Brantley Gilbert: From the Heart of Georgia to the Hearts of Fans
In a southern drawl that's as soft and easy as a barefoot walk down a red Georgia dirt road, Brantley Gilbert tells Nightlife that he is "a simple guy." Yet the hard-driving, sometimes heart-breaking poems and melodies that pour forth from the pen, guitar, and voice of this modern-day traditionalist are anything but simple, and the story that has brought him from humble beginnings to the brink of country and southern-rock stardom in a five-year career is nothing if not complicated. It is a story filled with agony and glory, derailed by circumstance and the courage to rebuild what was thought to be gone, all through the power of music. It is a story that Gilbert sets down in the words and melodies of his songs-- Gilbert prefers to call them "stories from my life"-- that make up two popularly acclaimed CDs, both released during the last two years.
Gilbert will bring his live band and high-octane live performance Thursday, October 7 to the Copper Dragon. Tickets are $10, and advance tickets are on sale at Pinch Penny Liquors.
Gilbert, born and raised in the same region of Georgia that produced R.E.M. and the B-52s, displays a great deal of pride in the place he calls home. His Clarke County upbringing provides much of the inspiration for the lyrical portraits he paints on his two albums. His first, Modern Day Prodigal Son, released in 2009, portrays, in simple, straightforward and unadorned country fashion, the joy and the pain of growing up a modern day son of the South. The album features songs mainstream country fans will recognize. "My Kind of Party" was recently recorded by country hitmaker Jason Aldean, and "Grits (Girls Raised in the South)" was recorded by Chris Cagle.
Gilbert's second CD, Halfway to Heaven, came out in March. The album puts Gilbert in the company of fellow Georgia music powerhouses like Dallas Davidson, Colt Ford, and Rhett Akins, all of whom share songwriting credits on the album, from hell-raising anthems like "Kickin' It in the Sticks" to high-energy country love ballads like "She's My Kind of Crazy."
It's a journey, however, that has taken many turns. Just five years ago, Gilbert was a college student, working as an intern in hopes of one day becoming a marriage and relationship counselor. Then, one day on a stretch of Georgia highway, everything changed. In one moment, the then barely twenty-year-old Gilbert lost control of his truck and careened into a roll that repeated five times. Critically injured, Gilbert's academic career came to a screeching halt, as most of his memories were erased by the trauma that he suffered. Though to this day the singer prefers not to discuss the accident in detail, what he does discuss is the story of how music helped to rebuild his life and change his direction, possibly for the better.
For more about Brantley Gilbert, visit <http://www.BrantleyGilbert.com>.
Nightlife recently spoke with Gilbert about the effect that his upbringing had on his music, and the power that he believes music has to change not only his life, but the world.
You've just released your second album, Halfway to Heaven. What are the musical differences between this CD and your first release, A Modern Day Prodigal Son?
This album is actually the second chapter of my life. The first CD was a themed album, and I tried my best to capture the first chapter of my life... graduating from high school and going through college. The second album has been mainly centered during the time after the car wreck that I had. The main difference would probably be the guys in my band. There's been a big band change. What it all boils down to is, I write songs, and they turn out the way we all get together and make them turn out, and the way we feel comfortable playing them.
When you sit down to write, do you sit down with the idea of writing an entire album, or do the songs come to you one at a time, and then you put them together in a package that fits that particular chapter in your life? How does that process come together for you?
I write as many songs as I can. There may a day when I'm having a really bad day, like when me and my ex-girlfriend talk on the phone and it rehashes some memories. Or if I get into an argument with my friend. Perhaps I'm having problems because my parents just got divorced, or I'm having a hard time with my grandfather passing away. Or I could just be having a great day.
I just write songs, and I try to put all those together and look at the entire, and try to put them together and tell a story. That way the people who listen to the entire album have an idea of who I am as a person, where I am spiritually and morally, and where I'm headed-- my purpose.
To many people who read your biography, it might seem that your new life direction, both musically and otherwise, really began with the car accident that nearly took your life. But what was your direction prior to that? Was music ever a part of what you thought your life would be?
I played football. I lifted weights. I was a competitive pitcher. I was just an average guy. I was in college when the wreck happened. It was finals week. I was aspiring to be a marriage and relationship counselor. I held a job as a special-needs counselor at Friendship Elementary in Gainesville, Georgia. When the wreck happened, I was thrown out of the truck and I hit my head really hard on the tree. When that happened, it took away a lot of my childhood memories, the majority of the memories that I had. I didn't even know who I was. The only way that I came back to who I was, or even knew who I was, [was] through the songs I had written prior to the incident.
Getting back into that resource was something that really brought my feet back to the ground. I was lost. I didn't know who I was, and I didn't know who a lot of other people were, either. The music brought all that back. It really was a blessing from God.
I didn't see a reason to let that process go. I wanted to take the person that I was and keep living my life instead of starting over. The music was the source of me finding out who I was, and who I am.
