10 Questions with ... Brantley Gilbert
September 20, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Brantley Gilbert had already established himself as a musical force to be reckoned with, even before signing with Big Machine label group imprint, The Valory Music Co. in 2011. "Modern Day Prodigal Son," and "Halfway To Heaven," both on Average Joes in 2009 and 2010 respectively, showed outlaw music was alive, well and viable for mainstream consumption. His star has only risen further and faster with Valory. Last year's "Just As I Am" was the #3 top-selling album of the year, yielding two #1 single (so far), "Bottoms Up" and "One Hell Of An Amen." He's been honored with ACM, American Music and iHeartRadio Music awards and just wrapped up a support role on Kenny Chesney's "The Big Revival" tour. Gilbert will embark on a headlining tour in 2016, but we caught up with him hours after he performed at "Chattanooga Unite: A Tribute On The River," a show that benefitted families of, and paid tribute to, five US Servicemen killed in the July shooting tragedy in Chattanooga.
1. Last night - Wednesday, September 16th - you were a part of "Chattanooga Unite: A Tribute On The River." You're just hours removed from that experience now. Can you tell us a little bit about how that went and share some of your emotions from that show, which was obviously so powerful?
I've got to tell you, I've played a lot of shows, but that one - I've been trying to put words to it all night, to be honest with you. We've texted back and forth talking to [Big Machine Label Group President Scott] Borchetta and [iHeartMedia SVP/Programming] Gator [Harrison of WUSY/Chattanooga], and it's just - we're all still kind of shocked. It was something unlike anything I've ever experienced. There were a lot of emotions going on, of course, but there were also just so many people. Seeing that many people come together for a cause like that is just something I'm passionate about from the word go, anyway. But it was unbelievable, man. It was a God thing. That's what I can write it up as in my book.
2. We've heard numbers in the 100,000 range in the crowd. You've been on tour and performed in front of a lot of people, including on tour with Kenny Chesney this year doing stadiums. But what is it like walking out and seeing 100,000 people in front of you? What thoughts came to your mind when you hit that stage?
Here we go! Haha! I'll be honest with you, man, we try to put the same show on for 10 people that we would do for 10,000 or even 100,000. You know, the stage setup - I thought it was going to be the most uncomfortable thing in the world, because we were 50 feet off the ground. But actually, it helped, and it was strange but it was unbelievable. We had a massive group of people under us, then a little bit up under eye level was where the street was. There were people as far as you could see - it just kept going, and kept going, and kept going. When it's like that, you just almost have to switch your mind off. It's just a sea of people! It was really unbelievable!
3. Shortly after that tragedy in Chattanooga, you stepped up. Within a week, you were calling up WUSY and making plans. We know you have a deep affinity for and affiliation with service men and women, but with this particular tragedy, what made you act so quickly and pick up the phone to try and get this thing going?
Well, I think just like everybody else, when I first heard about it, I was shocked. It was a tragedy, and it hurt my heart. But it also made me really angry. And sometimes, for me, the best thing to do when I get that angry is to channel it and see if there's a way to help. And that's something I've picked up on through the years. When I was still drinking, I didn't have that talent! It was just fight or flight. But the next emotion and thought was to channel it. "How can I channel this, and is there something I can do to help?" That was my thought. And I made the call to my manager, and he was about to call Gator. We ended up talking, and at first, it was just supposed to be a small, intimate thing. But the more we thought about it, and the more we talked, we just thought the families and the community deserved a more grand gesture. We felt they deserved that, and there's a million emotions going through your mind when that happened, but like I said, it was best for me to channel it. I was really thankful that they were already with it and everybody's mind was kind of in the same direction.
4. You've had an affinity for service men and women. You've been involved in efforts to help the Wounded Warrior Project with the bike rides and stuff like that. But can you take us back to how your connection with the Wounded Warrior Project started? Where did you begin feeling like you needed to help that campaign?
