This week has been a time of looking forward for Brantley Gilbert, but also one for a little bit of nostalgia. Gilbert began a week-long promotional trek on Monday in his home near Athens, GA. The singer, promoting his just-released album "Just As I Am," hosted members of the media on his property for a dinner and reception. Those attending got a little bit of a history lesson before that with a stop at the farm of Kyle Potts - one of Gilbert's oldest friends. The two took the group on a ride down the gravel road that inspired the chart-topping "Dirt Road Anthem," which was co-written by Gilbert along with Colt Ford.
The next morning saw close to 30 radio stations broadcasting inside Gilbert's Alma Mater – Jefferson High School in his native Jackson County. The Valory recording artist made his way by each station for a 15-minute interview, and broadcasters also got a chance to talk with those who knew Gilbert best as a student -- his former coaches during his days as a Dragon.
Making the media rounds included Doug Thurman, Chuck Cook, and Bob Gurley – all of whom coached Gilbert during his high school days. Cook, his baseball coach, joked that he might have gotten to witness one of Gilbert's first concerts.
"We were coming back from a game in South Georgia. It was a five hour bus ride, and all the other players decided to ride back with their parents, but not Brantley. He was going to be on the bus. There was one other player on the bus, and he starts singing all the way from south Georgia to Jefferson. I wish we had cameras on there, because it would have been nice to have that recording. I remember telling my wife, 'He's got some talent,' and look at him now. We're all so proud of him."
For Gilbert, being back at Jefferson High opened up a wave of memories. "I've fought here. I've played basketball here. I've wrestled here too. I remember I did sneak out the back door too. It was one of the easiest doors to sneak out of. I still work out in the gym – right down the hallway, and down the stairs."
Tuesday night saw Gilbert performing for a standing-room only crowd at the Georgia Theater in Athens. He gave fans a taste of "Just As I Am" by performing many of the cuts during his energetic 90-minute set.
Wednesday morning found him on the road at the Harley Davidson store in Athens, meeting fans of a local contest – as well as loading onto his motorcycle along with his crew. Gilbert will be trekking through the Eastern part of the United States as part of the "From Athens To Arlington" ride.
He then proceeded south to Atlanta for a signing at a local Best Buy before pressing onto Augusta for an appearance at the Harley dealership there.
He received quite a surprise upon arriving. It seemed that over 1,600 fans were there for the performance and signing. The crowd forced Gilbert to change his game plan a bit. He had committed to signing the first 300 CD's sold. However, his concession staff had sold double that amount before he even arrived. So, he decided to stay until the last CD was sold – staying until about 9:30pm.
From Athens to Arlington is a partnership with Folds Of Honor, an organization very close to Gilbert's heart. Billboard caught up with Ed Pulido, Senior Vice President with the organization for information Folds Of Honor's mission. "We provide the spouses and children of the fallen wounded educational sponsorships. To date, we've awarded over 5,500 scholarships. We're on pace to raise over 40-50 million dollars. Our founder is Major Dan Rooney, the F-16 fighter pilot," he said.
Pulido, who lost his left leg while serving his country, praised Gilbert for his efforts to help them. "It's so great that Brantley has stepped up to the plate and hit a home run for all of the military families. He doesn't have to do this. He doesn't have to ride to Arlington. He felt like he didn't want to release this record without knowing what has been sacrificed for him to express himself and be able to sing songs."
Thursday featured signings at Best Buy and Walmart locations in South Carolina. Billboard asked Gilbert about the strangest item he had ever put his signature on, and his response was definitely unique. "I think we were at Walmart, and this guy had just picked up his prescription bottles. He pulled out one and said 'Will you sign my pill bottle? You can take one if you want to.' I thought, 'I can't do that in front of a thousand people.' There's been some interesting ones, for sure!"
The 615 will continue to follow Gilbert all the way to Arlington for a powerful event at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. Look for that story next week.