Right off the bat, Vince Gill proves himself the master of the jocular quip. To the first question, “Does it feel like thirty years since the release of [his album] Pocket Full of Gold?” Gill, known for his playful wit, replies, “Sadly, it does.” He’s only kidding, of course, about the “sadly” part, as the 1991 album provided a happy treasure trove of riches for the soon-to-be superstar.
Pocket Full of Gold, released March 5, 1991, spawned four Top Ten singles: the title cut, “Liza Jane,” “Look at Us,” and “Take Your Memory With You.” Pocket Full of Gold also scored a CMA Nomination for Album of the Year, Gill’s first in that category. As we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the record, Gill reminisced about a few of the tracks, working with stellar producer Tony Brown, and what made him particularly proud of the album.
KEEPING THE MOMENTUM
When Gill hit the studio in June and July of 1990 to record the album, he was on the veritable roll. For a few years, Gill had been a well-known entity inside the beltway of Music Row, but had yet to catch on with the public. That turned around quickly with the release of his 1989 album When I Call Your Name, the breakthrough record that would make Gill a household name and an artist to be fully reckoned with. His soaring, mournful tenor propelled the title tune to the chart stratosphere, peaking at No. 2 and ultimately winning CMA awards for Single and Song of the Year.
As he started recording Pocket Full of Gold, he did so with a measure of confidence and a sterling sense of relief. “More than anything,” Gill notes, “this was the first time in my career that I had gotten to make an album coming off a big hit. I never got to do that before.” For Pocket Full of Gold, Gill again teamed up with producer Tony Brown, also the man behind When I Call Your Name. They agreed that the direction of the album should continue the momentum of that previous work and, simply, unearth the best songs possible. “When we made records together, Tony had more of a free hand in picking the songs,” Gill says. “And I wanted it that way. I trusted his song sense.”
As it turned out, Gill wrote or co-wrote eight of the 10 tracks on the album. The cuts demonstrated considerable variety in the songwriting, with ballads like the title track and “Never Knew Lonely” complemented by the up-tempo “Liza Jane,” a Buck Owens-inspired shuffle “Take Your Memory With You,”and the rollicking, stone country opener, “I Quit.” Gill concurs, “There is a little bit of everything with the songs on this album.”
There are also intriguing stories behind several of the selections. Gill remembers writing with the legendary Max D. Barnes on “Look At Us,” bringing the lyrics and melody to a writing sessions at Barnes’ home. “He asked me if I had any ideas and I played ‘Look at Us’ for him,” Gill says. At this point, it must be noted that Gill’s original version had the couple in the story splitting up as the song reached its dramatic conclusion. Wily veteran Barnes voiced his objection to that resolution.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Son, that’s just too sad.’ Now, this is coming from the guy who wrote [Vern Gosdin’s] ‘Chiseled in Stone,’ which is like the ultimate sad song,” Gill says with a hearty laugh. “He told me I had a great idea but the couple needed to stay together.” Barnes and Gill finished the reworked tune, with Barnes’ sage advice eventually paying off. “Look at Us” peaked at No. 4 in 1991 and has remained a staple of weddings and anniversaries throughout the decades, driven by the beautifully-expressed key line, ‘If you want to see/How true love can be/Then just look at us.’
Ironically, though, Gill’s record label was hardly over the moon over this romantic tale. “That was a song that not everyone was keen on,” Gill recalls. “Partly because it was another waltz. I had just had a couple hits with ‘When I Call Your Name’ and ‘Never Knew Lonely,’ which were both slow songs as well. But ‘Look at Us’ worked out. We got the CMA Song of the Year [award] for it, and that was very meaningful to me because it was the second straight win [in that category] – plus, the award goes to the songwriters.”
The album’s title song, or at least the concept, came as the result of a rebound, one might say. The basketball term is appropriate here, as a basketball playing buddy, former Vanderbilt hoops star Brian Allsmiller, bounce-passed the idea over to Gill. “Brian was a good friend,” Gill begins. “We played a lot of pickup basketball together, with [Belmont University] coach Rick Byrd and some of the former Vandy players. We played some pretty good basketball.” Allsmiller evidently fancied himself a songwriter following his basketball days, and would often bring songs to the pickup games for Gill to peruse. “Most of the time, they were awful,” Gill laughs. “One day, he brought in ‘Pocket Full of Gold.’ I told him that the song he had wasn’t very good but I asked him where he got the idea. He said that he was in a bar and there was this guy talking to some girl. He saw him take off his wedding ring and put it in his pocket, so the girl wouldn’t know he was married. And it hit him about a ‘pocket full of gold.’ I liked that and I took what he had and wrote a new song from there.”
The first verse directly spun off from Allsmiller’s bar scenario, with the descriptive opening lines, ‘He slipped the ring off his finger/When he walked in the room/ And he found him some stranger/And promised her the moon.’ The song continued to weave a cautionary tale about the price one pays for marital infidelities, as the main character dies “a rich man with his pocket full of gold.” Gill gave Allsmiller a songwriting credit, which earned his friend a piece of the royalties. “Pocket Full of Gold,” the first single released from the album, reached No. 7 on the country charts and garnered a CMA award nomination for Single of the Year.
Gill also enjoyed a songwriting cut with pop mainstay Jim Weatherly, whose most famous tracks included such classics as “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” The two collaborated on “If I Didn’t Have You in My World,” and it proved a memorable moment for Gill. He took time to remember Weatherly, who died February 3rd of natural causes at age 77. “He was just the neatest and friendliest guy you would ever want to know,” Gill says, with a touch of emotion in his voice. “I remember him telling me the story of how ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ had been changed from the original title, ‘Midnight Plane to Houston.’ He is someone who will be missed in our community.”
Pocket Full of Gold earned Gill his first CMA Album of the Year award nomination, an honor that Gill especially appreciated. “An album nomination is for a body of work, not an individual award,” he explains. “I was also proud of the fact that the album was very country. There were four hit singles from that album, and three of those were dirt country ballads, and that’s what I was happy for. That meant a lot to me.”
Gill further points to the cadre of ace studio musicians who played vital, complementary roles in the album’s overall sound. “We had some tremendous musicians on there – Larry Byrom [ex-Steppenwolf guitarist], Michael Rhodes [bass], Billy Joe Walker Jr. on guitar, among many more,” he raves. “What a great list.”
Most of all, Gill adds, the album established the partnership between himself and steel player John Hughey, who would come to be identified with Gill. “It was the first time we had used him on an album,” Gill says. “When John played that intro to ‘Look at Us,’ I thought it was as iconic as the steel parts on Buck Owens’ ‘Together Again’ or ‘Night Life’ by Ray Price. It was the perfect set-up to that song.”
Not to be overlooked is the contribution from Gill’s good friend Patty Loveless, who sang backup on “Pocket Full of Gold” and “Look at Us.” Gill had performed guest vocals on several of Loveless’ earlier records, including “If My Heart Had Windows” and “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” her first No. 1 hit, and Loveless had provided a powerful backing vocal on “When I Call Your Name,” lending extra poignancy to that single. “Patty and I have such a great history together,” Gill says. “When we put our voices to a song, it’s a magical blend.”
Pocket Full of Gold further strengthened the star power that Gill had been building over the past couple of years. Awards and nominations suddenly came in droves. In 1991, Gill won his first of five straight CMA Male Vocalist of the Year awards. That same year, Gill received his first nomination for CMA Entertainer of the Year, the industry’s most prestigious honor. Pocket Full of Gold has gone on to sell more than two million copies since its release thirty years ago.