My mom's side of the family was a military family. I had a couple of uncles who suffered from PTSD, but they were a good bit older than me. Growing up, when I was young, I don't think I could wrap my mind around what that really and truly was. But one of my best friends in the world went to Iraq and did two tours - his name is Josh Green - and the fella I talk about in "One Hell Of An Amen" was his war buddy, Jonathan Dimmer. Josh saw there were some other things, and there was stuff he went through over there. Josh came home the first time, and you know, he went away a boy and came home a man. He was a good bit different. But you could tell, all of it wasn't good, but I really couldn't put my finger on it. He was just a good bit different. The second time he came home, I think the demons had kind of overwhelmed him that time - it was visible in everything he did. He was actually, when I was still drinking, he'd drink a little bit, too. And you know how it is, sometimes when you drink a little bit, conversation starts to come out. And then when he was sober, he got to the point where he was comfortable talking to me about it, and it was the first time I had really seen PTSD that close. You know what I mean? It was really hitting home, and he was close to my age. I knew this dude; we grew up together. It was just - it really hurt my heart. I cared about this guy for a long time and loved him to death. He's one of my best friends in the world, and then he was just different. And I could tell, it was like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and on his mind. I really - when something hits home like that - in my position, it made me want to see if I could help and see if there was anything I could do. Seeing it go from something he would not talk about to finally - and it took him a long time to get comfortable - talking about it. Just a couple years ago, he got things reeled in, and he's a different cat these days, now. I'd like for you to meet him, because he'd have your rolling in the floor laughing in probably two seconds, if that long! We got him back!
5. I know you did the second motorcycle ride this year, and one of the things we read about was a new aspect, The Rolling Odyssey Program, which provides a therapeutic ride for combat veterans with PTSD and helps them readjust to some of their challenges. I know you're a rider, too. What way is getting out on a bike ride therapeutic for you?
Oh, man! I can tell you this, there's a very few places where I can turn my mind in whatever kind of direction I want it to go. And that is on a motorcycle or on stage. But on a motorcycle is a different thing. Some of them have radios, and some of them don't, but you can be in a situation where it's just you and the wind and the bike. And, you know, riding can be therapeutic because if you're riding like you should be, you're not thinking about a whole lot but holding your line and making sure you keep two tires on the road and in between the lines. If you respect the motorcycle the way I feel like you should, there's enough going on to where you have to pay attention to what you're doing. And it easily takes my mind away. But being out in the open, I've always just called it freedom, because that really is. It's one of the times in my life when I feel more free than a lot of other times. It's hard to explain, man, especially if you don't ride. The minute you ride and can actually stay out for any length of time, I get that feeling. And this is something that has been around for a long time. Guys that come home from war have been really, really quick to get in the motorcycle world. That has happened since World War II, Vietnam, and a lot of them end up in motorcycle clubs. There's a brotherhood mentality there and a pack mentality. And I think without us putting a finger on it, they knew for a long time that it was therapeutic. But Harley [Davidson motorcycles] kind of stepped up to the plate and they're bringing these vets in and teaching these guys how to ride if they don't know, and really trying to get them on motorcycles. And I'm telling you, that second ride was amazing! I met some guys in there that will be life-long friends. That was the trip that a fella actually gave me a Purple Heart on that trip. It was amazing! That was a gift - I've never in my life received a gift like that! But I really, really didn't know what to do with - it was such an honor! I've got it put up now; I'm afraid to look at it or go anywhere with it. I don't really tell many people I have it that don't know, but it's from a guy named Justin Patterson who gave it to me. He had two of them and dealt with some things. But he had not been out of his house in two years, other than to go to the grocery store for just a little while - and he hadn't spent a whole lot of time with his kids, he hadn't spent time with his mom, his wife was having trouble with him getting out of the house. He went on that ride, and you couldn't have told me that in a million years, because this guy was outgoing and he was excited and happy to be there. We kind of hit it off right off of the bat, and it's been - that has been a pretty amazing thing to watch. This guy, I've gotten messages from his mother and wife, and from his daughter, and just kind of thanking me for my part in bringing him back. He's like a new dude. It blew my mind.
6. Let's shift topics for a minute - which will be tough, because I know that has to be an emotional thing, having someone give you their Purple Heart. But let's talk about your new single, "Stone Cold Sober," for a minute. This is based on a drunk dial you made to the woman who is now your wife, Amber, some years ago. Can you take us through how that experience evolved in to a song idea, and now to a new single for you?
