April 20, 2003
On this recent afternoon, Janis Cummings shuffles around her house in fuzzy slippers and a black warm-up suit. She's taken a respite from the barn duties that usually fill the days at Southern Trace, her 21-acre Leiper's Fork farm.
The 8,500-square-foot house is quiet. No cars pass by, and if they did, they couldn't be heard inside anyway. There's no noise from TVs, radios or ringing phones, no voices of distraction, just peace and calm.
Cummings, 49, joyfully toils in what feels like obscurity as she dedicates herself to showing horses. But she's actually well known because of her previous identities as half of two famous partnerships.
She first gained fame as half of the sister duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Later she married country singer Vince Gill, whose massive success propelled them to first-name status within social and music circles.
For decades, she was the quiet partner. Onstage, she sang backup harmonies to her sister's lead; offstage, she stood in the shadow of her husband's spotlight.
Then everything changed as rumors about her husband's relationship with Christian/ pop singer Amy Grant ran rampant. They soon were followed by one of the city's highest-profile divorces, a excruciatingly hurtful event that cost her friends, business and social standing.
The ice princess
Largely due to chiseled cheekbones and a regal nose, Cummings unknowingly projected the image of a haughty, arrogant ice princess.
''I had so many people ask me when I first met her, 'Is she a b….?''' says her husband, Roy. ''She's the most unconditionally loving person I've ever met. It's just that quietness and look she has. She's a very misunderstood person in this community.''
Cummings is the first to admit she's not talkative to strangers but says it's because she's shy, not condescending.
''I'm terrified to be one-on-one with people at first,'' she says. ''A long time ago, somebody that I loved very much told me that people didn't like me. I went and looked at myself in a mirror and thought, 'OK, people don't like you.' I believed that with all my heart.
''The bad thing is, I spent so many years believing that I must put people off somehow and it made me back off even more. Now, I'm finding out that people will like me if they just give me a chance. I really want people to like me very much.''
It's a desire born of loneliness and pain.
During the breakup of her marriage, in addition to dealing with the staggering humiliation of being blindsided with such a public rejection, she faced a music industry town that quickly and solidly sided with her husband.
''He was the bigger of the two of us by far,'' Janis says. ''On top of that, you have a man who was doing some charity event every week. If you looked up 'nice guy' in the dictionary, Vince's face might be there, according to what he's done in this town.''
Yet Janis was missing from those charity events.
''I was not invited to be a part of those,'' she says. ''I would have taken a lot of joy in doing that. A lot of people thought, 'He tried so hard to help people. Where was she?' Half of the time I never knew those events took place until I read about them after the fact.''
Adds her attorney, Rose Palermo, ''It's hard getting divorced from someone who has the persona as Mr. Nice Guy. People assume it was something she'd done, without knowing the facts. She really had no interest in ruining him. She has a genuine gentility and niceness to her and it's very painful for her to have to do anything that would inflict any harm on anyone.''
Janis felt that she didn't have a friend in town; all social and business invitations stopped cold. (In fact, her husband now says, they've never resumed.)
''The Sweethearts of the Rodeo suffered because of that whole thing,'' says her singing sister, Kristine Arnold. ''The Sweethearts of the Rodeo never ever performed on the Grand Ole Opry again. We could say, 'Well, it was because of this or that,' but it was because of politics.''
Arnold says the divorce also caused the demise of Gill & Arnold, a Franklin clothing store that she and her sister owned for five years.
''We were just starting to get established and that whole horrible thing went down, and all of a sudden, a lot of our clientele that we were trying to establish suddenly didn't come and shop with us anymore.''
And still, that wasn't all that Janis had lost.
''Five years ago, I was a woman that was just totally stripped of self-confidence as a woman, as a person, as an artist,'' she says. ''Five years ago, I knew I was in trouble when I picked up the guitar and I realized the desire to play was dead. My guitar and I had been together since I was 8 years old. I told (Vince) one day, 'It's dead in me,' and it really killed him to hear that.''
