“Vince Gill is one of the best guitar players in the world,” Lovett said without a hint of hyperbole. “Vince can play absolutely anything on the guitar. ... He’s absolutely limitless in what he can do.”
Gill and Lovett join forces this spring for their latest Songs and Stories tour, marking the third consecutive year they’ve teamed up together. They’ll perform March 30 at Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez.
“It’s great fun,” Lovett said.
In the wide-ranging world of contemporary country music, Gill and Lovett, both 59, occupy noticeably different spheres.
While Lovett, the winner of four Grammy Awards, blends witty, literate lyrics with an eclectic sound that incorporates elements of Western swing, folk, gospel, jazz and the blues, Gill is a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist rooted in bluegrass.
“He’s a modern version of Roy Acuff and George Jones and Hank Williams, the people that were staples on the Grand Ole Opry,” Lovett said of Gill, a 20-time Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Famer who celebrates classic country as a member of Western swing supergroup The Time Jumpers. “Vince is one of their heirs.”
A native of Norman, Oklahoma, Gill found success as the frontman of the country rock band Pure Prairie League before launching his solo career in 1983. In the 1990s, he released a string of top-charting singles including “When I Call Your Name,” “I Still Believe in You” and “Tryin’ to Get Over You.”
Lovett — whose hits include “Cowboy Man,” “She’s No Lady,” “Give Back My Heart” and “Why I Don’t Know” — was born and raised in the Houston suburb of Klein, Texas, where he still lives.
Every weekend, “I’d play the same half a dozen clubs and make the rounds” from Houston to Dallas to San Antonio to Austin, Lovett recalled. “I thought, ‘This is fun, but this is not making a real living. … I need to learn if I can make it in the music business.’ ”
In 1984, the singer-songwriter, then 24, started making trips to Nashville, Tennessee.
“I thought it was a realistic expectation to get a publishing deal,” he said, and start writing songs for other people in the grand tradition of Music City. “Great singers historically would record great songs written by great songwriters. It was a real system.”
Lovett added: “When I went to Nashville, I never thought I would get a recording deal myself.”
But he did.
Lovett, whose eponymous debut album came out in 1986, said he arrived on the country music scene toward the end of the pop-oriented “urban cowboy” era, at a time when the industry was “looking for something different.”
In 1987, he was looking for someone to do a background vocal on his second album, “Pontiac,” Lovett recalled. Producer Tony Brown suggested Gill.
The two have been collaborating ever since.
In addition to being tremendously talented, Lovett said, Gill is “one of the nicest guys in the world.”
“There’s nothing ordinary about Vince Gill, but Vince acts like an ordinary guy,” Lovett said, describing Gill as endearingly down to earth and exceedingly humble. “The only thing that would disprove that (idea he’s ordinary) would be when he picks up his guitar or opens his mouth or picks up a golf club.”
Gill has found a performance style that reflects his personality and his values, Lovett said.
“His music really lines up with who he is as a person,” he said.
Gill has equally warm feelings toward Lovett — and expresses them in his typically self-deprecating style.
“I’m the village idiot, and he’s got a really great dry wit,” Gill jokingly told the Ventura County Star earlier this month. “I’ll go off and tell a 20-minute story, and he’ll throw one line in and kill everybody.”
As the name suggests, the Songs and Stories tour finds the men swapping tunes and anecdotes in a stripped-down, improvisational atmosphere.
“We just sit there and take turns playing,” Lovett said. Although the duo doesn’t decide on a set list in advance, he added, “The whole show has to act like one set of music.”
Concertgoers play a big part in dictating the flow of each concert, Lovett said.
“You can have a loose idea of where a show can go,” he explained, “(But) it’s all up to the audience and the energy of the audience.”
The “Songs and Stories” tour is tied to a time-honored Nashville concert tradition, Lovett said.
“There are so many songwriters who write songs that other people record. Most of the time, (they) are wonderful musicians themselves,” he explained, and they enjoy playing live at Music City hotspots such as The Bluebird Cafe.
In 1989, Bill Ivey — former director of the Country Music Foundation and one-time chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts — invited Lovett, Guy Clark, Joe Ely and John Hiatt to perform in an all-star showcase at the Marlboro Country Music Festival in New York City.
“After that, we’d get together every few years” to perform, Lovett said. “It turned into a show that people seemed to want to come to.”
In more recent years, Lovett has teamed up for similar shows with Hiatt, Robert Earl Keen and, of course, Gill.
“I’m just so glad that Vince enjoys doing (these shows),” said Lovett, who clearly gets a lot out of them, too. “I get to sit 3 feet from Vince Gill and watch him play guitar and sing.”