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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…*
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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."