Vince Gill is a young country artist whose biggest problem may be that his broad talents don't conform to the narrow confines of radio formats.
"I've had a pop hit or two, and for the pop world to turn me down because of the Nashville label is unfair," Gill argues. "I'd like to break down the barriers that have people judging before they've heard. I know I can make a good pop record, a record that's not off the beaten path for country radio, too."
Gill's frustration is hardly unfounded. Several years ago, he led the country-rock group Pure Prairie League to three pop hits. Now he's cracked the country Top 10 with "If It Weren't for Him," a song he wrote and sings with Roseanne Cash. Nonetheless, the 28-year-old Gill -- who has the kind of good looks Rick Nelson might envy, sings like a nightingale and is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist -- is still far from a household name in country or pop circles.
Gill is, however, a confident young man who refuses to pin his problems on Nashville's beleaguered country music industry.
"It still comes down to the music and songs themselves," Gill says. "I don't think there's a lot of great talent going by the wayside because Nashville couldn't promote it properly. Part of Nashville's stigma is the fault of New York and L.A. They automatically label Nashville music as not good enough to be pop."
Like most country performers, Gill, who was raised in Oklahoma City, got involved in music through his family. "My dad got me started," he says. "He was a banjo and guitar player and got me my first guitar when I was very young. I was 15 when I got heavily into bluegrass through Bobby Clark, who's one of the most respected mandolin players in the country."
At 16 Gill joined Mountain Smoke, Oklahoma's premier bluegrass band. He later did a stint with the Bluegrass Alliance and then joined Ricky Skaggs' Boone Creek in 1975. When Gill plays the Birchmere Tuesday and Wednesday nights, he'll probably see lots of familiar faces, because Boone Creek was a popular, regular attraction at the famous bluegrass club.
In 1978, Gill joined the country-rock band Pure Prairie League, and his singing, guitar playing and songwriting helped the band get three pop hits in the early '80s. The transition from bluegrass and small clubs to rock and big auditoriums was no problem, he says.
"I've always been intrigued by new things, always been willing to learn," he explains. "Pure Prairie League was a chance for me to step out and perform for lots of people. I don't like being safe with what I do. I even auditioned for an opera. They wanted someone for 'La Bohe me' who wasn't an opera singer so Linda Ronstadt wouldn't sound too bad. So I went to New York and learned an aria. It was hysterical."
In 1982, with Pure Prairie League's record sales slumping and a pregnant wife at home, Gill left the band to join the Cherry Bombs, the prestigious backup group for Rodney Crowell and Cash. With his reputation growing in country circles, he also began to contribute his picking and singing to other country artists' albums. Finally, like Guy Clark, Crowell and Cash, Gill moved from Los Angeles to Nashville and landed a record deal. Two RCA albums and a few singles later, Gill is slowly but surely establishing himself as a versatile artist who's likely to be around for a few decades.
"I don't mind not being an overnight success," Gill says. "My records aren't safe and some country deejays hesitate to play new artists. They want to stick to Kenny and Dolly and Alabama. I've been a little frustrated that some of my singles weren't bigger hits, but each single has done better, and the latest is Top 10."