September 14, 1994 12:00 PM

Most families have a Thanksgiving ritual—a backyard touch-football game, a trip to Grandma’s. At the Gill household, the tradition is musical, if (quite literally) tacky: Dad Vince, 37, straps on his guitar, daughter Jenny, 12, pulls out her flute or recorder, and mom Janis, 40…thaws a turkey.

“It’s like a percussion instrument,” Janis explains. “It’s all greased up, and when you slap it, the most wonderful sound comes out of the cavity.” The ritual began a few years ago when Janis started playfully patting a rhythm on the main course before slipping it into the oven, and Vince picked up a guitar and played along. Now the Gills phone relatives and serenade them with the jazzy “Turkey Slap” melody that Janis and Jenny composed. “Next year we may write some words to go with it,” says Janis, who notes another benefit: “When it comes out of the oven—boy, that turkey’s tender.”

The Gills probably could make music with two croutons and a bowl of pea soup. Vince, of course, is the performer with the aw-shucks manner and the heart-tugging tenor who took home five CMA awards in 1993, including Entertainer of the Year and Album of the Year. This year he snagged five more nominations and a job as sole host of the awards telecast Oct. 5 on CBS. After years as a backup singer and musician for dozens of Nashville stars, Gill broke through in 1990 with the single “When I Call Your Name” I and has been hearing his name called ever since.

But Janis was actually the first in the family to lasso a hit. Between 1986 and 1989, she and her sister Kristine Arnold, as the duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo, had seven Top 10 country hits, including “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town.”

Now, Jenny is hinting maybe she’d like to venture beyond the “Turkey Slap.” She sang a duet with Dad on the title track of his ’93 Christmas album, Let There Be Peace on Earth. “What was neat about it,” says Vince, “was that I started to understand what my mom and dad feel when they see me do something good. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Jenny’s parents won’t discourage her from a career in music, though they know how grueling it can be. They met in 1977 when the Sweethearts were opening in Redondo Beach, Calif., for Pure Prairie League, the country-rock band Gill fronted after its heyday. He was an Oklahoma boy; she was from Southern California. Friends at first, they wed in 1980 and moved to Nashville with 1-year-old Jenny in 1983. When the Sweethearts hit in ’86, Gill was still scuffling. “A lot of people would like to believe—maybe her included—that I was envious,” he says. “But that wasn’t it at all. Deep down, I was thrilled and proud because I kinda got people interested in her.”

“He did,” Janis agrees. “He took tapes around and really tried to help us get our foot in the door.” The real problem, says Vince, was that, with Janis touring, “It was hard for me to be the only one taking care of Jenny most of the time.” Still, he admits, “I think a lot of my frustrations came from my lack of success. So, I guess in Janis’s mind, I wasn’t much of a cheerleader.”

For Janis, success brought inner conflict. “I’ve always been Vince’s greatest fan,” she explains, “and I knew how much he deserved a shot, too. That made me feel very guilty, and I also felt guilty about not being around for Jenny. But it’s nobody’s fault. I just happened to get my break first.”

Vince eventually got his break just as the Sweethearts’ popularity was subsiding. This year Janis will tour just 60 days. “I come home and try to be the perfect wife because it’s something I really love,” she says. “I love to cook and sew and take care of my family.”

That’s fortunate, because, as Vince puts it, “We’re like yin and yang. For her, everything has to have a plan, an order. I’d rather just watch life unfold.”

That Gill’s life has unfolded handsomely comes as a bit of a surprise to his father, Stan Gill, 62, a United States administrative law judge in Columbus, Ohio. Having played guitar and banjo at barn dances as a young man in Oklahoma, where Vince was born, the elder Gill recognized his son’s musical gift. “I didn’t doubt his talent,” he says, “but frankly I didn’t expect him to gain the success he has.” Dad notes that his guitar-playing son didn’t show any interest in singing until “he got to be about 13 and figured out how much girls liked it.”

They still do, but that doesn’t alarm Janis. “I have never worried about that. Ever. I have always trusted Vince,” she says. Besides, after spending years on the road herself, “I know how tough it is. I know he’s not out there partying.”

“I don’t think my fan base looks at me as a heartthrob like some of these other guys,” says Vince, who must not be paying attention. “I’ve got a little bit of Gomer in me.” Janis scoffs. “Wherever I go, all I get is, ‘I’m so in love with your husband. You are sohhhh lucky to be married to him. He is such a beautiful man.’ What am I going to say? ‘Shut up—I don’t want you talking about my husband that way’? I just say, ‘You’re right. I am lucky.’ ”

Fans knocking on the family’s front door in Franklin, near Nashville—and the occasional tour bus swinging by for pictures—have forced the Gills to begin planning a move to a more secluded 150-acre property. “It’s regrettable, because we love our house and we love our neighbors,” says Janis. Vince, a scratch golfer, especially loves spilling out his back door directly onto a 27-hole private course.

But the decision apparently involves more than privacy. “Janis likes nice things—pretty things, furniture—more than I do,” says Vince. “Nothing wrong with that. All I need when I’m home is a couch and a TV. I’d be fine living here on the golf course forever. But if she wants a mansion on the hill, I’ll give her a mansion on the hill.”

Correction. There’s one other thing Vince needs at home: his stereo system. “He’ll go down in the basement,” Jenny tattles, “and blast his CDs.”

The reluctant heartthrob laughs. “I think I’m the only man in captivity,” he says, “whose daughter screams at him, ‘Turn that thing down!’ ”

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