An article in the Feb. 14 Weekend section incorrectly reported the cause of death for Vince Gill's brother, Bob, inspiration for the song "Go Rest High on That Mountain." He suffered a heart attack. (Published 2/15/03)

VINCE GILL is happy.

Vince Gill isn't happy.

Vince Gill likes that emotional contrast, as well as the stylistic range evident on his new album.

In fact, Vince Gill thinks "Next Big Thing" is the next best thing to the classic early and mid-'90s albums that made him one of country's biggest stars, as well as its most rewarded artist (Gill has a record 18 Country Music Awards, and his 14 Grammys tie him with Chet Atkins for most given to a country act).

"The records that I've probably enjoyed the most have been all over the map," Gill says from Nashville, "while the last two albums I made have been kind of pointed in one direction, and that alone made everybody go, 'What's the deal here?' I was going through a lot of tragedy in my personal life with [1998's hard-country gem] 'The Key' and then a lot of euphoria with [2000's] 'Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye,' so it was a real yin and yang of ups and downs. Now things are settled."

The things that are settled include Gill's relationship with Christian pop star Amy Grant. They met when Grant dueted with Gill on her 1994 album "House of Love," but that idealized location was uninhabitable since both were married at the time. Gill divorced Sweethearts of the Rodeo singer Janis Gill in 1997, while Grant divorced singer-television host Gary Chapman in 1999. They married in March of 2000, a month before the release of "Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye," whose ecstatic love songs were written in the months before the wedding.

Whether it was lingering reaction to Gill and Grant's high-profile romance, which garnered criticism in both Christian and country music circles, or reaction to the unalloyed joy evident in songs like "The Luckiest Guy in the World," "Look What Love's Revealing" and "When I Look Into Your Heart," a duet with his new bride, Gill took a beating from DJs and music critics for being so happy.

"I thought that was funny," he recalls, adding that the album "was an easy target, a bull's-eye for a guy like me that's done a lot of sad songs. For that record to be lovey dovey, it was, 'Okay, now we can grill him.' "

Gill may expect a little more of that when people hear "From Where I Stand," one of the aching-est ballads on "Next Big Thing.

"Oh, I'm drawn to you like a burnin' flame / But somebody's waitin' that bears my name / Oh, Lord knows I'd love to love you 'cause you know I'm just a man / But I can't, not from where I stand."

Is the song about his relationship with Grant?

"Oh gosh, no," Gill responds. "That's the real hard thing, to sit after something's done and try to explain what everything is. There's another song on the record people are going to ask if that's about my past, 'She Never Makes Me Cry.' I got it from a movie: I was watching 'Ocean's Eleven' and Julia Roberts said that in the movie. George Clooney was saying, 'You're with this new guy, does he make you sweat in bed like I used to?' or whatever, and she says 'No, but he never makes me cry.'

" 'From Where I Stand,' God, that's just universal," Gill insists. "I wrote it with two other guys [Al Anderson and John Hobbs]. If songs are about something, I'm gonna own up to them."

Case in point: "Real Mean Bottle," a honky-tonk romp and tribute to Merle Haggard.

"I was talking to Harold Bradley, who's regarded as probably the most recorded guitarist in history," Gill says. "He did one session with Hank [Williams] Sr. and he was telling me about it, that the song was just so sad that when they finished recording it, he went over to Hank and said, 'Man, that might be the saddest song I've ever heard.'

"And Hank winked at him and said, 'Son, it was a real mean bottle that wrote that song!' It's just a phrase that has a neat history to it, 'cause Hank said it. So I said I've got to make this about Haggard, he's the guy I grew up really loving."

There's also food for thought in two tracks that address cycles of fame and fortune, and the inevitable changing of the guard, in the country music world. The title track is a barrelhouse rocker, tongue planted firmly in cheek, in which Gill addresses the fickle nature of fans: "When you finally hit the top / Man, you know what that means / Well, everybody's ready for the next big thing."

Not that Gill's conceding anything, but at 45, he's at that awkward age, not young enough to be the new kid in town or old enough to be the elder statesman. "With the youth movement that is really so apparent these days, I am a grizzled veteran," Gill says with a laugh.

He's also pleased with what "Next Big Thing" represents on the creative front.

"This album I'm just jumping up and down about as a songwriter," Gill says. "I'm gonna sing like I always sing and play like I always play, but hopefully these songs are going to be what sets the record apart. I really feel like this is a premium collection of songs for me, that I've made some major, major growth as a songwriter."

One of the most moving songs on the album is "In These Last Few Days," in which a dying man looks back on his life. With Amy Grant's lovely harmonies and one of Gill's most mournful mandolin solos, it's reminiscent of "Go Rest High on That Mountain," the yearning spiritual Gill wrote in memory of his brother, who commited suicide. That song has become an anthem of love and remembrance at funerals and memorial services around the world.

" 'Go Rest High on That Mountain' had such an impact on people, more than I ever expected," Gill says. "I think that song could someday wind up in a hymnal, and I'm probably as proud of that song as anything I've ever written. With 'In These Last Few Days,' I was taken by the phrase and you think from the first verse that it's just about somebody wanting to reconnect with an old friend. And I felt like you always grieve or write about these things after the fact; what would it be like to know that you can say these things before you go? I thought that would make an interesting song and at the end, all that he really wants is this person he loves to just lay down here beside me; there's nothing more to say or do, that's all I want."

And that's the release of songwriting, according to Gill. "I get to grieve through song, I get to celebrate. I get to do a lot of things."

VINCE GILL -- Appearing Sunday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Vince Gill, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

After two emotional albums, Vince Gill settles down on "Next Big Thing."