Vince Gill was not a new artist in 1989, but it was the year that saw him make his big breakthrough and really established him as the major star he was to be through the 1990s. He had spent several years signed to RCA, and had released three truncated albums of varying lengths, plus a number of singles which had received varying amounts of radio play, three becoming top 10 hits. Much of Vince’s RCA output is still worth seeking out; I particularly like ‘The Way Back Home’, ‘Oh Carolina’, ‘Living The Way I Do’, and ‘If It Weren’t For Him’, a duet with Rosanne Cash. The production was not always quite right, though, in my opinion, and sometimes making his voice sound a little thin, especially on up-tempo material. Sales however were not encouraging, and RCA’s lack of faith in Vince is reflected by the fact that none of his album releases were full-length.
Everything changed when Vince changed labels, and moved to MCA. When I Call Your Name, his first album for the label, released in November 1989, was a modern classic which definitely still stands up today. It was eventually certified double platinum.
Like many of the ‘Class of 89’, Vince Gill was a singer-songwriter, and he contributed seven of the ten tracks on this album. They vary from good to great, and are allied to sympathetic production from Tony Brown, with whom Vince had played in Rodney Crowell’s band the Cherry Bombs in the early 80s. Vince’s instrumental abilities are well-known, and he played acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin alongside a team of session musicians. The music is never allowed to overwhelm the songs, but rather supports them to best effect.
The break with the past was not complete; opening track and leadoff single ‘Never Alone’, had been written by Vince with Rosanne Cash back in 1984, and one suspects it had previously been recorded for RCA but never released. It certainly sounds very similar to his material from that period, and was only a modest success, reaching #22 on Billboard. It is a good enough song, but probably my least favorite track on this album. The move to MCA then began to pay off as Vince was teamed with labelmate Reba McEntire on an engaging western swing tribute to their fellow home state, ‘Oklahoma Swing’, which was released as a single. It may come as a slight surprise that it only reached #13.
Vince’s real breakthrough came when the album’s title track was released as a single. The devastating sadness of Vince’s delivery of ‘When I Call Your Name’, supported by Patty Loveless’ harmonies, makes this still one of his finest recordings, perfectly epitomising loneliness and loss. It was a worthy winner of the CMA’s Single of the Year award in 1990, and Song of the Year in 1991. Vince’s status as a genuine new star was cemented by the final single released from the album, the almost equally exquisite sadness of ‘Never Knew Lonely’. This was another song which Vince had cut on RCA, but which they had foolishly overlooked. Vince would still need to wait a few years for his first #1, as these singles made #2 and 3 respectively, but the former in particular has stood the test of time and is one of the best-remembered songs of its era. It was also a genuine star-making record.
Not all the tracks maintain the same standard, but there are no poor tracks either, with even lesser (comparitively) material like ‘Oh Girl (You Know Where To Find Me)’ and ‘We Won’t Dance’ being very listenable, and possible standouts had they appeared on other artist’s albums. Of the more up-tempo material, Vince’s cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Rita Ballou’, an ode to a sexy female rodeo rider, is notable for backing vocals from the great Emmylou Harris, and ‘Ridin’ The Rodeo’ features the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen, and was later covered by 90s group Perfect Stranger. Given the quality of Vince’s songwriting, it seems surprising that more of his songs have not been covered by other artists – one can only assume that singers feel intimidated by the thought of competing with Vince’s own sublime versions.
Vince’s beautiful soaring tenor is best suited to emotion-infused ballads with melodies allowing him to stretch out both vocally and interpretatively. My favorite tracks here, after ‘When I Call Your Name’ and ‘Never Knew Lonely’, fall into that category. ‘We Could Have Been’, one of the few outside songs on the record (written by Don Cook and John Jarvis) is a wistful reflection on an ex-lover and what might have been, which might have been tailor-made for Vince to deliver, and Vince himself wrote the sweet love song, ‘Sight For Sore Eyes’ with Guy Clark.
When I Call Your Name is still commercially available, and is essential listening for country fans.