Well, it's one of those things - it's a song that loosely reminds me of that instance. But I remember a situation when I called her one night. And I - to be honest with you, with her - there were very seldom calls like that made. We were on and off, mostly on, for about five years. And then I didn't see her at all or talk to her at all for five years. Until June 16th of two years ago. It just - looking back on it - when I heard the idea for this song, it was something that was kind of in the works and brought to me. I hadn't written very many songs like that, that had already been started and the ideas were kind of already taking form. But when I heard the idea, the first thought that crossed my mind, we had talked earlier that day about a night where I was up in Nashville, and I called her and was talking to her and trying to tell her something. I had run in to Keith Urban somewhere, and I had been taking to him, and I was telling her about that. There was actually probably 100 yards from where our house is now, he was kind of a fella that thought he was a number two for her, I guess. And he got on the phone and - took her phone - and got on the phone with me and kind of had some choice words. It didn't go over real well. And I wasn't really the kind of dude you said stuff like that to back then, either! Ha! I remember I didn't get to finish my conversation with her, and there was still a whole lot more that I kind of wanted to tell her. It was just a - who can't relate to that song? I think we're all guilty of it, where if you drink enough, it's almost second nature, I think, for most folks to pick up your phone and want to talk to people! And sometimes you say things you shouldn't, and in this case, I just thought the idea was awesome. It takes form and changes to, man, I wish I had said more! That's got me written all over it, right there! To be honest with you, she's in just about every one of my songs, in some way, form or fashion, looking back.
7. Well, the song is on your "Just As I Am" album, and on this one, you've kind of laid it out there. You've been pretty honest about your faith and your battle with alcohol, which you mentioned a minute ago. Congrats on being sober - since 2011, I believe? So your routine - I know that after talking to some other artists about getting sober, they talk about the routine and the discipline and some of the things they have to change - how drastically did your routine change? Did you have to make a lot of changes to the people you surrounded yourself with professionally on the road?
Yes, sir. It'll be four years on December 18th. You know what's crazy is, I didn't change it up as much as you'd think. It was kind of one of those things for me, when I decided - okay, this is what I'm going to do and nothing is going to stop me. It is what it is, and it's just got to change, it can't go the way it's going. Healthy wise, it was tearing me apart. And in almost every aspect of life. When you figure out how much of a problem it is - and I am somebody that really likes to be in control. When I finally told myself, "Dude, I know you think you've got it, but you know you don't." You know it's time. It was time to change, and there wasn't a question in my mind. When I set my mind to something, it's really, really, really hard to stop me! And luckily, on this deal, it was something I was extremely passionate about. There were things in my life that I'd dreamed about since I was a kid. Things like getting married and having a family, that's stuff I had always wanted. I was raised with my granddad and my grandma telling me how important that was. And it was something that had always been on my mind and I had wanted to do. And I had actually gotten to the point that I had let go of all that - I didn't want anything to do with it, and it was that I realized it wasn't something I wanted less, I just realized that with the shape I was in, I shouldn't have it. I knew that. So, I just pushed completely away from it and went the opposite direction. And it just took me a while to get to the point that I knew I had to do something. It had to get bad enough where it wasn't a choice anymore. When we came back out, there were a few little things we did. I got on my own bus, which I'll be honest with you, that helped with more than just the staying sober aspect of my life. It just across the board made me free to get a lot more done - a lot more work, a lot more writing done. But the crazy thing was, once I made that change and made that decision, my guys - my whole rig from the band to the crew - it was crazy to watch it kind of...everybody started changing shape. Everybody started - if not quitting, then cutting down. And ever since then, it's been extremely different across the board out on the road. It was amazing to watch that rub off on other folks. I've still got some guys that like to drink and party, and to be honest with you, drinking is not something that I just don't condone. I like being around people that are drinking! The only thing that makes me feel uncomfortable is when people that do drink don't drink around me. It makes me feel like I'm standing in a corner naked! It kind of alienates you. Now, some folks are different. Some folks don't like having it around, and there was a rule I had for a while on my bus where I didn't want anyone to bring alcohol up there. And it took me a long time - the last couple years, I kind of lifted that rule, and I let anybody bring whatever they want in. But more than anything, it wasn't that I didn't want to be around it. That was the initial idea - let's just make sure we're good being around it before I threw myself right back in it. I mean, it was little bit of that, but I think more than anything, it's just that now, when people bring a drink on the bus, if it's got alcohol in it, you best mark that son of a bitch with a sharpie! And if it's laying on the counter in a red plastic cup, it better be wrote all over! Because my big thing is that I don't want to pick it up thinking it's mine and have however many months go down the drain because somebody just kind of nonchalantly left something out and I thought it was mine. That's the real only reason that I kept it off the bus was to make sure I didn't pick it up on accident. And thankfully I never did. I was blessed with a crew and a band that, without them, I wouldn't be anywhere close to where I'm at - and not just on the music side of things. I'm surrounded by great people, surrounded by believers. We're a family! We're a big, dysfunctional family! We fight like brothers.