With needle and thread
Janis Oliver was one of four children raised in Manhattan Beach, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, by a phone company executive and his homemaker wife.
''My first dream was to be a conductor of an orchestra,'' she says. ''My dad surprised me one day and bought me a real conductor's stick. My best friend Kim accidentally stepped on it and cracked it.''
She first studied classical music and soon broadened her interests to encompass bluegrass, western swing and rock.
In 1973, she and sister Kristine formed Sweethearts of the Rodeo, a name they borrowed from a 1968 Byrds' album. They were performing in a local pizza parlor when they were discovered by Emmylou Harris, who invited the women to open for her at the Roxy in L.A. They soon became popular on the West Coast bluegrass circuit.
Janis met Gill when the Sweethearts played a show with Gill's group, Pure Prairie League. They married in 1980 and moved to Nashville in 1983.
Like most financially strapped aspiring musicians, they made do with what little they had for themselves and their daughter, Jenny.
''I was sewing Jenny's clothes and I made Vince's Hawaiian shirts that he liked performing in,'' she says. ''We had no money! I would go to the marked-down table of Wal-Mart, where you could get fabric for $1.77 a yard. I would challenge myself with how I could take something from this table and turn it into something you could wear onstage.''
Initially, Janis' career surpassed her husband's. After signing a deal with Columbia Records, The Sweethearts' first two albums scored seven top-10 singles, including Midnight Girl/Sunset Town in 1986 and Chains of Gold in 1987.
It was the fruits of her songwriting that paid for the couple's first home. Gill, meanwhile, signed a solo deal with RCA in 1983, but he didn't find any real success until 1989, when he released the million-selling When I Call Your Name.
''I was happy that he finally took off because I was pulling for him from the start,'' she says. ''And I always felt really guilty about me getting my break first, because even before I dated Vince, I knew he was going to be a huge star. Everybody did.
''When he got his big break, I was honestly relieved, because he was getting ready to give it up. He was going to be a musician and do sessions and write. He said, 'I'm going to pack in this artist thing,' and I was worried about that. When he reached his big break, he just took off and there was no turning back.''
Since the couple had a small daughter, Janis decided to scale back her career so she could be home more.
''I remember sitting down with our management team and them saying, 'You're not giving this your all. We know you've got kids, but your competition isn't staying home with their kids.' My sister and I looked at each other and said, 'OK, and your point is?' We just shrugged our shoulders and said, 'We're not going to make that compromise.'
''I look back now and I'm very grateful for the success we did have, because we did consciously make that decision and we just thought, 'So be it.' We never really wanted to be superstars. Our goal was to make some records together and be proud of them.''
Rumors and innuendo
Janis says the first person who told her the rumor that Gill was seeing Grant was her daughter, a seventh-grader at the time.
''I said, 'Oh, honey, that is the funniest thing I've ever heard! Do you know what the word 'integrity' means? Look it up and you'll see their faces. Those two are two of the most upstanding people in our community, so that's funny that you would hear that.'
''We ended up laughing about it. 'She is a Christian singer and he's Mr. Nice Guy. He is a family man. His whole belief system is based on that.' I got her to see how silly that was.''
A year later, she was confronted by the rumors a second time when her housekeeper attended Vince's concert, but she refused to believe those, too. Arnold says Janis remained in denial until 1996, when she found a note from Grant to Gill that said, ''I love you.'' (Arnold, who first disclosed the letter to People magazine in 1999, cannot discuss it because of a confidentiality agreement in the divorce settlement.)
''One day, I looked outside my window and there was Janis' car sitting in my driveway,'' Kristine says. ''I walked outside and opened the door and said, 'What's going on?' She looked like somebody had died. She had a letter crumpled up in her hand and she handed it to me and said, 'Look what I found in Vince's golf bag.' That's the way it all started.
