"I thought that was a real neat phrase. I thought for me, to make it honest, I should write it about Merle. As I grew up, that's the guy when I was growing up I thought was the greatest. I didn't know Hank Williams' music growing up because I was too young."
What is it about the Hag that captivates Gill?
"First of all, he's the greatest singer, the greatest phraser, and then on top of that, his songs are really poetic," Gill says. "They really speak to me in a big way. I always thought he was brilliant songwriter. He sang and phrased better than anybody."
The two met for the first time in about 1980. Gill was playing at Red Rocks in Denver with Emmylou Harris, while Haggard was on a tour of honky tonks.
"We went and piled in the car and went to a club to meet Merle," says Gill. "His wife at the time had recorded one of my songs." That would be Lenora who recorded "I'm Almost Ready."
While Gill may look to folks like Haggard for musical inspiration, his first came right at home.
Born in Oklahoma City, both of Gill's parents were into country. Both parents played or sang. "He played a little guitar and a little banjo," Gill says of his father, who was a lawyer and later became a judge. "Just enough to sing along to. She played the harmonica."
Gill did not gain his prowess through lessons. "Not much. I took a few lessons once I got to junior high school, high school. That didn't last. I found it easier to listen to the records by ear. I kind of regretted it (later)."
By the time Gill was a teenager, he learned how to play his father's banjo and guitar. He also played publicly with his father.
While in high school, he joined with brother Bob in a bluegrass band, Mountain Smoke. "We did a little bit of travelling around in Oklahoma, Texas, playing festivals and things like that."
The band made one record, but Gill says, "Good luck finding it. We did it ourselves."
And while truth may seem stranger than fiction, Mountain Smoke also opened one gig for Kiss. (of course, the current band Hayseed Dixie just released a Kiss tribute album done bluegrass style, so maybe Gill was before his time)
"It was just hysterical, seeing a bluegrass band come out and open for Kiss," Gill says. "The folks didn't like it."
"I knew who they were," says Gill of Kiss. "I don't know that I had too many of their records."
Gill apparently impressed some with his picking skills. He received a call to join Bluegrass Alliance, which include a few folks who later made a name for themselves in bluegrass, Sam Bush and Dan Crary.
A year later, he joined fiddler Byron Berline and his group Sundance. He made the move to Los Angeles in 1976 to join Berline and stayed out west for seven years.
Gill joined Pure Prairie League in 1979, a band known for hits like "Two Lane Highway" and "Amie."
Apparently it was dumb luck that Gill even joined. The band was having auditions, and Gill went with a friend who was trying out. Gill just wanted to see if the PPL members remembered him from the time Mountain Smoke opened for them.
They did and asked Gill to join as lead singer.
Gill recorded three albums with the group, which saw its career pick up a bit with Gill aboard.
During his time in LA, Gill also became involved with a local singer, Janis Oliver. They married three years later. Oliver had a pretty fair career going of her own going as one-half of Sweethearts of the Rodeo with her sister, Kristine.
Also while out in La La Land, Gill hooked up with Rodney Crowell, who saw Gill play with Berline and Sundance. In the early 1980s, Crowell formed his own band the Cherry Bombs, which included pianist Tony Brown and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. plus Gill.
Brown soon joined RCA Records in Nashville, accepting a job to search for new talent.
The Gills left the West Coast for Nashville in 1983 to further their respective careers.
Brown inked Gill to RCA in 1984, but bolted for MCA before recording with Gill.
Gill ended up recording three discs with RCA: an EP "Turn Me Loose," "The Things That Matter" and "I Never Knew Lonely."
Gill's first four singles never made it higher than 32 on the Billboard charts, but a duet with Rosanne Cash, "If It Weren't For Him," cracked the top 10 in 1985. His career seemed on the rise with airplay for such songs as "Oklahoma Borderline," a song Gill still often plays in concert, "Cinderella" and "Everybody's Sweetheart," a tongue-in-cheek kind of song about his wife's band, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, who were much more successful at that point than Gill.
Gill was not exactly thrilled how his career was going. "Everybody was frustrated. I was frustrated. The record company was frustrated. You can play. You can sing. It's not translating. You got to have the right songs at the right time. It's that simple. Finally the right song came at the right time. I don't think they did anything wrong, and I don't think they thought I did anything wrong."