03/27/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Nashville baker Leland Riggan was given 2½ weeks notice. After all, fashioning 2,500 miniature white-chocolate grapes to adorn a six-tier almond amaretto cake is no last-minute task. But the 100 people invited to the March 10 wedding of singers Vince Gill and Amy Grant barely had time to shine their party shoes. Not that it mattered much: In order to reach the outdoor ceremony on a secluded piece of land Grant owns near town, family and friends had to park by the roadside and hike up a steep dirt path. At s the top of the hill breathless guests found no chairs, no flowers, no wedding party. Instead they found a Christian pop superstar looking "like a goddess," according to one guest, in a $325 linen-and-silk dress by designer Jane Booke. Next to her stood a country-music crooner in a black, single-breasted Calvin Klein tux, "with a smile as wide as Texas," says Grant's manager Jennifer Cooke. "He was really happy," says Gill's friend, country great Chet Atkins, 75. "I hope Amy doesn't flirt with me too much, because I wouldn't want to break up his marriage."
Atkins was joking, but broken marriages are no laughing matter for Grant, 39, and Gill, 42, who met in 1993 doing his Christmas concert in Tulsa. Their increasingly close friendship contributed to the end of his 18-year marriage to musician Janis Gill, 46, in 1998, and to the breakup last year of Grant's long-troubled 16-year marriage to singer-songwriter Gary Chapman, 42 (who announced his engagement to animal trainer Jennifer Pittman in February). But when the Rev. Mack Hannah began the ceremony at 4:30 p.m., the past was clearly, finally, past. Moments earlier, Grant had slipped off her cream-colored ballet slippers and taken her place next to Gill. A few steps away stood Gill's daughter Jenny, 17, and Grant's three children, Matthew, 12, Millie, 10, and Sarah, 7. As bride and groom exchanged vows they had written, Grant's voice grew ever softer, and Gill struggled to hold back tears. "After they kissed, they embraced. They just needed to hold each other," says a friend. "Everybody was crying—everybody—because we've seen them go through so much."
With eyes dried and hearts lifted—thanks to the skirl of bagpipes played by kilt-wearing pipers coming up the hill—Grant, Gill and the wedding guests arrived at Grant's rented home in the posh Nashville neighborhood of Green Hills, along with 450 other guests invited to the backyard reception. But who had time to watch the newlyweds' first dance (to Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me") with all that pecan-crusted grouper to be eaten? Responding to Gill's and Grant's request for "simple and easy" fare, Florida chef Tim Creehan prepared a menu including seared yellowfin tuna, a Caesar-salad bar and Grant's favorite—tomato, basil and mozzarella salad—for which Creehan hand-made the cheese in Grant's backyard. "We began setting up at 10 a.m. and 12 hours later I finally sat down," he says with a laugh. No one doubted that the occasion merited the effort—apparently not even Janis, Gill's ex. "I was talking to her and telling her that when two people love each other as much as these two do, they should be together. They just have to be," says Nashville's high-society hairstylist Riqúe. "And she agreed. You know, life goes on."
Karen S. Schneider
Kate Klise and Beverly Keel in Nashville