When Vince Gill thinks of home, he can't help but remember his old elementary school. After all, it stands just across the street from the Oklahoma City house where he grew up and his mother, Jerene Gill, still lives. "The playground is our front yard in a sense, so it's a big picture of me thinking about home. ... It was my view from my window,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Nashville, Tenn. The country music luminary will return today to Cleveland Elementary Arts and Science Specialty School at 2725 NW 23 to play a benefit concert. The concert will be in, and raise money to refurbish, the school auditorium. That particular room has special significance for the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/musician. "That's the first place I ever played music in front of anybody that I can recall,” he said, adding that he has memories of "carrying my guitar over there and playing it for an assembly, probably in second or third grade.” As for the song he played, he said his mother believes it was "House of the Rising Sun,” and "I wouldn't dispute her,” he said. But he laughingly admits it was an odd choice. He likely had no clue back then that the song is a cautionary tale about a man entangled in drinking, gambling and brothel-visiting. "That's quite a subject for a kid,” he joked.
Honorary showThe event is designed to honor Gill as Oklahoma Today magazine's 2007 Oklahoman of the Year. The magazine, which is part of the state Tourism Department, featured him on the cover of its January/February issue "I'm pretty flattered. I think they're scraping the bottom of the barrel, really,” Gill said with a laugh. "They could have found many ... more deserving candidates than me.” But Oklahoma Today Editor-in-Chief Louisa McCune-Elmore said Gill, 50, has been a perennial candidate for the honor. He has earned the nickname "Brother Benefit” for his willingness to help good causes. When the magazine staff met with Gill to plan his Oklahoman of the Year event, the star suggested the benefit concert, she said. "It's just a very inspired idea, and I'll tell you what, this is going to be one kind of fabulous concert.” Gill has sold 26 million albums and last month won his 19th Grammy award, the most for any male country artist. He accepted the "best country album” prize from Ringo Starr — and got in the line of the night by jokingly asking often-cocky rapper Kanye West if he had gotten an award from one of the Beatles. "It was amazing. ... I wouldn't have said anything, had I not started walking up those stairs and going, ‘That's Ringo Starr that's about to give me a Grammy.' And it really, it kind of bowled me over,” Gill said. The grade school auditorium seats about 220 people, making it an intimate venue for the show. "What you kind of yearn for as a performer, I think, more than anything is that connection, that intimacy that happens when you're in a smaller place,” said Gill, who will have his family in the audience. "This'll be fun. It's just going to be me and a guitar and a piano player.” The goal is to raise all the money to refurbish the auditorium in one day, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the project. With tickets running $495, the show has raised more than $80,000, said Oklahoma Today Publisher Joan Henderson. Only a few tickets remained on sale Wednesday. Cleveland Principal Mary Coughlin said the auditorium needs a new sound system, curtains and lighting. The estimated cost for the project is $75,000 to $100,000, and raising it in one day is an unusual feat. "It's a great lesson for our kids in giving back ... and remembering from where you came,” Coughlin said. "The kids are excited; that's the best part.” Gill is quick to pass along the credit for the benefit's success. "Granted, I possess something that allows people to come and pay money and see what it is, but ... it's a few hundred other people that are gonna spend their hard-earned money to come and spend the night there. They're the ones who are doing it, not me,” he said.
Mary Coughlin, principal of Cleveland Elementary Arts and Science Specialty School, hopes the money to improve the auditorium can be raised in one day. BY JACONNA AGUIRRE, THE OKLAHOMAN
‘Vince Gill: Back in Class'•When: 7 p.m. today. •Where: Cleveland Elementary Arts and Science Specialty School, 2725 NW 23. •Tickets: $495. •Beneficiary: All proceeds go to renovate the school's auditorium. •Information: Call 230-8450.