With his sweet tenor voice and a tear in his vocal, Vince Gill defines the term “high lonesome sound” in his aptly titled classic composition “High Lonesome Sound.”
In an unusual move, Gill bookended two versions of the song on the album by the same title—one a traditional bluegrass treatment sans drums and electric instruments, and the other a punchier, more contemporary production.
“It was to remind everybody how much I really love traditional bluegrass music,” Gill says, adding that he also loves the recording with the electric band. “It really does a neat thing of being funky, but yet with all the bluegrass instruments—mandolin, banjo, fiddle and stuff.”
Make no mistake, the whole album is a bluegrass album, but purists don’t consider anything with drums and electric instruments to be bluegrass.
The musical expression “high lonesome sound” is associated mainly with bluegrass, old-time and country music, characterized by unmetered music. Meanwhile, one of the distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is the vocal harmonies—usually featuring two to four parts, often with a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice—one reason it’s described as the “high, lonesome sound.” (Many attribute the expression as referencing the high voice of Bill Monroe.)
For this project, Gill enlisted the vocal harmonies (and fiddle playing) of musical cohort Alison Krauss, another artist who has been said to define the style. While she and her band Union Station contributed to both versions, NARAS nominated the traditional recording, which won Best Country Collaboration with Vocals at the 39th Grammy Awards. (“You’re a wise man to pick Alison Krauss to sing with if you want to do well,” Gill says.)
Engineer Chuck Ainlay recalls that the electric track was recorded during the making of the entire Tony Brown-produced album, which was done at Masterfonics/The Tracking Room in 1996. The huge (6,500 square feet) Tom Hidley-designed studio with five iso booths was very new at the time and had a brand new SSL 9000 console with “all the bells and whistles.”
“The whole MCA Nashville thing was about using the Mitsubishi digital tape machines,” Ainlay explains. “It was a 32-track. By that time, a lot of people had gone to the Sony 3348, but [Jimmy] Bowen had this whole Mitsubishi thing, so all the studios his business was going to were going to have the Mitsubishi in it; and Tony Brown was A&R under Jimmy Bowen at MCA. We moved around to about five or six different studios, and all of them had the Mitsubishi machines.”
The electric version was tracked live with Gill singing a scratch vocal. The players included Carlos Vega on drums and Leland Sklar on bass. Steuart Smith and Billy Joe Walker, Jr. provided electric guitar, Jeff White handled the acoustic guitar and Pete Wasner and Steve Nathan covered the keyboards.
“We ran a synth through the Leslie on that song, so it has a sort of different grind-y Leslie sound, like an organ, but it’s more percussive than the synth was capable of doing,” Ainlay explains. “I’m hearing a Wurlitzer when I listen to the track, too, so I’m thinking that Steve did the Leslie and Pete played the Wurlitzer.” Nathan also later overdubbed the Hammond B3.
The drums were placed in the middle of the room, Ainlay recalls, because “the room was pretty dead, so that was the best place for them. I probably used a 57 on the snare drum, 421s on the toms, 414s on the overheads and it was probably a 421 on the bass drum, as well. On the hi-hat there was probably a 452, and I’m sure I had a pair of 87s in the room. My drum miking wasn’t all that sophisticated back then, but it always worked.”
To the best of Ainlay’s recollection, Ron Block (banjo) and Adam Steffey (mandolin) of Union Station also tracked live. Ainlay listened through Dynaudio PPM3 nearfield monitors at the time.
Although John Hughey recorded his steel overdub at Masterfonics, the rest of the overdubs were recorded at Emerald Studios, including Gill’s vocals. Ainlay says Gill initially sang all three parts, but Krauss later replaced one. Gill’s guitar solo was overdubbed, Ainlay says, with a Shure SM57.
The Grammy-winning version, a stripped down acoustic treatment of the same song featuring Union Station—Barry Bales on upright bass, Ron Block on banjo, Dan Tyminski on acoustic guitar, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Krauss on fiddle (and vocals)—along with Gill on acoustic guitar and lead vocals and Jerry Douglas on dobro, was also recorded at Emerald Studios.
Ainlay describes Emerald as the first “posh” studio in Nashville, originally equipped with a Neve 8068, but by the time of High Lonesome Sound, there was an SSL 4000 E with Ultimation in the control room. The mains were Hidley/Kinoshitas. Ainlay recalls using Sony 3348 digital machines at the time, though Emerald likely had Mistsubishis on hand, as well. Emerald was one of Ainlay’s favorite studios because it had great sight lines between all the booths.
The traditional version was cut in the round, creating a wheel-like appearance with the baffles in between as the spokes.
“Everybody had a little compartment, so I could get some isolation, but it was all performed live,” Ainlay explains. “They had glass so they could see each other. The mics were closer to the center of the hub, facing out. So you’d use the polar pattern from each microphone to reject the rest of them. Obviously when you have a bunch of people playing live like that you’re going to have leakage from one into another, but it works. Leakage can be your friend, you know! You use leakage to kind of make things bigger. We went through a period of time where everything was all so close-miked, sterile, and clean and dry. People are getting back to recording records that have more life to them. And a lot of that is just about bleed.”
Gill sang his vocal in the adjacent booth into an AKG C12.
“He has a high register,” Ainlay says of Gill, “but he has a warm voice, which is what makes him special, I think. The C12 was the ideal mic because it would pull the air from his voice. I’m not sure what he uses now, but it was great then. I’m pretty sure I was using a GML mic preamp and a Tube-Tech CL-1A as a compressor for his vocal while tracking. It’s still something I do today. My recording path is using that Tube-Tech compressor and then a GML compressor in mixing, and I’m sure back then I used some EQ just to put some pop on there, too. I recorded Vince before he had much of a solo career going on. He was one of the top background singers in town.”
Ainlay says he always marveled at Gill’s patience when he worked with him as a sideman for someone else, but it wasn’t always the same on his own project.
“I do remember times working on the High Lonesome Sound album when he was working on guitar overdubs and he wasn’t getting what he thought he should be getting, and I remember him slamming his guitar down and throwing a fit, which I had never seen him do, but he’s such a perfectionist when it’s his own thing,” Ainlay explains. “Everyone goes on about what a great singer he is, but he’s also an amazing guitar player.”
Perfectionist or not, Gill is known throughout the industry for his sense of humor. Ainlay recalls this one time…
“I remember one time doing vocals with him and I pushed the wrong button or something on the console and caused feedback, and I was going, ‘Vince, are you okay, are you okay?’ We went on with the vocal and when we went on to play the overdubs, he came into the control room and walked back into the tape machine room. [When he came] out of the tape machine room he had a Q-tip in his ear, working it around. When he pulled it out, it was all red. And I said, ‘Oh my God, Vince, I think I busted your eardrum.’ He had taken a red Sharpie and colored it red. I’ll never forget that.”
Ainlay says Gill was very involved in the mixing process at Masterfonics on the SSL 9000, which the engineer describes as more open and transparent than the SSL 4000 console they had been used to.
“I just remember that album as having a lot of nice air about it and being very open-sounding,” he says. “At the time it was my favorite thing I had recorded. It still is one of my favorites. Always will be. It was just one of those where I got to take it from the beginning to the end and it was a very close relationship with Vince. Unfortunately, when I started working with Mark Knopfler I couldn’t work on some of Vince’s later albums, but we’re still friends.”
Gill says he was surprised when they won at the Grammys.
“Always,” he says. “Always. Anytime those kinds of things happen. Alison and I both have had unbelievable good fortune at the Grammys. She’s won 27 Grammys and I’ve won 21.”
Then he goes in for the joke: “We’re the Sonny & Cher of Grammy winners.”