CHICAGO — Vince Gill covers a lot of personal ground on his new album “Okie” (MCA Nashville). The country star offers heartfelt takes on his relationship with his mother, his marriage to Christian and country-pop singer Amy Grant and his friendship with the late singer-songwriter Guy Clark. There’s also a devastating ballad about child sexual abuse, a song influenced by Gill’s own run-in with a coach who acted inappropriately.

“More than anything, I wanted to open myself up to vulnerability and tell the truth as best I could on this album,” he says, calling from a tour stop in Thackerville, Okla.

A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, Gill has 21 Grammys to his name. At, 62, he’s a grandfather of two who shows no signs of slowing down.

“Okie” is another fine release in Gill’s latter-day career, fitting snugly alongside such strong past entries as 2003’s “Next Big Thing” and his most recent solo album, 2016’s “Down To My Last Habit.” For “Okie,” Gill was inspired by the sonic simplicity of Willie Nelson’s 1975 concept album “Red Headed Stranger.” He teamed with co-producer Justin Niebank (Marty Stuart, Blues Traveler) and kept the instrumentation to a warm minimalism. Throughout the album, stately piano, brushed drums, delicately plucked acoustic guitar and throaty upright bass provide a framework for Gill’s supple tenor.

“OKIE” ONCE A SLUR

The album’s title “Okie” was once used as a slur to describe a person from Oklahoma who migrated west in search of work during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The word was famously reclaimed as a source of pride by Merle Haggard in his 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee.” During the Great Depression, Haggard’s parents and siblings had made the move from Oklahoma to California, where Merle was born in 1937.

Haggard wrote “Okie from Muskogee” at the height of the Vietnam War. On the surface, the song is an edgy redneck anthem that extols down-home values in an era of libertine hippies: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take our trips on LSD.” But Haggard himself, always a restless contrarian, described the song in various and conflicting ways throughout the years, including as a tune written to support the troops and one that was a tongue-in-cheek number.

Gill, who grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, always felt a deep kinship with Haggard. He also notes that “Okie from Muskogee” — a polarizing hit in its day — was one of Haggard’s least favorite songs. “Merle was a legendary pot smoker and a good bit of a rebel,” Gill says with a laugh. “He felt like the song was not really who he was.”

The spirit of Haggard hovers over much of Gill’s “Okie.” The bittersweet “A World Without Haggard” is a burnished ballad filled with crying steel guitar and Gill’s clear-as-a-country-stream voice. Just as in the song’s lyrics, Gill was on the road in Georgia when Haggard passed away in the spring of 2016 at age 79.

“I just went straight to pen and paper,” he says. “Everything Merle did — the way he wrote songs, the way he sang, the way he played — those were all the things I wanted to be. Merle was my blueprint.”

FAMILY INFLUENCES

If Haggard artistically serves as his North Star, Gill’s wife Grant, a long-time Christian music and pop-crossover artist, is the personal constant in both his life and music. The two married in 2000, and have one daughter Corrina, as well as children from each of their previous marriages.

Gill references Grant in a number of songs, including the moving “When My Amy Prays,” a number where he confesses his own struggle with religion and the comfort he finds in his wife’s unswerving faith. “Even at my worst, I know she loves me,” he sings. “She’s my shelter from the rain.”

“Amy is so nonjudgmental,” Gill says about Grant. “She’s amazing to be around.”

While the two maintain solo careers, they have recorded and toured with one another at different times. They first met and collaborated back in 1993. They’ve learned a few things about working together professionally since then.

“Amy pointed out something interesting,” Gill observes. “She said, ‘Here’s why sometimes we struggle. We’re both used to having our way.’ It made total sense. To get grace, you have to give grace. If you lead with kindness and forgiveness, you can’t lose. We have a pretty peaceful thing.”

SEXUAL ABUSE

The most sobering moment on the album is the piano ballad “Forever Changed.” The song is an emotional view of the damage left in the wake of child sexual abuse. “You put your hands where they don’t belong,” Gill sings, “and now her innocence is dead and gone.”

The song is informed by an episode from Gill’s early life. He was in seventh grade when a trusted basketball coach called him into his office. Gill was sitting on a desk when the coach inappropriately ran his hand up Gill’s leg. Gill got up and ran from the room before anything more involved could happen, but the experience left him shaken. He didn’t tell a soul.

He has deep empathy for the survivors of abuse.

“I got a text today from a really great friend of mine who was bawling his eyes out because he heard the song,” Gill says quietly. “More than anything, I want people to feel that they didn’t do anything wrong if they’ve been acted upon in inappropriate ways. They didn’t cause it. They should feel no shame.”

The album’s opening track, “I Don’t Wanna Ride the Rails No More,” is an acoustic gem with intricate finger-picked guitar and piercing harmonies. It tells the tale of a lonely drifter who hops trains across the country, finds love with a waitress and finally settles down.

“That could very easily be about me finding Amy,” Gill says with a soft laugh. “But I’d have to trade the train for a bus, and that’s not near as romantic.”

Some of Gill’s finest tracks in his career have been the musical eulogies he paid to his late brother Bob and the late singer Keith Whitley (“Go Rest High On That Mountain”) and his late father (“The Key To Life”). On “Okie,” he finally pays homage to his 93-year-old mother with “A Letter To My Mama.”

“That song is about 18 years old,” Gill recalls. “It sat in a desk drawer and I never got around to recording it. A friend of mine who was dying of cancer heard the song and scolded me for not recording it for my mom. So I made her a promise that I would do it before it was too late.”

In recent years, Gill has toured with the Eagles. When not out on the road, he still plays a weekly gig with the western swing ensemble the Time Jumpers at the Nashville club 3rd and Lindsley. This December, he and Grant will perform their annual Christmas show at the Ryman Auditorium.

“I just wanted to be a musician,” says Gill with a laugh. “I didn’t set out to be a famous singer. I took it as it came. I figured out how to write some songs. I learned how to play and sing. And I just kept answering the phone.”

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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