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“George Harrison was the one I identified with as this guy who was kind of the guitar player of the group, really… He’s this guy who sat around and would wait on his moment, and [whip out] Something. Or Here Comes The Sun. Or While My Guitar Gently Weeps… I saw Olivia Harrison. She walked up to me backstage and said, ‘That was wonderful.’ And I said, Your husband was my favorite Beatle.’ And she said, ‘Mine too.’”
Speaking of Buck Owens, you’ve pointed out how rare it’s been for a country instrumental to become a hit since his heyday. Did you face an uphill battle when you made your instrumental-heavy album Play? Did the label look at it as a time-out from the hit-making albums that you’d been delivering?
“No, they were great. I made a Christmas album and had a really good time doing that. It was like, ‘This is kinda fun making a thing that’s not just single, single, single.’ I felt like it’d be kinda fun to do the same thing [again]. But then I also realized, ‘If I’m gonna do this, I need to put a few things on here that are, possibly, commercial. They don’t all have to not have words.’ Because my fans don’t want that, either.
“By the way, it only takes going into some guitar jam night at a bar, where a bunch of guitar players get up and play, to realize we really need songs. [Laughs] These licks, they’re just not enough. You know what I mean?
“I wanted an album that was heavy on the guitar parts, and that’s what this was… I remember [then-label head] Joe Galante looking at me the moment I said I want to make a guitar album, a largely instrumental album. He went, ‘Oh, that’ll be great… We’ll pay for it and all that, but it can’t count towards however many albums you have left.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. As long as you pay for it, I don’t care. It doesn’t have to check a box off or anything.’ I think it was an important [project]. It’s always a hard thing to connect that dot, where people outside our format understand I can play. All those things help.”
I talked with Vince Gill about that not long ago – when you’re having radio hits, you’re bound to be better known for the singing than the playing. Still, you’ve featured your playing as much as possible between that album and instrumental cuts on other albums, plus the way you incorporate soloing into your live shows and serving as guest guitarist in other settings.
“My wife [Kimberly Williams-Paisley], who is not musically inclined, really, is most jealous of the language that I speak that she doesn’t speak… where me and Redd Volkaert or me and Keith Urban or whoever, we can sit down and start playing. It starts with this friendly little trying to one up each other, in a good way: ‘I’ll answer that with this.’ And you’re just talking back and forth on these instruments. She’s like, 'I just envy that.' And she’s seen it before where I’m a complete awkward fish out of water in a lot of situations, until this moment where they hand you a guitar and say, ‘Do you want to sit in?’ Then I can hold that conversation really well.”