Ask singer Vince Gill about the music and performers he was inspired by in his youth, and his answer varies with his reflection.
"It changes with whatever age you are at the time," said Gill, talking by telephone earlier this month from his home in Nashville.
"My list is long and ranges from Chet Atkins, Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt."
An ever-relaxed Gill took a break from recording work in his home studio to do the telephone interview on Wednesday, April 9, just three days prior to his 57th birthday on April 12.
"Yep, it's a special birthday this year because I turn 57 and I was born in 1957," said Gill, who returns to Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville for one 8 p.m. concert Thursday, May 8.
He last performed for Star Plaza audiences in April 2012.
Gill reminds his musical journey began long before he launched his professional career.
Born in Norman, Okla., it was his father, J. Stanley Gill, a lawyer-turned-administrative law judge who also played in a country music band part-time, who encouraged his son to learn to play several instruments, including the banjo and guitar, bass, mandolin, dobro and fiddle. While still in high school, he performed in the bluegrass band Mountain Smoke, which he said built a strong local following and opened a concert for Pure Prairie League, the group he would eventually join as the lead singer in 1979.
He left the group in 1981 and joined Rodney Crowell's backing band the Cherry Bombs.
"I've always enjoyed being part of the supporting artists for a performance," Gill said.
"And I'm proud of the great history and support that have always been part of the country music industry for welcoming new talent."
In 1983, Gill signed with RCA Records and moved with his wife Janis and daughter Jenny to Nashville to pursue his dream of being a country music artist. By 1987 he achieved his first Top 5 single, "Cinderella," from his album The Way Back Home. In addition to performing as a solo artist, Gill also worked frequently as a studio musician, wrote songs for other artists and toured with Emmylou Harris.
It was when Gill signed with MCA Records in 1989 and released the album "When I Call Your Name" that his debut single "Oklahoma Swing" with Reba McEntire reached the Top 20. But it was the title cut that firmly established the singer as a new force on the Country Music scene when the song peaked at No. 2 and earned Gill his first CMA Award for Single of the Year and his first Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1990.
"To have the chance to be invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and have my parents be able to see me perform on the same stage as their heroes, was something very special because those same names are my heroes, like Roy Acuff, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe and Little Jimmy Dickens," he said.
Becoming an in-demand duet partner, Gill sang with Amy Grant on "House of Love," the title cut of her 1994 album which became a hit on adult contemporary radio stations.
He said "The Key," released in 1998, was a return to Country while chronicling "the turmoil in his life including the death of his father and the breakup of his first marriage." Gill married singer Amy Grant in 2000, and released "Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye" that same year. The album celebrated his new relationship and featured the hit "Feels Like Love." The couple celebrated the birth of their daughter Corrina Grant Gill in 2001.
"I love performing at Star Plaza Theatre because the audiences care about who they are seeing on stage," Gill said.
"Sure, there are times I get offered big money to play a big casino, but you don't always know who's going to be in the audience and if they are there because they want to hear the music and see the performer or if they just received a comp ticket. Do I still play some of these dates? Sure, because you have to pay the bills. But performance is like a conversation. It needs to be two-way, so you don't want an audience that is indifferent."
Gill has sold more than 26 million albums. He has earned 18 CMA Awards, including Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994. He is tied with George Strait for having won the most CMA Male Vocalist Awards (five), and is currently second only to Brooks and Dunn for accumulating the most CMA Awards in history. He has received 20 Grammy Awards to date, the most of any male Country artist. An avid golfer, he helped create the annual Vince Gill Pro-Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament ("The Vinny") in 1993 to help support junior golf programs throughout Tennessee.
In August of 2007, the Country Music Association inducted Gill into the coveted Country Music Hall of Fame.
As for today's young singing and music artists, Gill said he doesn't agree with criticism of television programs created to spotlight potential performance talent.
"I don't really think shows like 'American Idol' or 'The Voice' are all that different from way back when it was Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey introducing new faces to the public," Gill said.
"If there's really talent and drive, careers will happen and the platform is just a springboard."
As for Gill's association with reality TV, he said he gets approached to participate but his management team knows him well.
"Everyone knows what I will and won't do," Gill said.
"I'm a singer. So when they keep asking me to be on 'Dancing with the Stars,' I just tell them that they really don't want to see me dancing."