There's a thin line between wistful and whiny. Vince Gill straddles it during the better part of his new CD, "Next Big Thing."
"I'll get a cowboy hat, some real tight jeans, lose a little weight and get a belly-button ring. Maybe I'm gonna be the next big thing," Gill sings on the title track, a fun primer on New Country realities put to a rockabilly beat.
While the piercing line may or may not be autobiographical, Gill reportedly has shed quite a few pounds while shaping up for a national club tour to promote the record -- which brings him to the 9:30 club tonight. But he's not campaigning to be country's next big thing. He's already been one.
The 45-year-old Oklahoma native was first noticed in the mid- 1970s as a prodigious guitar picker for acts including Ricky Skaggs and later Rodney Crowell. He found his voice -- a naturally twangy tenor that often teetered on falsetto -- while singing for Pure Prairie League. He released his first solo disc in 1984 ("Turn Me Loose"), and picked, sang and wrote his way to a good run as a big thing. Gill's career peak came with the 1992 collection "I Still Believe in You," a fabulous mix of quick-picking fun and tender rhythm & blues ballads.
Now, with more than a dozen albums in his discography, and 15 Grammys and 18 Country Music Association awards on his mantel, Gill's ready to concede that there isn't going to be a lot of new platinum in his future. Such concessions are all over "Next Big Thing."
Gill frolics through the sarcastically dubbed title cut, which is the first and best track on the disc. But the ballad "Young Man's Town" sure sounds like something coming from a guy who wasn't ready to fall out of Nashville's favor: "You wake up one morning and it's passed you by / You don't know when and you don't know why / You feel like an old memory hanging around / Man you gotta face it, it's a young man's town," Gill moans, with Emmylou Harris providing vocal and emotional support. The song has the same anti-New Country message as Alan Jackson and George Strait's "Murder on Music Row," but Gill comes off as a much more depressed messenger. Depression still leads to good country music.
Gill, finding himself being put where he and his peers put older artists about a decade ago, pays direct tribute to displaced country elder Merle Haggard with "Real Mean Bottle" -- "Hag, it must have been a real mean bottle that made you play the blues that way" -- and he longs for the simpler music of his youth on "Old Time Fiddle." But the state of country music and his career aren't the only things giving Gill cause to look back: Bygone romance and youthful recklessness are what he's pining for on "We Had It All." Gill's wife, Christian pop goddess Amy Grant, contributes backup vocals on the hospice tale "In These Last Few Days." The jangly, hook-laden "Don't Let Her Get Away" provides "Next Big Thing" with its only upbeat, forward-looking moments.
The CD packs 17 tracks that take up more than 65 minutes, and, with moroseness in such abundance, it seems even longer. By disc's end, those listeners old enough to best identify with the "Life is short!" moral of "Next Big Thing" can get nostalgic for the days when vinyl LPs couldn't possibly be so long.
(Vince Gill will perform at 7 tonight at the 9:30 club. To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)