''It was like somebody took the rug and ripped it out from under her feet, because she was totally in love and totally dedicated to her marriage at that point. So we started trying to make excuses, 'Well, maybe this' or 'maybe that. Maybe it isn't what you think.' But it went from bad to worse.
''Even though she kind of knew what was going on, she basically forgave him, but he didn't want that; he wanted out. And so imagine the emotions that it takes on you; you have been married for 17 years, you have a family and suddenly it's over.
''For the next two years, it was a nightmare. I basically gave her a pep talk every time she called me: 'You're beautiful, you're talented, you don't deserve to be treated like this.' It really took her up until just recently to completely start rediscovering herself in a lot of ways.''
Her self-esteem took a beating during the last few years of her marriage. As her husband's desire waned, she began to feel undesirable.
''The more I talk about how hard I tried in that marriage, the more foolish I feel,'' she says.
In 1996, she filed for divorce, which thrust her even more into the spotlight. The tabloids paid for stolen divorce documents, so every legal maneuver was publicized.
But that attention was nothing compared to what she received when she went to stores or restaurants. ''People would either stare and poke each other or just come up and hug me,'' she says. ''I don't know how many times strangers would come up and give me a full-on hug and pat my back and say, 'You hang in there. You're going to be OK.' Sometimes it was helpful, sometimes it made me feel humiliated.
''People would come by the store and leave cards and letters. Sometimes I couldn't come out because I just knew I would start to cry. I would find people following me around, just whispering.''
Through it all, she leaned on Jenny. ''She would come home to me and say, 'Guess what happened today?' She wasn't mad; we would laugh about it. It was like, 'Get a life, people.' ''
And the wagging tongues that had kept the rumors fanned for years continued on.
''People said things to me about Amy, and they weren't very nice things,'' she says. ''I think people were just trying to help me, but they assumed I wanted to hear bad things about Amy, and I did not. I've gotten to know her much better. In a very difficult, awkward situation, she and I had many heart-to-heart talks. Really, I have a great deal of admiration for her.
''Whoever did what and why is another thing, but it still hasn't been easy on anybody, and she's taken a lot of responsibility. I really think a lot of her for that, because it's not easy for her to do that. Of everyone in the whole situation, I think the most of her, honestly.''
Although deeply hurt by losing the friendships of musicians and executives she had known for 20 years, she says she doesn't blame anyone, except perhaps herself.
''During the divorce, I just disappeared like a turtle in a shell,'' she says. ''I'm sure it's my fault for hibernating. I was so incoherent during those times because I was so upset. There would be dear friends that I would run into at restaurants and I didn't recognize them because I was so out of it, upset and embarrassed.
''After a while, I just couldn't bear to go out there. There are probably some people out there that I ran into that thought I was a goner. The more I tried to talk normally, the worse I sounded, so I just gave up and stayed home.''
At home, she faced a very angry teenage daughter, who lived with her throughout the divorce.
''She wouldn't even talk to her father,'' she says. ''He would probably never believe this, but I had arguments with her telling her she had to talk to him, she needed to see him and spend time with him. I did not want her to lose a father.
''She was very angry with me, too, and I didn't understand why for a while until it dawned on me one day that she hated seeing me such a victim,'' she says. ''It made her sick to her stomach and she later on admitted that to me. During those times when Jenny and I first moved out, it was a big deal if I could get out of bed and get my child off to school.
''The one thing I regret is that I was not able to be more coherent and there for her. We had a rough couple of months because she wanted me to get out of bed and tell him (off). She wanted me to do that and I couldn't do that; I wasn't able to.''
Jenny acknowledges, ''It was a weird situation to go through. I'm just glad I was old enough to understand, even if I acted immature sometimes. I didn't want to deal with it when it was happening, so I just kind of strayed from my parents. But it worked out for the best.
''I have two new families I love to death. Everybody gets along now, and we're lucky that it has worked out the way it has.''
