The term “Okie” is usually pejorative, but that doesn’t bother Vince Gill: He’s a proud Oklahoman who, like his forebears during the Great Depression, left in search of opportunity. He found it. Now more than 35 years into a solo career, Gill has piled up awards and accolades, including 21 Grammys, 14 Country Music Association awards and membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry.
It’s against that slate of accomplishments that Gill has turned an age-old slight into an attribute on the title of his latest album, Okie. With a dozen new tunes, Gill’s 15th studio LP is a gentle, reflective collection that shows off his skill as a singer, and especially a songwriter. (He’s also an ace guitar player, though that side of him is more subdued here.) These songs are full of meditations on grown-up love, reminiscences about old friends and compassion—some of the most important things in life, from a singer who’s been around long enough to figure out what those are.
Opener “I Don’t Wanna Ride the Rails No More” falls into the first camp, as the narrator trades in a lonesome itinerant life for a home and family rooted in one place. Gill sings in a warm, emotive tenor, and he picks out a lump-in-throat acoustic guitar lick while a gently chugging instrumental part in the background evokes the clickety-clack of a distant train. Love has a more personal association on “When My Amy Prays,” a torchy ballad that takes solace in spirituality—but not his own. Gill marvels at the sense of grace he feels in witnessing the religious faith of his wife, the singer Amy Grant, and he lets his voice ring with feeling over brushed drums and spare piano that would be sorrowful if Gill didn’t sound full of awe.
In addition to the tearjerker, “Letter to My Mama,” Gill remembers a pair of friends and compatriots on “Nothing Like a Guy Clark Song” and “A World Without Haggard.” Clark was a close friend and Haggard a towering musical influence, and his elegies to each would have done them proud (Clark and Haggard both died in 2016). “Nothing Like a Guy Clark Song” name-checks a string of the songwriter’s tunes with an almost bemused air, as if Gill remains impressed after all these years (and co-writing sessions) with the subjects that Clark could make profound. “A World Without Haggard” closes the album on an old-school country note, with bright, warbling pedal steel guitar and a melody worthy of any barroom with sawdust on the floor as Gill offers a tribute to “the best that’s ever been.”
Compassion is the theme underpinning “The Price of Regret” and “What Choice Will You Make,” two powerful songs about trying to live our best lives. It’s particularly potent on the former, an earnest appeal for understanding instead of judging, or getting caught up in the racial, religious or cultural differences among us. “Brothers and sisters I mean you no harm / Healing’s waiting in each other’s arms,” he sings over a rich arrangement of acoustic guitar, piano, drums and, on the chorus, an unexpectedly funky bassline. If the sentiment seems naïve, Gill doubles down in the press notes accompanying the album: “It would solve everything if people were kind and fair-minded,” he says.
He would know. Gill is the rare musician who doesn’t buy into his own hype—in fact, he’s never generated as much of it as he’s probably deserved. He used to hang with old-school country icons, he’s played with everybody in Nashville, he’s a mentor who helps guide up-and-comers and he is nearly always described as a class act with a generous spirit. On “A World Without Haggard,” Gill sings, “He made me proud to be an Okie,” and there’s every chance that the Hag would have felt the same way about Gill.