Vince Gill believes bluegrass music “can rock as hard as the Rolling Stones when it’s done right.”
“There’s something about the sound of it and whatever it is that it does (that) I’ve always been drawn to. I think just the power of those instruments playing together and how much they need each other. It’s really remarkable to watch a great bluegrass band play together ... and it’s interesting in that everything has a place and a purpose and a need. And when it really gels, man, it’s awesome like a great car going down the road,” Gill said in a phone interview last month from his home in Nashville, Tenn.
Back in June, the Country Music Hall of Famer, 55, gathered some of the top players in the genre and embarked on a short bluegrass tour.
He will assemble another group of stellar musicians to headline the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival on Saturday in Guthrie.
The three-day festival opens Thursday and will showcase a variety of acoustic sounds, from traditional bluegrass and Western swing to folk and cowboy music. Along with a full lineup of performers, the event will include a random band jam, youth competitions and workshops.
For Gill, who was born in Norman and grew up in Oklahoma City, Saturday’s headlining set will mark his third time to play the festival.
He performed at the inaugural event in 1997 and played a return engagement there in 2002.
While he always relishes playing in his home state, coming back to the bluegrass fest also will give Gill the chance to reunite with internationally acclaimed fiddler Byron Berline, who founded and organizes the event.
“Byron’ll probably get up and play with us, so it’ll be fun,” Gill said.
“I owe Byron a lot. You know, he gave me a great opportunity when I was a kid. Nineteen years old, he got me out to the West Coast and Southern California and it was a life-changing experience for me.”
Gill and Berline first met at a bluegrass festival in Kentucky back in 1976. Once Berline heard the teenager perform and found out he was from Oklahoma, too, he never forgot him.
“I remembered his name, of course, and remembered his talent, his singing and his musical abilities,” Berline said. “Our lead singer of the band I had at the time bailed out shortly after that. I kept thinking about Vince, but I didn’t really have any more information on him other than I knew he was from Oklahoma City.”
When he and his wife made a return trip to Oklahoma a few months later, Berline called every Gill in the Oklahoma City phone book until he finally reached the future superstar’s father, Stan. The three-time National Fiddle Champion invited Gill out to California to audition for his band Sundance, and “he sang about two songs, and I said, ‘That’s enough for me. He’s got the job as far as I’m concerned.’ We’d been trying out a lot of different singers and players, but he fit the bill really well.
“He played with us for almost three years, I guess, and I introduced him to a lot of different folks out in California,” Berline added. “It was an opportunity for him to really kind of set his style ... and I think people’ll really enjoy his set.”
With the growing popularity of roots music in America and around the globe, Berline said the festival has been reaching the high end of the 3,000 to 5,000 attendees he expects yearly.
“Acoustic music and roots music seems to really be taking off lately, as you can see just going into the campground. Just about everybody that comes to the festival plays a little it seems like ... and lot of really wonderful, fun music gets played in the campground,” said Berline in a phone interview while traveling back to Oklahoma from Nashville, where he attended the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. “We had more people in the campground last year than we’ve ever had, and I expect this year’ll be the same.”
He anticipates the addition of Gill to the bill will boost attendance even more. Plus, the 20-time Grammy winner said he plans to bring along a first-rate bluegrass band: banjo player Jim Mills, fiddler Aubrey Haynie, bassist Mike Bub and singer/guitarist/“Man of Constant Sorrow” Dan Tyminski.
“It’s a bunch of guys that I love,” he said. “Man, it’s awesome-feeling music ... and I really like the old-school stuff where they gather around the microphone and then they slip around back and they come around this way and this guy gets out of the way and this guy takes the solo. It’s a pretty neat dance.”