Nice. Nice, nice, nice. It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about country star Vince Gill without that word coming up. Repeatedly. In fact, the word has become something of a mantra, endlessly evoked in the service of selling and marketing the man. Publicists, journalists, fans, musicians–they will all tell you that in Nashville there’s no one nicer. Since I’m not personally dating Vince, to me the issue of his niceness is moot. In fact, if his recent show at Poplar Creek and his latest release, When Love Finds You, are proof of what nice guys do to country music, please, bring on the shitheels.

Gill’s made a name for himself largely on the big, saccharine ballad. With his soft, doughy tenor delivery, Gill can turn just about any tune into a vanilla train wreck, but he has paid some dues on his march to the mass audience. After some early years as a late replacement lead singer for Pure Prairie League and as a guitar ace in Rodney Crowell’s Cherry Bombs, Gill put out solo albums, but failed to break big.

In 1989, Gill switched labels and was reunited with old pal Tony Brown, not a bad guy to know. As current president of MCA Nashville, Brown’s dominance as Music City’s premier tastemaker puts him within striking distance of Chet Atkins-hood. As a producer, his name is punched like a brand on so much product it’s hard to believe any human’s got that much time. He must be conducting studio sessions over his cellular phone. Country Music magazine gossip columnist Hazel Smith has taken to calling him “Tony (wow) Brown” in print.

Over the years, Brown has done good things. He signed Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and the Mavericks. But he also signed Alabama to its first major label. Under Brown’s guidance, Gill fashioned the slickly produced ballad/lite rock mix that finally propelled him to the top of the country charts. His latest release takes this commercial formula and beats it to within an inch of its life. As product, When Love Finds You staggers under its bloated, glossy production and faux-soul singing. Lyrics range from mind-numbing love mush (“When Love Finds You”) to cringe-inducing feel-good pronouncements (“If I Had My Way,” written with Nashville’s most commercial Christian, Amy Grant) to slightly naughty musings (“What the Cowgirls Do”). In other words, it’s radio ready–in the worst sense of the term.

For the most part, Gill’s recorded work sounds like a perfunctory detour from his true spiritual path–the quest for the perfect golf game. In magazine spreads and night after night on the Nashville Network, Gill can be seen putting away and goofing around with celebrity golf pals. This public relations campaign is clearly intended to highlight his laid-back persona. Less time on the course might go a long way toward bursting his Zima-tinged country club cool. Even a mainstream country guy like Tracy Lawrence knows how to pull a gun in the best Johnny Paycheck tradition.

But as his video for “One More Last Chance” demonstrated, golf for Gill is the name of the game. Musically, the song (off 1992’s I Still Believe in You) is the type of slick, slightly rocking tune that passes in today’s Nashville for a boogie meltdown. After shots of Gill’s gang engaging in good, clean golf-cart high jinks, the video finds Gill hanging out with the guys in a bar–a very clean, nice bar–where Vince, his feet up on a table and his golf gloves on, casually plays the guitar in his lap.

The message is clear: Vince is so good he doesn’t even need to take off his gloves to crank out a hot lick. But the underlying message is one of boredom: golf and music are just games to be played, and if done with antiseptic precision, neither will leave unsightly sweat stains. Sure he can play, but his much-vaunted licks are as pristine, as self-consciously tasteful, and as personality free as a spanking-new Lacoste shirt. Although Vince does have some licks that he can crank out with the proficiency of creme de la creme session monsters like Brent Mason, in the end his playing leaves no emotional residue, only the chalky aftertaste of a note-for-note guitar pro who figured out how to market a palatable personality and a passable tenor.

And his live show at Poplar Creek? He won a few points for looking like he just rolled out of bed, but that departure from his normally pressed-on image was partly due to the evening’s humidity, which did almost as big a number on Vince’s hair as it did on mine. As he sauntered around on laid-back autopilot, backed by a nine-piece band that pointlessly showcased two drummers playing the same parts, he seemed very, very . . . nice. When he turned to his well-oiled but bored-looking backing machine and called out in his breathy, high-pitched drawl “Let’s swing it, y’all,” the phrase contained all the gusto of a weekend golfer commanding his caddie to hand him the nine iron. Whenever he launched into one of his wimpy love songs, a parade of women filed to the stage in an orderly fashion and laid flowers at the feet of Nashville’s current Teflon superstar. He sang in his best facsimile of sincerity and played “hot” licks on his guitar, vaporizing into the haze of a thousand similar pickers. But make no mistake–Vince isn’t just a surface guy. If you listened closely enough, there was something deeper to be heard. Hidden behind each perfect note was the cry that should resonate with force to bedrock country fans across the ages–“Fore!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.