“I like being different,” admits Brantley Gilbert. “The way I look at it is, as long as I know there’s a box, and I’m outside of it, I’m good to go.”
While that attitude doesn’t always endear country artists to radio, Gilbert found programmers quickly embracing him when he initially pinged their radar in 2010. His first two singles went to No. 1, and more followed. On March 29, the appreciation for his attitude was proved by his winning iHeart Radio’s Renegade Award, which celebrates an artist “who breaks boundaries while remaining true to themselves,” according to the honor’s description. At the ceremony he bested arguably better-known pop stars like Iggy Azalea, Hozier, Meghan Trainor and Charli XCX in the category, and he’s still laughing about it.
“I think everybody in that room was just as surprised as I was when they called my name,” says Gilbert. “A few of them were looking around trying to figure out who the hell I was. I was really thankful that Kanye [West] didn’t come try [to take it], because that wouldn’t have been real easy for him.”
He’s pleased to have been recognized “for shaking things up a bit.” Says Gilbert, “I’ve kind of got a rebellious bone. I think I came out of the womb like that.” But he’s happiest when his songs connect with fans on an emotional level. “As a writer, I can’t get a better feeling any day of the week than having somebody come up to me and say, ‘This song changed my life’ like [current single] ‘One Hell of an Amen’ has been doing,” he explains.
While Gilbert modestly says, “I’m not good enough at my job to know whether I wrote a No. 1 song for radio,” he has a great track record so far writing both for himself and with cuts like Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem.”
“You just kind of cross your fingers and hope for the best,” he says of his work. “With a song like ‘One Hell of an Amen,’ it’s been awesome to watch it march up the charts, but what it’s doing off the charts is even more rewarding.”
On May 18 his label, the Valory Music Co., released a “platinum edition” of his current album, Just As I Am, that contains five new tracks, plus a T.I. remix of his 2014 hit “Bottoms Up.” The new version comes exactly a year after the album’s original release date. Gilbert says that at least one of the additional tracks will be a single that he hopes will continue his warm relationship with radio.
“Radio’s been so, so good to us, considering that we are outside the box,” he says. “ ‘Country Must Be Country Wide’ had some pretty heavy guitars in it. They weren’t buried. They were really out front in the production, and country radio actually embraced that. It was one of those songs that took a while to get up front, but it was the first single we ever put out, and it was a little bit more in your face than a lot of things I had heard on the radio. So when that one got to the front I was like, ‘OK, well, if that one can do that, then I’ve kind of got a good idea of where I can go.’"
“There were some things that were released to radio that were a little harder to play than others,” admits Gilbert. “We had [third Valory single] ‘Kick It in the Sticks,’ and we had some folks calling up saying they thought they were listening to a rock station. [The song peaked at No. 29 in 2012.] It wasn’t a No. 1 by any means, but I feel like it kind of knocked on the door a little bit.
“I do write some things that are just too much for radio,” he says with a laugh. “But radio has been cool enough to work with me on some stuff and to really support us, and it’s an amazing thing. I couldn’t be more thankful.”
His collaboration with T.I. on the platinum edition might raise eyebrows among country purists, but Gilbert says, “I didn’t do it to piss anybody off or stir the water or give [ammunition to] the people that are on a power trip about the ‘country and rap is crap’ stuff.” Rather, he says, it was just a fun chance to collaborate with a fellow Georgia artist he admires. “That song was already outside of the box, so why not spice it up just a little bit and add a little bit of fun?”
If the purists object, Gilbert hardly has time to care. He’s on tour with Kenny Chesney this spring and summer, prepping for his four-city May 22-23 motorcycle ride on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project and gearing up for his wedding to fiancee Amber Cochran.
He has already done two shows with Chesney and calls the singer “amazing. He’s really impressed me. He goes for two hours, and he’s nonstop the whole time. It’s the first time I’ve seen him from anywhere but the nosebleeds, and I’ve got a lot to learn.”
While the wedding date is a secret, Cochran had her bachelorette party the week of May 11, and Gilbert says his bachelor party is coming up shortly. And he confesses they have already had to move the wedding date once after he “screwed up” and accidentally spilled the beans. While he will only confirm that the new date is “real soon,” Brantley says his busy tour schedule means “I will be pulling up to the wedding, like, sliding in my driveway sideways from the road. But after that we get to go away for seven or eight days, so I’m really excited about that.”
Cochran, who has already inspired such Gilbert songs as “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and “More Than Miles” through their on-and-off-and-now-very-much-on-again relationship, remains a muse. But since they’re getting married, he jokes, “There are some songs that nobody will ever get to hear now. They’re on the soon-to-never-be-released album.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.