Apparently Vince Gill didn't set out to cut and release four albums containing 43 original songs all at once, but as he and some indefatigable musician mates got it rolling in the studio, the songs started piling up. Cutting across genre lines from country to rock to pop to gospel, These Days is not only one of the most audacious projects in country music history but also one of the best -- any one of these albums on its own would be considered among the finest of the year.
Workin' On a Big Chill: The Rockin' Record might also have been subtitled The Rockin' Soul Record, because it plants itself in greasy southern soul and pretty much stays there for 10 songs. A terrific cheating song, "Nothin' for a Broken Heart," features a salty guest turn by Gill's Notorious Cherry Bombs partner Rodney Crowell, and there's an abundance of horn charts influenced by the Memphis/Muscle Shoals axis, as well as chanting female choruses and slinky grooves that might as well have "Allman Brothers" written all over them, especially on the powerhouse workout titled "Bet It All on You." This disc introduces the dramatis personae for the whole project: Al Anderson sits in on guitar and pens more than a few songs with Gill; the guitarists are a Murderer's Row of pickers, numbering Richard Bennett and Steuart Smith along with Anderson (sometimes all playing on the same number, with Gill, a pretty fair picker himself, adding acoustic and electric throughout); and Michael Rhodes handles the bass. Typical of the surprises on the collection, "Son of a Ramblin' Man" (another Allmans connection, anyone?) is a herky-jerky, bluesy groove featuring Del McCoury on vocals and members of his band doing their thing in the midst of some familiar twin guitar solos, a moment that is about as far from bluegrass as the McCourys have ever ventured.
On The Reasons Why, Gill goes from "What You Give Away" (bolstered by a powerful 10-voice choir and an urgent guest vocal courtesy of Sheryl Crow) to a mellow saloon song, "Faint of Heart," that's strictly a closing time come-on, complete with a silky, sensuous guest vocal by Diana Krall, who engages in some cool give-and-take with Gill and adds her own spare, bluesy piano for the proper late-night glow. Later, Trisha Yearwood shows up to really lay the hurt on a sorrowful, jazz-tinged heartbreaker, "This Memory of You." Subtitled The Groovy Record, this disc features some of the most complex emotional scenarios of the set, many far from groovy, but they hurt so good.
Based on the evidence provided by Disc 3, Some Things Never Get Old, subtitled The Country & Western Record, Gill should have been on the scene in the late '40s through the '50s, when he would have fit in perfectly with Bob Wills, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, and Ernest Tubb. This is the prime-time disc in the bunch, so right on the money in every aspect. With Patty Loveless, Gill effortlessly cuts to the heart of the matter on a honky-tonk tear-jerker "Out of My Mind"; the delightful Ray Price-style shuffle "This New Heartache," also manages to cop some lyric quotations from Buck Owens; Gill's aching, graceful waltz "I Can't Let Go" soars with an ethereal harmony from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski; straightforward and jubilantly rocking, "Don't Pretend with Me" is so true to Ernest Tubb's style of western swing that you can almost smell the sawdust and beer; "Sweet Little Corrina," is something the Everly Brothers might have cut, and indeed, Phil Everly drops by to add a familiar harmony vocal, with a guitar solo that would honor Chet Atkins. Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack, and John Anderson (adding some macho assertiveness to Gill's "Take This Country Back," a furious complaint on the dearth of real country music today) all make memorable contributions.
Although subtitled The Acoustic Record, Little Brother is Gill's bluegrass album -- acoustic, yes, but bluegrass right up to the final two numbers, both being sensitive ballads: "Little Brother" and a somber "Almost Home," with Guy Clark enacting the father part of a mysterious prodigal's return song. Elsewhere, high energy rules the day, from the opening, Flatt & Scruggs-style gospel barnburner "All Prayed Up" to the Del McCoury Band's authenticating the earthy heartbreaker "Cold Gray Light of Day," as well as the rowdy road song "Give Me the Highway," both featuring Del's distinctive keening harmonies. Not the least of this disc's virtues is Gill's daughter Jenny singing a captivating high harmony with her dad on "A River Like You."
It's a journey like no other, These Days, and more than worth the price of admission. Gill's sprawling set says something vital about contemporary country music: how enduring and vital its traditions are, and how the past can inform the present in a way that remains ever timely and timeless.