8. Thinking back on your career when you were with Average Joes and even before, you gained traction really, really quickly. In fact, I remember it was just sort of a phenomenon watching you play in front of big crowds, and your shows - you had people there that knew every word to every song, and you didn't have a lot of radio airplay at the time. Of course, now you have a lot of it! But when you segued to Valory Music Co. back in 2011, were you confident that this grass-roots appeal could continue while being in such a large label environment? Were you concerned that what you were as an artist and how you reached fans would be changed?
Yeah, I was scared shitless! From early on, I didn't want a manager, I didn't want a booking agent, I didn't want any of that stuff. I toured around with Corey Smith for some years, and most of the conversations we've had revolved around that being something that we didn't really care for. I was terrified that you sign on somewhere, and the big misconceptions - I felt like a lot of times these guys would get close to where they needed to be, then they'd sign on with a label and it was kind of up to the label where their career goes from there. I was just terrified of the idea of handing something that I had worked so hard on. There for a long time, I mean "Modern Day Prodigal Son," that record is a Gold record now! The first I don't know how many thousand copies of that, I mailed out myself from the post office in Jefferson, Georgia! We'd take our little PayPal system where you could get on MySpace - this was before Facebook even got big, you know?! And it was just me and a couple buddies that helped me out with that side of things. But we made sure that every message we had was accounted for a responded to. And as far as booking shows, I did that myself, and all the way to where somebody who ordered a CD, I got the record and signed it on the inside, and I would hand-address the envelope and go down to the post office and mail 100 or 200 of them at a time. I'd buy stamps and put them on and send them out. It was really hard for me to let go of any of that responsibility! But as time went on, things came like I feel like in the right order. We got things when we needed them, and not when we wanted them. It was a situation where, we got to where we could play shows and when we got to big numbers, it was like, "Okay, I can't keep up with all this. I need somebody to help me." So then the booking agent comes to the table. And on the management side of things, I think it's almost a must in this business - you have to have a bad manager experience to appreciate a good one. The worst part about it, to me, was the fact that I was so on top of everyone that I hired and every move that I made in the music business, and I felt like the bad manager really got one over on me! After that, I had met my manager now, Rich, and I knew the guy was a hard worker. That's all you ever heard. And it was the same situation when Valory came to the table. We had talked to some other labels and discussed some options, but when it came time to sign the deal, it was really hard to get across that I'm not going to use all session guys in the studio - I'm going to use my band! That's the way I operate. And that may be a little more expensive, but that's the way we work. That's the way I do things, and that's an invaluable, irreplaceable part of my sound. When Scott [Borchetta] came to the table, all I'd heard was how hard this dude works. That he never sleeps. We have a joke that Scott sleeps upside down - like Batman! But with his cell phone on a headset! You can call that dude - he's like me - you can call him at 3am or 4am, and he answers the phone for me. And it has been like that since day one, and it hasn't changed. When we talked, he said, "Where do you stand with all this?" And I remember telling him, "Look, man, my big thing is I believe in what we've got going, and I want it to keep going the way it is. I'm doing me right now; I'm not putting on a show. This isn't an image, this isn't a gimmick. It just is what it is, and it works. And we're proud of it. I'm proud of it, my manager is proud of it, we're all proud of it. Where we're at is, we need somebody who works just as hard as we do, if not harder. And I had heard that was your reputation." And man, he has done that and so much more from the word go. And he told me, we went over a lot of things and talked, but he's never once asked me to dress a certain way, they didn't send me to media school, none of that stuff. He believed in what we had going, and he took something that was working and just plugged it full of steroids.
9. I know that artists aren't crazy about putting labels on their music. They're just making the music, and that's what comes out, and that's who they are. But I just wonder - and it may be hard to step outside of yourself for a minute - but in the big picture of this format, what lane do you see yourself living in? A lot of guys would say you and Eric Church are kind of the Outlaw guys. Is it Outlaw? Is it mainstream? We know it's not Pop Country! I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but you're not really a guy who makes Pop music, Brantley.