Your music has a very different sound than much of the country and southern rock that is being put out through Nashville today. So much of that music is overcommercialized, with so much focus on computerized manipulation and musical smoke and mirrors, and much less focus on lyrical content. Your songs are lyric-centered, almost like poetry. Is that because you are writing to tell the stories of your life?
Yes. That would be a direct quote from me. It all comes down to this-- I never got into this music business for money, and I never, ever would say I'm the best guitar player, singer, or songwriter. I know a lot of people say that, but I mean this with every beat that comes out of the bottom of my heart-- I wrote those songs for me, and people close to me. It was more therapeutic than it was expressive. It was a way to look into who I really was and what changes I needed to make to make me better. It was like having a demon inside that I had to get out. It was all I had.
But to say in any intellectual or educational way that I've constructed my business or my songwriting in any way based on success is not true. I never structured my actions with the hope of fame or fortune being a result. It was therapeutic for me, and it was very helpful to me. It just turns out that there were a lot more people than I thought that were more like me than I ever imagined. It's that simple.
My music's not that intuitive. If you listen to a Bob Dylan album or a Goo Goo Dolls album, they're extremely intuitive and intelligent. My stuff's simple, and it's simple for a reason. I had to get it out of me either because it hurt, or because it was fun and I wanted to talk about it.
What would you say the influence of your upbringing, and the area of your birth and where you still live, has had on your music as a writer?
That's a very good question. Thank you for asking me that, and I hope you write my answer. I think there are more than a few songwriters down here that understand that songwriters are like poets in that we do paint pictures for the blind. But songwriters put melodies with the poetry. We write songs based on things that we're influenced by, things that we heard growing up. It's literally being a poet with a melody behind it that attempts to portray a thought or a feeling to the listener.
Songwriters are often people who write songs without trying to make a lot of money. It's not just in Georgia. It's in Texas, it's everywhere. Real songwriters don't start out wanting to make money. They start out wanting to write songs that matter, songs that make a difference and make an impact. It's about more than just putting a check in the bank. It's about having a passion for portraying thoughts and feelings. It's everything. It's happiness, it's pain. It's literally painting a picture for the blind, with a melody behind it, and praying that they can see it.
What has been the reaction of the fans who come to see your live shows to Halfway to Heaven? Has the difference between this album and your first been well received?
It's been really positive, a really good reaction. I don't write songs to sound like the most intelligent human being on the face of the planet. I write songs the way I feel they need to be written. My overall purpose was to write an album with a message. That's what I aspired to. That's what I'm pushing for. I don't write songs for a market and I don't write songs for money. I write the songs for me. But so far, everything's been going great.
One of the things that sets your vocal style apart is its originality. You don't sound like so many other artists, who are not often not ashamed to admit in interviews that they sound like other artists because that's who influenced them. You're not easily compared to other artists. Where did your unique vocal style come from?
I never can pinpoint them. I've tried several times. The truth is, anything that I listen to that's not a parody of something, somebody took the time and made the effort to put something together that was therapeutic to them and that was expressive to them. The way I think about it, if somebody put that much hard work into something, regardless of whether or not I like the melody or the lyrical content, I think there's something in there that I can gain from it.
There's always a little piece of motivation in there for me, because I think somebody took the time to write and structure it and get as close as they can to a masterpiece in music. There's something we can all learn from that. It's been a big dream of mine for a long time for everyone to look at music that way, even if it's something like, "I'm goin' out to the club tonight." If somebody's willing to take the time to compose it, I feel like there's something in every single one of them.
What about the future? Where are things going for you musically and creatively? Do you have another album planned, and are you continuing to write?
Oh, yes. Whatever the next chapter is, anything life's got to hold for me. I'm always writing-- I'll never stop writing. In life, my goal is to buy this piece of property that I've been looking at for a long time that once belonged to my ancestors. It's right near my hometown. My goal for the rest of my life is to do God's will, and to hope that I'm really doing what He wants me to do. If I'm not, if I'm making my own plans, then I'm barking up the wrong tree. My goal in music is just to ride this until the wheels fall off. [laughing]
There's been a major trend in medical science over the past twenty years to include more and more music in the treatment of people suffering from head and brain injuries. What is your opinion of the power of music therapy in the recovery of people who are affected by injuries like your own?
It's very powerful. I've done internships, I've worked in mental hospitals, and I've been there myself. There's just something about a melody. I can't pinpoint it. Maybe nobody ever will be able to describe it intuitively enough to pinpoint what the benefit of a melody and a lyrical message is. But there is just something about music. It's the most therapeutic. It can get your veins pumping and get you ready for a ballgame, or it can break your heart. Music is the most powerful form of art on the planet, and I'll stand by that with all I have.
I really feel that music is the most therapeutic and motivational. It can heal you or it can break you. I really believe that music is the driving force of our planet. Everything that happens can be affected by music. I stand by that, and I'd hate for anybody to try to argue it with me, 'cause I'm a pretty stubborn fella. [laughing]
who: Brantley Gilbert
what: southern rock, country-western
where: Copper Dragon Brewing Company
when: Thursday, October 7