Discovering the truth about mainstream, seven-time chart-topping veteran country music performer Brantley Gilbert creates a polarizing moment.
On the one hand, he’s a proud gun-toting Georgia redneck covered in tattoos and “not giving a f**k about a whole lot,” he tells The Tennessean at a Music Row soundstage. He’s also the lead vocalist for a 2021 collaboration with HARDY and Toby Keith entitled “The Worst Country Song Of All Time.”
As well he’s a performer who, alongside fellow Georgia native Jason Aldean is responsible for selling an equivalent number of singles to albums sold by rock acts Creed and Nickelback in the past quarter-century.
Between these notions lies a recovering alcoholic, husband and father of two who feels it necessary always to name-drop his faith in his album titles.
“I have a die-hard grass-roots fanbase that likes having something based on things on which they consistently agree,” Gilbert says about that decision. He continues with an intelligent point identifying his demographics.
“When you’re a lower-middle-class earning music fan, you’re working until the sun goes down or the job is done — the money they’re giving me for my music is to deliver something to get them through the rest of some tough days.”
“I’ve got sixty minutes of hits and Nickelback has twice as many as I do. So that’s a three-hour experience,” says Gilbert about his forthcoming run of summer 2023 concerts with the 2000s-era rock icons.
Among those hits include his recent Vince Gill and Blake Shelton collaboration “Heaven by Then.”
The song is a “bucket list” moment for Gilbert and appears on “So Help Me God,” his sixth studio album, released in 2022.
He describes Gill’s guitar playing and voice as, respectively, a long-idolized “gift” and “if God gave the voices of angels to people on Earth.” Regarding Shelton, he counts his hits “Austin” and “Ol’ Red” as “authentic” songs that he’s long respected.
His previously-mentioned HARDY and Toby Keith duet “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” also appears on “So Help Me God.” When asked about its creation and success, he laughs heartily for thirty seconds.
The song in question opens with the following lines:
“I hate beer and honky-tonk women / I don’t eat deer and I can’t stand fishing / And I don’t know the words to ‘Family Tradition,’ ‘Folsom Prison,’ or ‘Walk The Line.'”
“You should’ve heard the lines that didn’t make the cut. What a f***ing outrageous time we had making [that song]. It was made while America was experiencing a lot of division. So I tried to lighten the mood and help us all realize that we’re not that much different than each other,” Gilbert adds.
Gilbert’s fifteen-year Music City run has seen him as one of the chief creatives responsible for ushering in the roughest edges of outlaw country, gangsta-style, trap-ready hip-hop and mainstreamed alternative rock into pop-country’s most aggressively homogenized presentation of masculinity since toothy-grinning men in Resistol hats reigned supreme in the 1990s.
2010 saw Gilbert first achieve mainstream fame in Nashville alongside Colt Ford as one of the co-creators behind Aldean’s breakout rap-styled country ballad “Dirt Road Anthem.” A decade later and time has allowed a revival in the crossover sound in many ways birthed by Gilbert.
“Jelly Roll, Struggle Jennings, Yelawolf, Adam Calhoun, Tom Macdonald, Demun Jones, to name a few — there’s a whole world of artists out there creating music featuring a melting pot of genres that isn’t mainstream yet, but it will be.”
“We all have a Ph.D. in our opinion,” Gilbert continues when asked what’s allowing moments like Jelly Roll’s recent chart-topping hit “Son of a Sinner” to occur. “It’s my opinion that it’s not about what a song sounds like; it’s more about creating relatable songs that make you feel something.” He doubles down and says that songs that synergize complex, often private thoughts into three-minute pop anthems are best.
When asked to dig deeper about what in Georgia-born artists like himself, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Tyler Hubbard and Cole Swindell (responsible for nearly 100 Billboard hits in two decades) allows for them to create music that resonates so well with country music’s most mainstream demographic, he straightens in his chair, steels himself and looks as if he’s about to reveal a long-held secret recipe for unparalleled country music acclaim.
“There’s a circuit of college bars in college towns that are like a country within a country in Georgia, where people sometimes aren’t even hungry for success beyond that marketplace,” says Gilbert. He describes playing at small to large rooms often filled to five times their capacity at schools like Georgia Southern University, the University of Georgia’s various campuses statewide, the Universities of North and West Georgia and Valdosta State University as part of a robust, self-contained marketplace that rewards a note-perfect knowledge of pop and traditional country music, plus engaging and party-ready original music.
“To play enough times [in that circuit] to make enough money to develop a grass roots following, you had to be as good as you were tough,” says Gilbert.
He offers the following regarding what cutting his artistic teeth in that environment taught him, which he’s retained into the present.
“I don’t claim to be Carrie Underwood or anything, but I still run my ass all over the place.”
When asked what he feels is both his creative motivation and something of the early stages of a legacy, he offers a note pointed well, perhaps, at country music’s evolving future.
“Blurring lines between genres is causing [the music industry] to become a circus in the best way. People are trying to control that right now because currently in society, we’re obsessed with identifying and labeling everything. However, if fans hear something they dig, they dig it. Who gives a s**t what the label is? A hit — regardless of genre or labeling — is a big record that tells a story.”