The United States is facing difficult times: A prolonged recession and two wars overseas. In his own way, country artist Vince Gill, who visits the Peoria Civic Center next week, is trying to respond. Mindful of the many veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan wounded and disabled, Gill and his wife, singer Amy Grant, are fundraising for Challenge Aspen, a not-for-profit organization that helps people with disabilities.

The United States is facing difficult times: A prolonged recession and two wars overseas.


In his own way, country artist Vince Gill, who visits the Civic Center next week, is trying to respond.


Mindful of the many veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan wounded and disabled, Gill and his wife, singer Amy Grant, are fundraising for Challenge Aspen, a not-for-profit organization that helps people with disabilities. (The couple appears at the John F. Kennedy Center on June 8 for just this purpose.)


And mindful of the recession, Gill is aware that money is tight, and he remains thankful to his loyal following who continues to buy records and attend concerts.


"I feel like we're at such a strange place with our country economically that it's kind of weird (touring) - trying to get people to turn out - 'Hey, come spend your money and hear me sing,' " said Gill, 52. "I just want to tell people, if they can make it, that they'll have a good time. But if they can't, it's all good. It's funny how your viewpoint changes as you mature and get older. I used to walk out and be disappointed if the place wasn't full. Now I walk out and go, 'Hey, I'm just glad somebody's here.' "


Not that Gill has to worry. He has sold 26 million albums, earned 18 Country Music Association Awards and 19 Grammys. In 2007, Gill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.


Gill's four CD collection "These Days," released in 2006, also is doing well. The 43 new recordings mix up a variety of styles and artists, including Guy Clark, Sheryl Crow, Phil Everly, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Lee Ann Womack and many others. Traditional Country rubs shoulders with acoustic/blues music; ballads with a contemporary, up-tempo sound.


The country artist's taste for variety is a constant. His 2003 release "Next Big Thing" mixes neo-traditional country tunes with pop, boogie and swing. And his 1996 classic "High Lonesome Sound" amounted to a tour of American music as Gill drew on his predilections for bluegrass, Chicago blues and the funky polyrhythms of New Orleans.


"I've been a lover of music my whole life, all kinds of music," Gill said. "I had Merle Haggard records as a kid, I had Led Zeppelin records as a kid. I like them all. I found something that I loved about most any kind of music. I learned a bunch of different ways to play and sing and write. I wanted to express them all in a record. I think the reason the record is interesting is because of all the other people on it, all the collaborations and guest vocalists make it interesting for me to listen to. I don't think I'd enjoy four CDs of just me."


Born April 12, 1957, in Oklahoma City, Gill slowly worked himself up from sideman to star. His boyhood years were full of music: His father, an attorney and a judge, was an amateur musician who was often joined by his son on banjo and four-string tenor guitar. Later, in high school, Gill played rock'n'roll and bluegrass as well, eventually joining a progressive bluegrass group called Bluegrass Alliance.


Gill's singing, songwriting and mastery of various string instruments earned him a place as lead singer for Pure Prairie League, a pop harmony group. Later, he served as lead guitarist and harmony singer for Rodney Crowell and his group, The Cherry Bombs. In the mid-1980s, Gill wrote songs for more commercially successful artists. By the late 1980s, though, he managed to score some hits of his own, including "When I Call Your Name" and "I Never Knew Lonely." His career was launched.


Gill's success is largely viewed as a triumph of substance over style - one instance of a musician's musician actually able to secure commercial success.


"Someone like Vince puts you in your place if you think you're hot stuff," Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits told Musician magazine back in 1991. "He writes, sings on all the best records in Nashville, makes his own record and goes platinum, plays guitar like a god, of course, and then can do it on a mandolin or something else! It's not enough to be a killer singer and musical genius, he's also got to play guitar like a professional."


Gary Panetta can be reached at (309) 686-3132 or gpanetta@pjstar.com.