But the happy ending didn't become clear for a good while. A Jehovah's Witness, Janis turned to her faith, but it wasn't enough at times.
''I think my severe depression overrode that,'' she says. ''People of all faiths would say to me, 'Just pray about it.' But I was so depressed, I couldn't pray. I felt so alienated for a while that I couldn't go to the meetings even. When I moved into this gated property, there would be two weeks that I wouldn't leave . . . because I felt protected here and it was a way of not dealing with things.''
Fate on horseback
Throughout her divorce, she found comfort in her horses, which offered her love and affection, confidentiality without judgment.
''In 1996, I had a paint horse,'' she says. ''I bought him to ride, but I ended up talking to him. I would just sit in that stall and cry my heart out. He would just stand there and look at me and let me hug him.''
She hit rock bottom on Oct. 1, 1997, when a serious riding accident left her hospitalized for 10 days with a broken wrist, broken ankle and neck injuries.
There was, however, a bright spot in this valley of desperation. On the day of the accident, she had been riding with Roy Cummings, whom she had hired to manage her farm. He put the seriously injured Janis behind him on his horse; he leaned far forward so she'd be able to sit up straight.
''I had just moved into my own place when the accident happened,'' she says. ''I was by myself for the first time in 20 years in a new place. I was lying in the hospital thinking, 'OK, you're getting a divorce, you're in a walker and you're going to be OK.' ''
But then five doctors entered her room and circled her bed.
''This one doctor said, 'Mrs. Gill, we are concerned. You have pneumonia, you are severely anemic and we think you need a blood transfusion. We know that your personal life is in upheaval.' I looked at them and said, 'But I'm really getting better.'
''After they left, I thought, 'Is it going to get any worse than this?' I think the worst thing was when I woke up — I was on morphine — I found out a 'fan' had gotten in and left a pornographic card and message on my bedside with dirty, unwrapped candy. That was the low point.''
While she recuperated and occasionally ventured out on friendly movie dates with Cummings, she still had to complete her divorce, which was ''heated and nasty.''
The terms of the settlement, which include a five-year confidentiality agreement that ends in June, give her 38% of any future royalties derived by songs Gill wrote or recorded during their marriage. The settlement is estimated to be worth more than $10 million.
''About three years ago, my sister said, 'You are the wealthiest and most unhappy person I've ever met,' '' Janis says. ''That says it right there. I do have a certain amount of wealth and I'm very grateful for that, but I have been so depressed.''
And no amount of money, she says, compensates for tearing apart a family. While she makes money on Gill songs that she hears on the radio, it doesn't lessen the pain.
''Some songs that come on the radio still break my heart,'' she says. ''I can pretend like they don't tug at my heart or make me wistful, but there are some songs I can't listen to anymore, like I Still Believe in You, because of the circumstances around them and what he told me they meant to him. To hear that now is confusing.
''Then there are other songs where I can look back now and I know who they are about and they aren't about me, and some of them go way back.''
She says it ''gets old'' to see Gill and Grant in the media.
''I've been mad, I've been upset, I've been hurt,'' she says. ''I've been all of those things, but now I would say that I'm just so disappointed.
''Sometimes I think, 'Why do I still live here?' But I think I can get to a point where I can just laugh all of that off. Sometimes I'll pick up the paper and giggle, and Vince calls me and we talk. We're friends, and he's so sweet to me on the phone. He still calls me 'Buddy;' he's called me that forever. He's very respectful and kind to me now, and so, you know, that's good. That's really good.''
What doesn't kill you …
It turns out she found music, and love, again.
She began writing songs again and has recorded a demo that she hopes will land her a record deal with an independent label. Tapping into her long-held desire to be a producer, she's attending engineering classes with students the age of daughter Jenny, now 20.
