the bard changed horses in midstream, re-cutting much of the album in Minneapolis after his brother suggested fleshing out some of the tracks that had been recorded in New York with backing from some Twin City musicians. Thus, a seemingly arbitrary suggestion during a holiday family gathering helps transform a work into an American classic.
Later, we check in with John Hiatt, who as a sexagenarian just released one of the finest albums of his career, The Eclipse Sessions. The Indiana native has kept at it year after year, even in periods of sustained drought, picking up the guitar at least once a day, he says, just to see if there’s a song rattling around in there. And Associate Editor Brittney McKenna catches up with Emmylou Harris, who is being honored with a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Part of the exhibit’s material concerns Harris’ underappreciated mid-’80s offering The Ballad Of Sally Rose, a stripped-down and somewhat autobiographical work that is based in part on her time with musical compadre Gram Parsons. We also talk with gospel spitfire Mavis Staples (who plans to start skateboarding when she turns 80), Loudon Wainwright III (one of the unacknowledged godfathers of Americana), and Ronnie Milsap (singer of 40 No.1 hits, the second most in country music history), who returns this winter with an album of duets with some of Nashville’s finest.
Finally, we bid adieu to the Swamp Fox himself, Tony Joe White, whom we interviewed just weeks before his untimely death of a heart attack in October. White was his own man all the way to the end, revered as a musician’s musician and ancient soul whose spirit remained tethered to the swamplands and cotton country of his Louisiana youth. “I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician,” White told American Songwriter that day at his farm in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, where he was still growing his beloved polk salad in a truck patch, “because the blues was real, and I like to keep it real.” You kept it real indeed, Tony Joe. R.I.P