© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
“And this,” said Vince Gill, “is the LeAnn Rimes Memorial Bathroom.”
It’s a small but comfortable room, just a few steps away from the 32-track recording studio that the CMA Country Music Hall of Fame member built in his Belle Meade, Tenn. home. The only thing that attracts attention is the amplifier positioned just to the left of the doorway.
It seems that Rimes was visiting one day during the sessions for Guitar Slinger, Gill’s new album on MCA Nashville. Musicians were gathered in the studio, going over parts and tweaking their sound. She had just gone into the restroom when a guitarist decided to check his tone. Unfortunately, his microphone and amp were in that restroom, the volume pumped up pretty high.
Gill, remembering that moment, mimed playing a bent-note, upper-neck feedback screech. “And LeAnn said she hit the ceiling,” he remembered. “I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but she was out of there pretty quick.”
Such are the things that can happen when an artist transforms part of his home into a working space. At the very least, you come up with stories you’re not likely to hear about tracking in commercial studios. At best, you save on multiple fronts, including travel time, rental costs and more.
“I haven’t found any minuses to recording at home, to be honest,” Gill said. “My biggest concern is, is it going to sound great? That’s the whole purpose of any studio. At the same time, if you’ve got a great song, it doesn’t matter where you record it. People are going to respond to a great song every time. If the bass sound isn’t just so good, if the kick drum doesn’t sound just so great, or if the guitar tone is a little thin, most people don’t ever hear any of that. The mantra should be ‘serve the song.’”
Gill’s priorities don’t diminish the importance of having a great production with state-of-the-art gear. Rather, they indicate that the purpose of production is to bring out the expressive potential of the tune. This has guided Gill on all of the sessions he’s had, though with Guitar Slinger he took the concept further by doing some of the recording outside the studio doors, in an add-on acoustically dry room, at the end of a hallway, in his living room, even in a closet and of course in the Memorial Bathroom.
To put the conversion of these areas in context, go back to Gill’s and his wife Amy Grant’s decision to make a few changes in their living space. “We lived here for nine years before we even thought about putting a studio in here,” he recalled. “I said to Amy, after we’d been married a few years, ‘How are things?’ She said, ‘Well, to be real honest, there are times when I still feel like a stranger in my own house.’ So after living here for a little bit of time, we said, ‘Okay, we don’t really need a pool table in this room. Nobody plays pool here.’ We’d go through the house and ask, ‘Do we really need a fancy dining room here? Let’s make it a sitting parlor and I could have my desk in there.’ Little by little, I felt like this part of the house could finally serve what would benefit me the most. You find ways to connect what you do and love and make them a part of your home.”
That meant building a studio. Gill invested in the best equipment, relying on advice from friends who kept informed on gear. Eventually, anchored by a 32-channel API board, it took shape in a high-ceilinged space, with a sunken area next to a big working fireplace. It’s as much a place to hang out with friends as it is a facility for top-notch tracking, with tiny amps and car models, a clock with hands set against a Fender logo and amplifier grill cloth and other details enhancing the cozy, vintage décor. He’s even stowed active amps in the bottom of cabinets that line one wall within soundproofing that allows tracks to be captured without any audio bleed.
Eventually, Gill began thinking about expanding his recording options beyond the studio doors. “I’m grateful that I went up to Sheryl Crow’s house,” he said. “She had a fantastic studio built in her basement. I was working on mine, and I was like, ‘Man, she’s got two rooms to do overdubs in. She’s got a lounge. I could do this too; I could build a room onto the side of my studio.’ I realized that if I didn’t take it to a certain level, I’d always be trapped by headphones. That just didn’t sound like fun to me, so I went further than I probably ever intended. I don’t know if I ever intended to put a whole keyboard world in another room. I didn’t think the API desk would be as big as the one I wound up buying. I wound up buying some really big speakers that could crank it up so it sounds like a million bucks. And I never intended to build an extra room. Why not? I’ll be making music in there for 20 years or more.”
That room, acoustically dry, is lined by amplifier grill cloth on the ceiling and the double walls, one external and the other internal, to keep sound from transferring from the inside or the outside. The floor is similarly layered, with two made of cement and two more of wood. “You can do guitar overdubs in here,” Gill noted. “But I set up the drums in here more often than not. The first thought was that, with these two big windows, it was going to be too reflective and live, but as it turns out drummers freak out about the sound in here. They say there’s a bigger depth in the bottom end of the kick drum. We do a lot of vocals in here too. If you need separation, if something needs to be on its own, this works.”
The selection widened as one room led to the next. Just outside the studio door, the end of a hallway, with high ceilings and wood floor, is live enough to add depth to acoustic guitars and upright basses. A nearby closet proves perfect for miking a Leslie speaker, which connects to the Hammond B-3 organ in the living room, just steps away from a Yamaha concert grand piano.
John Hobbs, who has played piano, organ and other keyboards on many of Gill’s sessions as far back as Turn Me Loose in 1983, sees one reason why the idea of “studio” has morphed into this network of rooms. “People that just have their home studios all in one room aren’t usually cutting a band live, which is very much what the approach to this album was — and it always is with Vince,” he said. “He doesn’t like to do a lot of overdubbing, apart from taking vocal passes and doing the background vocals or maybe allowing for an instrumentalist that’s not available on the day of tracking that he really wants to get on a particular song. But the piano really needs to be in a different room. Acoustic piano mics are really hot, so leakage is always an issue. Even the leakage from my headphones, if they’re turned up loud while I’m sitting at the piano, can be an issue. And with the Leslie in a cabinet by itself, it’s really a function of keeping the leakage down.”
Produced by Gill, Hobbs and Justin Niebank, Guitar Slinger is sonically impressive, intimate and romantic on ballads (“True Love,” written and sung by Gill and Grant), majestic where gospel exultation meets searing lead guitar (“Threaten Me with Heaven,” by Gill, Grant, Will Owsley and Dillon O’Brian) and shimmering with steel and triple fiddles on the waltz-time “Buttermilk John” (Gill). But the composer/ singer/guitarist proves correct in asserting that every note played and every knob turned takes the listener deeper into the music and the lyric.
Much of the material is narrative, from the (true) story of a friend’s sad demise in “Billy Paul” (Gill) to its retrograde, chronicling the salvation of a hopeless man at the end of his journey in “Bread and Water” (Gill and Leslie Satcher). It’s not just the quality of this work that distinguishes Guitar Slinger; it’s the fact of its being done at all.
“That’s important to me because I learned that great stories make great songs,” he explained. “It’s not very prevalent in what’s going on today; instead, it’s a little more attitude and a little more swagger. What shocks me is a song like ‘The House That Built Me’ (Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin), that Miranda (Lambert) recorded. I just want to go, ‘Guys! Look at this! This should teach you. People are still moved.’ Guy Clark taught me that if you’re not able to really see the picture that the words say, then find a way to say it where those pictures come alive. That, to me, is great songwriting: If somebody hears a song, they can perceive it any way they want and paint their own pictures. That’s why I don’t like videos: You don’t give the imagination a chance to work.
“I think it would be so easy to put this music back on a great path with people writing and recording great songs again,” he summed up. “It’s not that hard.”