As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.
The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
The Reason Why is the second disc. The subtitle The Groovy Record is somewhat of a misnomer, as this is the most mainstream disc in the collection. It is primarily a set of contemporary country, with a little jazz (“Faint of Heart” featuring guest artist Diana Krall) and contemporary Christian (“Tell Me One More Time About Jesus” featuring Gill’s wife Amy Grant) thrown into the mix. Had These Days been pared down to just one disc, it would likely have been dominated by the songs on the second disc. It is from this disc that the album’s two singles were culled. “The Reason Why”, featuring harmony vocals by Alison Krauss, was the first single. It analyzes a rocky relationship and asks why people who love each other don’t always treat each other very well. It’s a beautiful song that deserved more airplay than it received. It peaked at a disappointing #28. The second single, “What You Give Away”, featuring Sheryl Crow, warns against greed and excessive materialism, and is one of several songs on this disc with a spiritual theme. It peaked just outside the Top 40 at #43 and no further singles were released. My favorite song on this disc is “The Rock of Your Love”, featuring Bonnie Raitt’s harmony vocals. It’s a quasi-spiritual number about the strength that can be provided by unconditional love. It’s not clear if it’s being sung to a lover or to the Almighty, but it can be interpreted either way.
Although I enjoyed the first two discs, Disc 3 and 4 where we get into the real meat and potatoes of the album. Disc 3, Some Things Never Get Old, is The Country and Western Record, and is a sequel of sorts to 1998’s The Key. The fiddle and pedal steel, are front and center throughout the disc. It opens with “This New Heartache” which pays homage to the genre’s legends:
Like old Hank, who sings about lonesome,
And old Hag about misery and gin
If the jukebox would play Patsy’s “Crazy”
Then I could let this new heartache begin.
Patty Loveless makes a very welcome appearance on “Out Of My Mind”, contributing harmony vocals, as usual. It’s hard to pick a favorite song on this excellent disc, but if pressed, I’d probably choose this one, though I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a proper Gill & Loveless duet to be found in this collection. “Don’t Pretend With Me” is a swing number that is somewhat reminiscent of Vince’s work with The Time Jumpers; Alison Krauss makes a return appearance along with Dan Tyminksi for “I Can’t Let Go” and Emmylou Harris provides the harmony on the disc’s title track “Some Things Never Get Old”. “Sweet Little Corrina”, co-written with Al Anderson, pays homage to the Everly Brothers and features harmony vocals from Phil Everly. Vince’s labelmate Lee Ann Womack sings the harmony parts of “If I Can Make Mississippi”, and John Anderson turns up for the duet “Take This Country Back” that closes out the disc. The song laments country music’s increasing detachment from its roots:
There’s one too many dime-store cowboys
Muscled up in a cowboy hat
Nobody wants to be Hank Williams
Sing about the Lost Highway
Well, Saturday nights at the Ryman,
Those were the good old days
We need to turn up the twang a little
And bring back the Nashville Cats
We’ve got to take this country back.
Disc 4, Little Brother: The Acoustic Record allows Vince to get back in touch with his bluegrass roots. Bluegrass dominates the disc, but there is also some acoustic country, blues and gospel-influenced music here. The disc opens with the energetic “All Prayed Up” followed by another bluegrass number, “The Cold Grey Light of Gone”, for which the Del McCoury Band returns for the first of two more guest appearances (the other is “Give Me The Highway”.) “The Cold Grey Light of Gone” was co-written by Otto Kitsinger and the legendary Bill Anderson. Rebecca Lynn Howard sings with Vince on “Girl”. Vince’s daughter Jenny sings harmony on the acoustic country number “A River Like You”, which though pretty, is not one of my favorites on the disc. “Ace Up Your Pretty Sleeve”, another acoustic country offering, is much better, as is the disc’s title track “Little Brother” which tells the story of two brothers: one who has spent his life on the road playing in bars and honky-tonks, hoping to sing on the Opry one day, and one who stayed at home, got married, and raised a family.
One number that seems a bit out of place here is “Molly Brown”, a blues number about an ill-fated interracial romance. It’s not bluegrass or country, nor is it 100% acoustic. It is, however, a very good song that seems more suited for Disc #1. The album closes with “Almost Home”, a spiritual number featuring Guy Clark, who provides a spoken-word performance. It’s a pleasant, if somewhat cliched number about a mysterious old man the protagonist meets in a bar. The old man reveals that he’s always been a fisherman, fishing for lost souls, and talks about the death of his only son 33 years previously. He gives the narrator a silver cross that belonged to his son, to act as a compass to point one in the right direction. The song contains a vocal chorus, and would have probably been a bombastic mess in the hands of nearly any other artist. But the understated acoustic arrangement is quite effective and it provides a satisfying conclusion to the collection.
These Days is an impressive collection that contains a little bit of something for everybody, regardless of musical taste. Although I greatly prefer Discs 3 and 4, all of the discs are worthwhile. The collection earned platinum certification and was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Album in 2008. It is quite reasonably priced and deserving of a spot in your musical collection if you don’t already have it.