She's also begun two books, an autobiography that won't just be a bitter kiss-and-tell (she was going to call it Look at Us, but she's reconsidered) and a book of prose. She married Cummings, a tall, handsome, 39-year-old horse trainer, in 2000.
''I feel like it's a new chapter,'' she says. ''It's like completely reacquainting myself with the young woman with the brazen, nothing-can-stop-me attitude that I had,'' she says. ''Where in the world did that woman go? I'm thrilled that I'm getting back in touch with who that person was.
''I was always so conscious of how people perceived me as an artist, but much more importantly than that, as a wife and mother. I wore my marriage like a badge. Anything else that was going on, like a career, I always felt, 'Well, I can go back to that. One of these days I'll give it my full attention.' Before you know it, 20 years has gone by.''
Arnold says that Janis has become stronger and wiser for her experience.
''She is now very happily married and she seems to be very well-centered. She is vibrant and very generous and she has this creative energy that is starting to flow very heavily with her.
''How does a vibrant, beautiful woman lose the man that she's in love with and feels passionate about? You've got to carry those fears and doubts, and I think that stuff will never go away.
''But Janis is very strong and generous and forgiving. What else are you going to do? You can't carry it around with you. You have to forgive and go on.''
The songbird is free
Janis Cummings spends little time looking back now because she's planning for the future.
Now writing the most mature, introspective songs of her life, she was ready to launch a solo career when she recently decided instead to reunite with her sister for a new Sweethearts of the Rodeo album and tour. They'll record an album by early winter, shop it to interested record labels and then tour to promote it next spring.
''I never thought I would say this about our working together, but we're calling this a 'comeback album,' '' she says. ''I never thought we would ever step away from it. It's very exciting for us. There were a couple of years these past years where we seriously wondered if we'd get the opportunity to record again.''
After this duo album, which will likely coincide with the release of her autobiography, she'll revisit embarking on a solo career. For the first time, she's ready to take center stage and have others back her up.
Personally, she's stopped being a silent partner and become an equal one; she's a different person in this marriage, she says.
''If I'm in love, I tend to totally give myself away, 'Here take me, take all that I am,' and I'll try to be every type of woman there is for you. I've learned with Roy that taking care of myself and retaining my goals and doing what I want actually ends up making me a more interesting woman. I've learned not to tie my existence on Earth purely for him; I have things I want to do,'' she says.
''I don't think I'm ever going to do anything I don't want to do again. That's a big change in me. . . . The second biggest thing is the peace in my life and household right now. It's a very peaceful household and that's something new.''
It's a change her daughter has noticed as well.
''Her attitude has changed,'' Jenny says. ''There was a rough time, obviously, that we went through. Now that she doesn't feel lonely anymore, she's changed on the outside and she's changed on the inside. She's happy and not afraid to show it.''
Janis and Roy just bought a condo in Taos, N.M., where she enjoys the anonymity that eludes her in Nashville.
''Darned if I didn't have some really nice friends there who immediately made me feel like they like me and they thought I was a fun person to be with,'' she says. ''They didn't know who I was.''
What does Vince say?
Vince Gill did not respond to requests for an interview for this story or to questions sent to his publicist, a policy that has been consistent through the years since the divorce.
Personal: Married horse trainer Roy Cummings, 0ct. 30, 2000 in Maui; daughter Jenny, 20.
Career highlights: Teamed with sister Kristine Oliver Arnold; adopted the name Sweethearts of the Rodeo in 1973 after an old Byrds' album.
Albums: Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1987); One Time, One Night (1988); Buffalo Zone (1990); Sisters (1992); Rodeo Waltz (1993); Beautiful Lies (1996).
Hit singles and highest Billboard chart position: Hey Doll Baby (#21); Since I Found You (#7); Chains of Gold (#4); Gotta Get Away (#10); Midnight Girl/Sunset Town (#4); Blue to the Bone (#5); Satisfy You (#5); I Feel Fine (#9); If I Never See Midnight Again (#39); This Heart (#25).