Outside it's a drizzly January afternoon in Nashville. But inside Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the legendary dive bar where bygone Grand Ole Opry stars wrote hit songs on tabletops, Contemporary Christian pop singer Amy Grant warms the stage, crooning a sexy ballad she wrote with her husband of 11 years, Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill.
True love, making up for lost time
True love waiting
Your love, that's finally mine…*
Gill strums an acoustic guitar. "Keep goin', baby," he says. Tootsie's is such a hallowed hole that even the rich and famous drop in to play for free once in a while. Minutes later Gill and Grant nestle in a corner booth, holding hands. Gill leans in closer to his wife, who's wearing a striped tunic and a pair of well-worn cowboy boots, and says," You know what? You look fabulous right now."
Beyond Tennessee, other husband-and-wife teams — Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, say, or Tim McGraw and Faith Hill — grab headlines as Nashville's most visible twosomes. But in Music City, insiders tell you differently: The appealingly understated Vince Gill, 54, and Amy Grant, 50, are this town's most romantic, true power couple. Now, as Grant has just wrapped up a national tour and Gill prepares to release a new, all-originals CD, the couple find themselves reflecting on the long and painful journey that has brought them to what they each call the best time of their lives.
With his luminous tenor, and guitar licks so inventive that Eric Clapton studies his moves, Gill, who has accumulated 20 Grammy awards and 18 Country Music Association trophies, arrived on the music scene "just dripping talent," says close friend and fellow musician Rodney Crowell. But it was Gill's marriage to Grant (who has six Grammys and 22 Dove Awards for gospel music to her credit) that grounded him in a profound way. "Sometimes one person in your life puts that final block in place, and you step into the ownership of who you are," explains Crowell. "That was a positive merging right there — two great, fun-loving, accessible people. They're the perfect couple and parents, fully realized human beings and philanthropists. And there's absolutely no pretension about them, which is very rare."
Theirs is the story of how the prince of country and the princess of gospel risked their reputations to become the king and queen of hearts. "It was really hard to get there," Gill says. "That seemed to make it matter even more."
* "True Love" lyrics written by Vince Gill & Amy Grant.
Tabernacles & Taverns
"I apologize for being in yesterday's clothes," Grant says the next morning, entering the den of the couple's plantation-style home in an exclusive section of Nashville. "I got up early to take Corrina to school." Chances are, the Gills' 10-year-old daughter has the school's most glamorous mother. Corrina's father, comfy in a T-shirt and jeans, clearly would concur. "What's funny is I see old photographs of Amy in her 20s, and she's much prettier these days." A laugh. "She still does it for me."
Despite their attraction, Gill and Grant initially wondered if they were a match, he fretting that she might find him too rough-edged, and she worrying he'd find her too quiet. And their upbringings were different. Gill grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, the son of a judge who was, says Gill, "more red-dirt Okie than big-shot lawyer." Gill's family were party people, "very matter-of-fact." While Grant grew up in the Church of Christ, singing for God on Sunday and on Wednesday nights, Gill played beer joints, less concerned with the afterlife than honky-tonk heaven.
He was a wounded child, close to his mother and born with crossed eyes. (He had two surgeries while young, and to this day his left eye wanders when he's tired. Two years ago he began wearing glasses nearly full-time.) When Vince was 10, his older half brother, Bob, suffered a head injury in a car crash, and struggled the rest of his life. (He died of a heart attack in 1993.) Young Vince, to ease his pain, learned to hide himself behind humor or to retreat inside the sorrowful sounds of bluegrass and country music.
Grant, the youngest of four children born to a Nashville radiation oncologist and his wife, was a dutiful child, albeit with a sharp sense of humor. From the time she was a small girl, riding horses on the family farm, she knew that her great-grandparents had willed the property, worth $13 million, to the faith-based Lipscomb University. "That way, it would go to what they believed in and not to us," says Grant. "My family very intentionally taught me proactive giving."
