Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Okie’

The short version: While ‘Okie’ is commendable for its scope and approach in handling heavy-handed subjects, Vince Gill often comes across as too preachy and judgmental himself to effectively sell these tracks.

  • Favorite tracks: “What Choice Will You Make,” “That Old Man Of Mine,” “I Don’t Want To Ride The Rails No More,” “A Letter To My Mama”
  • Least favorite tracks: “Black and White,” “The Price Of Regret”
  • Rating: 5/10

The long version: While radio hits define an artist’s popularity in the current day, it’s the actions those artists take during that time which decide their legacies. Recording music akin to the popular flavor of the day will work in the short term, but a lasting career requires substantive material and a real passion for the art.

Granted, when asked about the first artists that pop into one’s mind when they think “’90s country,” many answers will gravitate toward the heavy-hitters like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, or, further down, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and so on and so forth. But it’s still telling that, despite only garnering five or less No. 1 singles each, artists like, say, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt and Vince Gill live on in the public conscience for their contributions to country music in various forms.

Of course, Gill really does feel like a grandfather figure to country music – someone who, even despite catering to some cheesier, smoother ‘90s production, always stood out for his thoughtful material and dynamite voice. Moreover, Gill has aged exactly the way you’d hope a country star would – by accepting the fact that, despite achieving lesser commercial recognition, that crutch is paralleled by greater artistic freedom. Even outside of the music, Gill is one of the most respected members of the country music business, being a fantastic instrumentalist in his own right while working hard to support the Country Music Hall of Fame.

And if anything, Gill was only looking to expand upon his newfound freedom from catering to radio airplay with his new album, Okie. Described as one of his most personal and stripped down albums to date, it certainly looked to be a return to form after the disappointing Down To My Last Bad Habit from 2016, which always felt too slick and polished for its own good.

Yet while Okie is certainly commendable in its approach, it rarely ever delivers something more resounding than its ideas let on. But because the bones of the album are quite good, I can see why Okie is being hailed as one of Gill’s best projects yet. For me, though, Okie stumbles in its execution more than a few times, and when it does, the results are bland and forgettable.

But going back to the aforementioned foundation of the album, in terms of the production and instrumentation, this is certainly one of Gill’s richest-sounding albums to date. The acoustic guitars are placed right at the front of the mix to give the album a live, intimate feel, and the overall textures have a ton of rollicking warmth to them. For the most part, it’s minimalist in a good way. The thicker acoustics driving “I Don’t Want To Ride The Rails No More” really set the tone for the album, and when Gill himself is able to ride off the piano accents for the hooks of tracks like “When My Amy Prays” or “Forever Changed,” he shows he hasn’t lost an ounce of his power or stage presence.

Of course, this also comes with the caveat that Okie can sound a little too polished and dry at points, with a usual acoustic guitar and piano combination (with pedal steel every now and then) certainly supplementing many of these tracks, but never doing enough to quite differentiate them from one another. The album’s songs sound beautiful individually, but coupled together it creates a boring listening experience that far too often feels repetitive. Even “When My Amy Prays” seems to draw from the exact same melody as Gill’s earlier hit, “Whenever You Come Around,” so the criticism of a lack of variety and originality certainly isn’t unjustified.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t smaller details that work well in other places. “The Red Words” stands out for its upbeat, rollicking acoustic groove to drive the momentum, and the same can be said for “That Old Man Of Mine,” only that acoustic groove is dark and biting in this instance, providing at least one unique moment here.

The main conversation surrounding Okie, however, is in its lyrical content. On one hand, then, the quieter nature of the album makes sense for lending the tracks more gravitas and humanity. On the other hand, though, the album approaches so many heavy-handed tracks with a surface-level approach that it’s like watching the edgier side of the Hallmark Channel at points. Kudos to Gill, however, for approaching certain subjects here, especially within the album’s first few tracks. “I Don’t Want To Ride The Rails No More” opens the album with what is essentially Gill’s declaration to pursue his own artistic ambitions henceforth, but the focus quickly shifts outward to address racial divides in “The Price Of Regret” and a rape incident on “Forever Changed.”

