Vince Gill received one of the greatest gifts of his professional life when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011. One listen to Guitar Slinger, his first record in five years, makes it easy to comprehend why: he has carried the genre forward to embrace the rest of popular music without sacrificing its tradition. Gill can be forgiven for not recording for so long; after all, These Days was a four-disc set of all-new material. Guitar Slinger, co-produced by Gill with Justin Niebank and John Hobbs, compresses everything he displayed on These Days and more. Gill wrote or co-wrote all 12 of these songs. His astonishing musical range is readily on display, the diversity inseparable from his creative identity. You'd be forgiven for thinking, given its title, that Guitar Slinger primarily showcases Gill's enviable instrumental skills, but it's only a small part of the album's appeal. Though he plays plenty, this is a singer's and a songwriter's album. Gill moves effortlessly from place to place beginning with the slamming, '50s-styled rock & roll of the title track that opens the album and pays homage to everyone from Paul Burlison to Scotty Moore and Luther Perkins. From here, he does a modern Nashvillian take on blue-eyed country soul with "Tell Me Fool," which features gorgeous backing vocals by Bekka Bramlett, daughter Jenny Gill, Billy Thomas, and Chris Stapleton (some version of this foursome is everywhere present here). The album's first single, "Threaten Me with Heaven," co-written with wife Amy Grant (who appears on backing vocals) and Will Owsley, is a gorgeous pop-country love song delivered in Gill's silky yet impassioned voice. The kicker is in the gospel-inflected refrain that defies any listener to remain unmoved. "When the Lady Sings the Blues," with its hip Rhodes piano and electric blues guitar licks, digs deep into Southern R&B traditions. Guitar Slinger also looks at mortality squarely in a number of tracks here; something Gill hasn't done much of before. It's in the single's refrain to be sure, but there's also the honky tonk swinger "If I Die," the uptempo Bakersfield-styled country of "Billy Paul" (which details a murder-suicide), and the closing back country waltz "Buttermilk John." "True Love," the album's second single, is a beautiful duet with Grant; it's a breezy, bluesy paean to marital commitment, with tastefully arranged strings that underscore the lyrics and vocal deliveries without robbing them of their emotional power. "Bread and Water" is a 21st century country-gospel number that stays far afield from the saccharine nature of most efforts in this arena. "The Old Lucky Diamond Motel" is a retro-country waltz whose roots lie in the era before countrypolitain. Ultimately, with its ambitious range of music, Guitar Slinger proves that Gill just gets better with age. The album is not just the best country has to offer (if the genre were modeled on his standard, its radio stations would be difficult to turn off), but more: it's the best that pop music has to offer, too.
Thom Jurek, Rovi