A Soul Connection
For all their differences, Gill and Grant are the same philosophically — they make it a priority to treat people with respect and kindness. That's not always easy. Gill has a famous temper; Grant, a stubborn streak." They have an agreement that any time things get heated, they'll pause and take a moment to cool down, because words cannot be taken back," says Grant's sister Carol Grant Nuismer. And though they work in the same field, they refuse to compete, appreciating each other's gifts. Grant calls her singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist husband "a freak of nature." And Gill says of his wife: "It never fails to amaze me how captivating the sound of her voice is." But it's Grant who gives voice to a deeper reason their union has lasted — and why it even began: "We both wanted it so bad."
When the two singers first worked together in late 1993, their lives seemed settled. Grant, a mother of three, was married to gospel singer Gary Chapman. Gill was the husband of Janis Oliver (of the singing duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo), with whom he had a daughter. But neither marriage was especially joyful, and the Chapmans' union, as Grant describes it, "had been rocky from the get-go. I'd been holding steady for 15 years in something that was not easy to hold steady."
Grant's pain was evident to her sister Nuismer: "Sometimes when people try to stay in [a marriage] with unresolved issues, they begin to shut down. It's like you see them dying."
Around the holidays of that year, Grant and Gill played three events together in one night. "I knew from the tips of my toes that he was unlike anybody I had ever met," Grant remembers, "and that I related to him on such a cellular level. I was just so overwhelmed by him as a person that I finally came up behind him and wrapped my arms around him and said, 'I've needed to do this all night.' "
The feeling was mutual, but Gill held on to his decorum. "He went, 'Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!' " Grant recalls. "It was weird. It was all caught on film, too." Not long after, Grant invited him to record a duet, "House of Love," that friends and critics alike agreed was magical.
Grant's obsession with Gill caught her by surprise. She incorporates prayer and worship into her daily life, and had become, at 19, the burgeoning Contemporary Christian movement's most celebrated singer. Michael Blanton, part of her management team for 30 years, instantly saw what was happening. He and Grant sat up late one night in the middle of a tour and had a heart-to-heart. "Amy, what are you going to do?" he asked. "What are you going to do?"
"I could definitely see that she had made a soul connection that was different from anything she'd ever had," Blanton says. "She was working out the details of that in her mind, going, 'This is where I am in reality in my life, but now, how do I put this thing together?' It was an incredibly tough struggle. It brought into question everything about her faith and her desire to be a woman of integrity."
At first, Grant and Gill did nothing but brood. He wrote gorgeous songs of longing — "Whenever You Come Around," "When Loves Finds You" — that advanced his career but not his well-being. In private, Grant noted on a legal pad each time she was around Gill. "[Vince] just made a profound mark on me every time and confirmed there was somebody out there who gets me," Grant says.
There was no cheating, Gill insists, and neither spoke to the other about leaving their spouse. "We were both married, and though we were crazy about each other, we thought, 'Well, that's not our life.' " Friends sensed the attraction, found it painful to watch the two dancing around each other, and offered advice. "The hard truth was that we never thought for a minute that we would wind up together," says Gill. To that end, Grant and Chapman sought marital counseling.
One day in April of 1997, Grant was surprised to read in the paper that Gill had announced he was getting a divorce. Chapman, who by then was well aware of Grant's infatuation with Gill, glanced at the headline — it was on the front page — and turned to his wife, commenting that he was grateful someone had finally made the first move. "[It was] awful. Awful! Killed me for him," Grant remembers. "How painful to be married to somebody you know is so captivated by another human being."
The following year, Grant and Chapman sought divorce mediation. "Not being able to fix things took a toll," says Nuismer. "The family was fractured."
In 1999, Grant moved out. Soon after her divorce became final, she and Gill started dating. "It was hard," Gill admits. "The kids, the popularity of our lives, a lot of tongues waggin'." Luckily, the local press was kind — and at the time both of their ex-spouses refrained from discussing the split.
The relationship deepened quickly, and in March of 2000, Gill and Grant married in an outdoor ceremony on her property. From the beginning each started improving the other — Grant softening Gill's ire, which has often flared on the golf course, and Gill striving to keep Grant focused. ("She can't multitask," he says. "She'll start the bathwater and then forget it.")
Blending families was more challenging. The newlyweds returned from a honeymoon in Beaver Creek, Colorado, only to embark on a spring-break trip to hell in Hawaii with Grant's children — Matt, Millie, and Sarah, who were 12, 10, and 7 — all of whom resented the new man in Mommy's life.