Man, that doesn't break my heart at all! I tell people this all the time - I feel like, as long as there's a box, I know where I stand. I stand right outside the line. I like to be in a place where it's different enough that I can do whatever the hell I want to, and it doesn't turn too many people's heads. I mean, we put a song out like "Bottoms Up," and not too many people freaked out about it. "Dirt Road Anthem" was something that Jason [Aldean] went out on a limb with - nobody, I mean there has been a couple people hint around the rap thing, I feel like, but I feel like that song was really like, "Okay, here it is. We're going to throw this out." And Jason had to have known he was taking a chance on it. But I wasn't in a position in my career where I would have ever gotten away with a song like that. But I feel like it opened up a lot of doors for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks. And as long as I stay right outside that line...I never set out to piss anybody off or really to change much. I don't really sit down and think, "Okay, do I want to write a Rock song or a Rap song or a #1 song." I'm not that good at my job! I just sit down and try to write the best song for the moment. And sometimes that comes out as a Rap song, and sometimes that comes out as a Rock song. Believe it or not, I've probably actually got some R&B sounding stuff that you would never in a million years think that I would write. But being in that position to stand right outside that box, I feel like it gives me the freedom to do that. If I do something weird, it doesn't really blow people away that much. They're just like, "Oh, okay. He's doing something else weird." Haha! It's more fun out there anyway.
10. So, I know you have a lot of tattoos. How many do you have? And the reason I ask this is that two days ago - Tuesday, September 15th - was National Tattoo Story Day. So, I was wondering if you would share the story of your most recent tattoo - I believe, if I'm not mistaken, that is the one on your back. Could you tell that story?
Man, I don't really know how to count them, to be honest. At this point, there's so many that tie in together that it almost makes just one big one! Like, the one on my chest connects to my arm piece. My arm was done in sittings that were like 14 or 15 or 16 hours a piece. And my back was done in two different sittings that was about that same amount of time. And I've got one on my rib cage that's separate, but really the rest of them, other than the one on my ribs, everything ties together. So, I guess you could say two?! Depending on whether or not the lines touch, that's the difference! But yeah, the one on my back is the most recent. And, man, long story short, I think I don't have to explain where I stand on The Second Amendment anymore! HAHA!
You did some stadium shows with Kenny Chesney this year, and we see that you're going to do a headlining tour starting in January in 2016. When you're out with Kenny Chesney on "The Big Revival Tour" doing NFL stadiums and stuff, what lessons do you learn from that experience that help you, and what do you learn from being on a big tour like that with Kenny that you can take to your own headlining tour experience?
Oh man, I tell you what. Any tour, you go on with anybody, and I feel like if you're out there for the right reasons and making the right decisions, you're paying attention. There's always something you can learn, whether it's on stage or off stage. And it's not just from the headliner - it's from the opener, or just from everybody. If you get out there and watch shows and watch how other artists interact with fans and how they kind of orchestrate. That's the thing about Kenny that blew my mind - that dude stands up there like he's conducting an orchestra! You know what I mean? It's like he's got strings on his hands that are attached to every single hand in that audience! Every movement he makes, they mimic. It's kind of like a kumbaya, weird-ass vibe. That's something I hadn't seen. I mean, most of our crowd, we're kind of a rambunctious group the majority of the time! So, you just watch people head-banging when we're on stage, then Kenny comes out, and they've got their arms around each other and they're swaying back and forth and shit - it's awesome! It was just a different vibe. Watching that guy on stage is a privilege. I had only seen him from the nosebleeds when he came and played in Atlanta several years back. Just watching not only how comfortable he is, but how much he puts out on stage is amazing. He never slows down; he never stands still. I feel like that's a huge part of the show. But the way he treats his crew, the way he treats his band out on the road. That's what I pay attention to more than anything. And it's the same way with Toby [Keith], and with Tim [McGraw]. It's that way with a lot of these guys, you know. You see these superstars, and they all have something in common - there's people around that have been there for a very, very long time that still talk well about them. There's a front-of-house guy that has been with Toby for I don't even know how many years, and he still talks good about Toby. It's the same way across the board with all three of those big fellas - they really, really take care of their people! And I think that has a lot to do with it. To me, that's part of running a tight ship and an organization that really, really fires on all cylinders. It's the way people work across the board, and I think that folks will still do their job even if they don't like you. But it helps when they know that you actually give a shit about them.