USUALLY, AWARD NOMINEES USE THE few seconds when the envelope is being pried open to pray that their name is inside. Not Vince Gill at the Academy of Country Music awards this spring. Nominated for best-duet honors for his partnering with Reba McEntire on "Oklahoma Swing," Gill found himself vying with wife Janis Gill and her sister, Kristine Arnold, who perform as Sweethearts of the Rodeo.

Marital discord was averted, happily, when the Judds walked off with the honors. "I don't think that's one I would like to have won," admits Vince, 34. Adds Janis, 37: "When you're both on the charts, you're competing with each other, and you can imagine what that does to a household."

After 11 years of marriage, the Gills know very well what it does. In the late '80s, Vince watched while Sweethearts of the Rodeo racked up five Top 10 country hits with their first LP and Janis flirted with big-time stardom. Now the Tony Lamas are on the other foot; the Sweethearts have been lonely hearts on the charts in recent years, while Gill has broken out with two hit LPs (When I Call Your Name and Pocket Full of Gold), a 1991 Grammy (for best country vocal performance by a male) and enough country-music trophies to stock a pawnshop window. Says Gill: "It's really hard to get both careers in sync."

Fact is, for the onetime California girl and the self-described "hillbilly from Oklahoma," personal harmony has been a challenge as well. "We are opposites in many, many ways," says Janis. "I listen to classical music, and he listens to bluegrass. He plays golf, and I sew. He's the most unorganized person you've ever seen, and I have to have it spotless or I can't be normal. He's laid back, and I'm stressed out. He's so relaxed he can slide down in a chair, but I always have to be doing something."

Born in Oklahoma City, Gill grew up the only child of a lawyer (now a judge) and his wife, a homemaker. Dad played amateur banjo and guitar, Mom played a mean harmonica, and Gill joined his first bluegrass band while still in high school. Moving to L.A. after graduating, he eventually hooked up with the country-rock group Pure Prairie League, and in 1980 sang the lead vocal on their hit "Let Me Love You Tonight."

By then, Janis Oliver, a native of Manhattan Beach, Calif., was already in L.A. performing with younger sister Kristine as Sweethearts of the Rodeo—having taken the name from a Byrds album. Daughters of a phone company employee and a homemaker, the girls had been duet partners since childhood. By high school, while friends were doing rock, "we were hooked on country," says Janis. "Anything to stand out."

One night in 1977, in a Redondo Beach, Calif., café, the Sweethearts were opening for Vince's band, and Vince and Janis passed each other on the stairway to the stage. "I caught her eye, and she caught my eye, but I don't think she liked my eyes as much as I liked hers," Vince says. "I was pretty smitten with her and asked her out for almost three years, but she never would go out with me. I guess I was a pretty big hillbilly to her."

"It just wasn't right then," says Janis, who already had a boyfriend and regarded Vince, then 19 to her 22, as a tad too young. But the pair became friends, she says, and "when the guy I was seeing and the girl he was seeing dumped us at the same time, we decided it might be a good time to give it a whirl. It didn't lake two weeks for us to see that it was serious."

Married in 1980, the couple moved to Nashville three years later. Soon afterward, Janis and Kristine were climbing the country charts, while Gill was releasing his own songs to little notice. Relegated to the background, he sang backup vocals on more than 150 recordings—for Emmylou Harris, McEntire, even Dire Straits—and he kept writing songs. Among them was the 1988 country hit "Everybody's Sweetheart"—a good-natured complaint about his wife's success. "It was just an attempt at humor, saying, 'She's everybody's sweetheart but mine,' " he says. "I wasn't whining."

Even so, the couple's out-of-sync success stories did cause difficulties. "I would say the most problems we had was when my career was taking off, because it happened so quickly," says Janis. "I was being pulled in a million different directions, and it was tough getting into the rhythm and the rhyme of a life like that. That's upsetting to a household, especially when your husband is trying to do the same thing."

While Gill struggled on, "I used to pray for hits for him, because he deserves it," Janis says. "But past that point, I really knew it would help [their marriage]." Gill, though, insists, "I was never bitter toward her for her success and never will be. I was probably frustrated for lack of my own, and that might have got perceived by her and other people as not taking it as I should."

With both singers now on the road about 125 days each year, their sole retreat is the two-story Georgian-style home outside Nashville that they share with daughter Jennifer, 9. A living room window frames a sweeping view of an adjoining golf course, and the home's interior displays the fruits of their success: Chippendale and Queen Anne furnishings, Oriental rugs and shelves lined with trophies.

Vince's come-to-life career, however, and Janis's efforts to jump-start the Sweethearts (they have a new album due this summer) have cut into their time with Jenny. "Our child probably has been the cement at times when things got tough and when maybe it might have been easier to say, 'I've had it,' " says Janis. A full-time nanny helps when both are on the road, and "I always tell her when I lay her down at night that when I'm not here with her, to feel her heart, and I'm inside there," Janis says. "I bring her things from the road, outfits, jewelry. My guilt feelings take over, and I come home and shower her with presents."

"She handles it better than we do," says Vince, who remembers breaking into tears at a songwriters' awards show in April after looking into the audience and realizing he was seeing Jenny for the first time in two months. "It stirred up a bunch of emotions," says Gill. "I know there are a lot of times she'd come home and I wouldn't be there."

Even at home, of course, work is never far away. The family room, where the two do most of their song-writing, is filled with sound systems, microphones and keyboards, but it's one place where they don't look for togetherness. The two have never written music together, says Vince. "We probably will, but it's tough enough. We don't need to be arguing about what should rhyme with what."

CYNTHIA SANZ
JANE SANDERSON in Franklin, Tenn.

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sanderson.