NASHVILLE No country artist has done more for the venerable Grand Ole Opry during the past decade than Vince Gill. Saturday night, when the Opry changes TV homes from TNN to CMT, Gill will mark his 10th anniversary as a member of the show's cast.
Gill made frequent appearances on the long-running radio and TV show even as he was racking up industry awards and selling millions of albums. He spoke frequently in interviews of how important the Opry and its history are to him.
Gill joined the company on August 10, 1991. In one of the more memorable Opry inductions in recent history, late Opry patriarch Roy Acuff welcomed him into membership and stood by, a tear in his eye, as Gill gave a command performance of Acuff's favorite Gill tune, "When I Call Your Name."
On Saturday, Gill will host an hour-long segment (at 8 p.m. ET) in which he will perform "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" with Little Jimmy Dickens and "Table for Two" with Loretta Lynn. Brad Paisley and Steve Wariner, also staunch Opry supporters, will participate in the segment, and Sonya Isaacs, a young artist Gill has produced and written for, will join him for a number.
"They asked if I'd do a few different things during the hour," Gill said. And having 20 or 30 country stars in the same place, week in and week out, means the potential always exists to do just that, he feels.
"That's when the Opry gets special," he said. "It gets stagnant if everybody just goes out and does their one song, and then the next guy comes out. The fans enjoy seeing people singing and playing with different people."
Similar possibilities emerge backstage as young artists mix and mingle with an earlier generation of country stars. The exposure offers a great chance to learn, Gill contended.
"The opportunity to sit and have Roy Acuff tell me war stories from 40 or 50 years ago on the road was priceless," he said. "To grieve with people, to grieve with their families, to sing a little bit with Jimmy Dickens, to record some with Hank Locklin, to sit around and talk golf with Charlie Walker and to write a song or two with Bill Anderson that's what being there has brought me."
This week's move to CMT, Gill reasoned, would be a shot in the arm for both the Opry and country music. He feels TNN's transformation from The Nashville Network to the pop-oriented The National Network was in part responsible for the decline in country's popularity and sales.
"They're taking a big bite out of country music's opportunity to be seen and heard," he said of TNN's change. "The CMT audience base is obviously going to be much more about hearing some music."
Gill has long spoken out about wishing that more of his peers would take advantage of the opportunity to perform at the Opry. He said he understands how economic and personal circumstances might preclude Opry visits by hard-working stars trying to take advantage of their peak earning power.
"I can sympathize," he admitted. "If you've been out there working 120 shows and you get a weekend off, do you really want to play again? You can't fault a guy for not wanting to, and I don't. I'm not finger pointing. All I've said is, it'd be great if they'd come out."
He has criticized administrative decisions from time to time, most notably when several veteran bandmembers were let go in 1999, but Gill also credited management with trying to infuse the 75-year-old institution with new vitality. He understands that replenishing the talent pool is crucial.
"If there's no new blood, if there are no new artists to pass the torch to, then it's eventually going to go away," he said. "It needs all those kids out there getting to do what I've done the last 10 years: getting to know some of those people before they're gone, to know how special they are."