"You make me sick. Put a shirt on," Millie chastised Gill when he walked around bare chested. Matt played his mom's protector, warning Gill: "If you ever hurt my mother, I'm going to kill you." Gill remained patient, content to be Grant's husband — not an authority figure to her kids. Time passed, and "I hate you" and "I don't choose you" eventually evolved into acceptance.
"All those things had been said, so when it finally turned to tolerance, respect, and, best-case scenario, love — oh, that was quite a journey," says Grant. "It's like a broken bone that grows stronger if it heals properly."
Corrina's birth in 2001 helped promote the healing. "[She's] the glue of this whole family," Gill says. "She bonded all of us in a blood way that really did connect us."
Like Gill's daughter, Jenny, 29, who has sung on her father's albums, Corrina shows a flair for music. Last year she performed with her mother at Lipscomb University. "She belted out her part like Whitney Houston, giving it everything she had," Gill recalls. "When she got done, the crowd madly cheered. She did this double-fisted pump, 'Yeah!' And I said, ' We're screwed.' "
Charity off the charts
From her earliest success, Grant lent her talents to fund-raising. "I grew up feeling very interconnected to the community around me, even when I was oblivious to current events," she says. "My older kids' grandmother used to always pray, 'Lord, lead me today to those who need me.' Most mornings I pray that prayer."
"Her charity is off the charts," says Blanton. "I've never seen anybody so generous with her life and her funds." Gill, who performs at two or three charity events for each paying gig, is equally benevolent. He almost never turns down a request to play fund-raisers, he says, because he remembers when no one asked.
Individually and together, the two have raised millions of dollars for causes including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, Nashville's symphony, and, through Gill's annual pro-celebrity golf tournament ("The Vinny"), junior golf programs throughout Tennessee. In 2004 the pair began hosting an annual golf tournament and concert to raise funds for Challenge Aspen, which offers recreational programs for people with physical and cognitive challenges. Challenge Aspen started tailoring services for returning servicemen and -women, and in 2009 Gill and Grant hosted a Kennedy Center concert to help launch Challenge America. The nonprofit assists veterans — many wounded — in making the transition from battlefield to home.
Gill admits to selling fewer albums than during his hit-making prime in the 1990s. But without the pressure to score radio airplay, he is free to indulge in more offbeat endeavors. Most Monday nights when he's in town, he drives to a tiny music club and sits in with The Time Jumpers, a western-swing ensemble largely made up of topflight studio musicians. He says he has grown as a craftsman during recent years. "The past pales in comparison to what I am doing now," he says. "I feel reborn, in a sense."
Like her husband, Grant is less interested in ramping up her career than in spending time with friends and watching the children as they launch their lives. Only Sarah and Corrina live at home now, and Grant knows that soon the spacious house will no longer be their anchor. That's one reason she's glad Gill turned his study into a recording studio several years ago. "It's given this big old house great purpose for the years to come," she says, showing off the studio's massive soundboard. "We'll still be putting on coffee and setting up drums and having the house rattle on its foundation."
Back in the den, she settles into a high-back chair and insists that this is her favorite stretch of life. Gill agrees, but with a wisecrack: "I'm old enough now that I look extinguished."
Life isn't perfect, of course. Grant admits to a recent oh-no-I'm-getting-old! meltdown in the bathtub. "Having that baby at 40 really shot my stomach, and I was just having a good cry about it," she says. "Vince came in, and I was drooling and snot was coming out, and I said, 'Women get invisible.' And he said, 'I love you, and you're more beautiful now than you were when I first met you. I can't wait to see what you look like with a head full of gray hair.' And he meant it."
"As far as she knows!" he pipes up. They share a laugh. Then Gill springs to his feet to head for an appointment. A quick kiss and he's out the door with a promise to return soon.
The early-afternoon sun filters through the window and lights the side of Grant's face — chiseled, yet soft. It's unlikely, but what if Gill didn't come back? How would she cope if, for some reason, he fell off the planet?
"Oh, my goodness," Grant responds, as if the idea never occurred to her. Her brown eyes widen and fill. "I would miss him every day."