The title of Guitar Slinger suggests Vince Gill is looking to show off his considerable and underrated chops as a guitarist. But instead of a mostly instrumental project akin to Brad Paisley’s Play: The Guitar Album, Gill’s effort actually turns out to be a survey course of the types of country music he loves most. That may not make for the most ambitious or thematically cohesive album, but Guitar Slinger makes up for its lack of focus with some truly inspired songwriting and performances.
Though Gill does add some instrumental fills to the end of several tracks that give him the opportunity to throw in some impressive guitar licks (most notably on the title track and “When the Lady Sings the Blues”), it’s his high, lonesome tenor that remains his most distinctive instrument. Many of his biggest hits at country radio are characterized by a pure, pristine vocal delivery, but that isn’t the case here. Gill sings with a surprising power on the lead single, “Threaten Me with Heaven,” and there’s a soulfulness in the frayed edges he brings to “When Lonely Comes Around” and the standout “Tell Me Fool.”
Of those two tracks, the former is a co-write with Ashley Monroe that has the percussion-heavy, electric guitar driven arrangement of a contemporary country single, while the latter is a note-perfect bit of Southern soul. Over the course of the album, Gill also throws in a bit of bluegrass, backed by the Time Jumpers on “Buttermilk John,” and is joined by his wife, Amy Grant, on “True Love,” a treacly adult-contemporary ballad that recalls the most somnolent Norah Jones material. The song is the only real lapse in taste over the course of Guitar Slinger, so the scattershot approach to style that he and co-producers John Hobbs and Justin Niebank bring to the album’s production isn’t necessarily a problem.
That his songwriting is as sharp and as well edited as it has been in years also works in the album’s favor. “When the Lady Sings the Blues” stumbles over some strident references to Billie Holliday, and “True Love” is as dull as the majority of Grant’s songwriting has ever been, but those are the only real missteps. “If I Die” pulls off a surprising and genuinely effective reversal in the third verse of its familiar three-act structure, while “Threaten Me with Heaven” puts a unique spin on matters of faith and mortality. Gill makes exceptional use of personal details, from the allusion to what his family lost in the historic Nashville floods of 2010 on the title track to the murder-suicide of an acquaintance that inspired “Billy Paul,” to give his songs a real sense of first-person authenticity and perspective. Gill sings, “I may have slowed down a little, buddy, but I can still bring ‘er,” on the album’s title track, and he more or less spends the rest of Guitar Slinger proving it.