The problems come when Gill approaches subjects like this with a surface-level analysis, essentially preaching to everyone to just get along on “The Price Of Regret” (because no one has said that numerous times already, of course) while feeling surprisingly mawkish in approach on “Forever Changed.” Sure, there are certain divides that require a deeper insight and probably do show more commonalities than differences, but if the song is only approaching the situation with a vague assessment of the entire conundrum, what’s the point? And “Forever Changed” seems more concerned with attacking a rapist by threatening him with God’s almighty judgment for what he’s done, but let’s be honest – is that really going to faze someone like that? If the song had felt righteously furious or focused on punishing him here on Earth, maybe we’d have a different song. But these two tracks set up the main criticisms for the remainder of the album – it’s risky, yet ultimately too safe and cloying.

Of course, part of the point of Okie is that, for as much preaching as Gill will do on certain tracks, he’s also not a saint. And maybe that’s why when he steps back from inserting himself into the situation on “What Choice Will You Make,” the song feels more grounded and real, showing an honest problem of a woman dealing with teen pregnancy and facing judgment on all sides from her next decision. And yet even despite Gill’s obvious religious connotations, he’s never one to insert his own opinion, ultimately showing that it’s not an easy situation to deal with. And it’s also particularly striking how well this works considering Gill will only ever know what it’s actually like to be in that situation from afar, himself.

Unfortunately, a brilliant moment like that is balanced out with Gill condemning the present day and reminiscing on the “good ol’ days” on “Black and White,” which, like so many tracks here, never offers anything but a rudimentary analysis of the entire situation to back up his opinion. And even if Gill is honest with his faults like on “An Honest Man,” it feels more like he’s making excuses for himself rather than showing any hints that he wants to change for the better. Even if “When My Amy Prays” is too syrupy for me, personally, there’s at least something more here to the sentiment of being a better believer in tough times. It might turn off those who don’t share the same strong Christian values that him and his wife, Amy Grant, share, but it’s a touching, raw, personal moment that resonates all the same, ironically succeeding in fostering that unity that so many tracks here fail to achieve.

But despite the album’s faults, though, Gill is still an excellent singer. Even if the overall sentiments here often fall flat, it’s hard not to respect Gill’s passion for what he’s singing, with some of the rarest form of power and charisma ever experienced in country music. It’s what helps the ambiguity surrounding “What Choice Will You Make” work so well as Gill looks on with sympathy knowing the decision isn’t easy. And even with “A Letter To My Mama,” it goes deeper to pinpoint Gill’s own detachment from his mother in his youth, including struggles with the separation of his parents. And Gill has no qualms admitting he wasn’t easy to raise, yet is at the point in his life where he understands all that went into her own struggles. Empathy is another strong thematic arc on Okie, and when it’s not wrapped in a preachy framing and told through stories like this instead, it ultimately cuts much deeper.

What I can’t understand, then, is why there’s a murder ballad here in the form of “That Old Man Of Mine,” where an angered son kills his abusive father. It’s especially puzzling to hear on an album that speaks toward themes of forgiveness, people not caring enough about one another, and finding faith. Sure, the acoustic guitar and organ combination driving the groove is fairly potent, if a bit too smooth to bring out its overall darkness. But if there’s ever been a showcase of a track sticking out like a sore thumb on an album, this might forever be the standard textbook example. Elsewhere, the two tributes to musical heroes in Guy Clark and Merle Haggard aren’t bad, but Gill delivers “Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Guy Clark Song” with the excitement of someone reading the newspaper on the verses. Granted, we’ve also been inundated with plenty of Haggard tributes since his death in 2016, but Gill’s ode certainly rings as one of the most sincere, effectively serving as nothing more than a brief love letter from a fan to one of his heroes. And like with “Sad One Comin’ On” from his last album that served as a tribute to George Jones, Gill ends his album with a homespun, pure country moment on Okie.

But as a whole, Okie is way too overwrought to often take seriously, with only a few moments of brilliance scattered in between. Gill sounds even better than ever as his voice as adopted a lower, richer timbre, and the songs sound nice when they’re taken as individual cuts. But Okie runs together sonically and melodically far too often to sustain attention for a long duration of time, and when the writing can only make it worth sitting through in moments, Okie is simply an album that has high aspirations and yet never quite reaches them.

(Light to decent 5/10)

Buy or stream the album.

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