Brantley Gilbert, 2017

Brantley Gilbert Talks Blue Collar America & His Image: 'There Is More To Me Than Tattoos & Chains'

Brantley Gilbert says one of his initial goals in the music business was pretty simple. “I wanted to sell out the Georgia Theatre in Athens,” he recalls. “It was 20 miles from my house, and it holds 900 people. I think I did that when I was 19, so everything else has been a bonus,” he says with a smile.

Since surpassing that original aspiration, sell-outs now are a regular occurrence. Billboard caught up with the singer at his Aug. 14 show at DTE Energy Music Theatre, just north of Detroit. Playing to a capacity crowd near Motor City, Gilbert says he feels blessed to have the career trajectory that he's been on since releasing his first studio album in 2009. “God’s been good, and my life story has always given me a lot to write about. There’s been some good, some bad, and some ugly. I’ve been able to share it all.”

All throughout this year’s The Devil Don’t Sleep Tour, the crowds have been packed each night, but Gilbert says that when he’s playing a city along the Rust Belt, he can feel a different jolt in the air. “These are my people. I feel like when it comes to Rust Belt states, you are talking about people who know all about hard work, and know about going through some things in life, but they keep moving and keep grinding. I like to think that one of the themes of all of our records is about getting knocked down and getting back up, and working hard - make sure you know where your heart’s at, and you’ll be alright.”

He says that he knows his fan base typically doesn’t have a lot of extra funds each week, so the fact that they choose to spend their time and money at his shows means a lot about the connection he has made with his base. “When you do those kind of numbers, it hits you harder, and makes you appreciate it that much more. These are really hard-earned dollars and blue-collar hours, and a lot of calloused hands paying good money to come and see the show. That’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

He adds that touring this year with Luke Combs and Tyler Farr as his support acts has been a blast. “I didn’t know Luke coming into the first leg of the tour, but getting to know him has been a treat. He’s insanely talented, and a lot of fun to be around. He’s absolutely hilarious, and such a great writer, too. Coming into the second leg, we’ve also got Tyler, and he and I have been buddies for a while. I feel like I’m out here with a couple of my boys – just raising hell and playing songs.”

Dustin Haney
BTS with Brantley Gilbert during his The Devil Don't Sleep Tour.

Those songs – ranging from uptempo party numbers like “Kick It In The Sticks” and his recent top 10 hit “The Weekend” to heartfelt expressions of loss such as “One Hell of An Amen” -- continue to touch the lives of his audience. He admits that he likes changing things up from time to time with his lyrics and subject matter – making audiences unsure of where he will be coming from next. “One of my favorite parts of my job is that I get to be the what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy. My records are chapters of my life, and I get to tell that story. There’s no image there that I have to uphold. As a writer, I can go outside of my box and do pretty much what I want to. As long as I stay honest and true to myself, I feel like I’m safe. The fact that these people up here can relate to my songs is very humbling, and it’s an honor for me to be that voice.”

He remembers the first time that one of his songs made an impact on someone – and says it’s a feeling he will forever cherish. “I was sixteen or seventeen, and I had written a song called ‘Modern Day Prodigal Son.’ At the time, I was playing a lot of motorcycle clubs, VFWs and places like that. I always had friends who were a lot older than me. We were sitting around one night, and growing up, I was owned by sports. I never had been around motorcycles that much. I thought that they were awesome, but I didn’t have one and didn’t think I would ever get to own one. Thanks to one of my buddies that I became really good friends with, his dad was in one of the clubs, and I started meeting those guys. I thought they were the coolest people in the world. They weren’t the richest or the most polished, but the life lessons that they had, the way they cared about each other really spoke to me. There was this one guy who ran with them, and he was this big mountain of a man. I thought he hung the moon. I saw him fight a couple of times, and thought he was bad to the bone. I looked up to him. I sat down with them one night, and they asked me to play some songs, and I played that one. After I did it, this guy came up to me with tears in his eyes. He said ‘I just thought I’d let you know that song spoke to me, and I can relate to that. My mom used to tell me some of the same stuff.’ That really blew my mind for sixteen year old to have someone in their forties that you looked up to tell you that you wrote a song that they could relate to, that really turned the tables for me. That was definitely a moment in time for me that I won’t forget.”

Of course, the voice is one part of the picture. Gilbert is also known for his chains, tattoos, and rebel image. But, if you take a moment to fully digest his four studio albums, you find there’s a lot more to Gilbert than just his visual image. In a sense – though the music and the direction are very different – Gilbert’s lyrics resonate with his fans the same way that Merle Haggard spoke to a working generation decades ago. He says his current single is a reflection of that – and a tribute to those who “get him” musically.

“That’s what ‘The Ones That Like Me’ is about. It’s dedicated to the people who know that there is more to me than tattoos and chains,” he says, though he readily admits that he understands where that reputation comes from. “Granted, it’s fair enough. I guess you kind of ask for it when every single picture of me since 2008 has me standing in the middle of a road stopping traffic with my arms crossed like I’m going to beat up the camera. But there is definitely a lot more to me – and to us as a band than tattoos and chains and the whole ‘bad-ass’ thing. That’s one side I don’t like to show more often, and it takes a lot more these days than it used to get that out of me. I really enjoy being a husband and an expectant father. It’s been great to not be in trouble for a minute. That’s pretty cool. But, when the baby is born, I’m probably going to get it all back – and then some. I’m just going to stay prayed up and I think we can hang in there and make it through it.”

Has he received any parenting advice from his mother, Becky? He says he’s gotten plenty – and considers her a sage expert. “She always has great advice. I think we all think that about our mothers. She raised me and put up with me, so she definitely has had some helpful advice to raising this little fellow.”

What is an average day on the road like? Gilbert says there was no set schedule, but offered his personal itinerary that day as an example. “I got up about seven. I’m trying to find some ‘Dad Hobbies,’ so I have been trying golf for the past four months. I got up at seven and played golf this morning. I came back, checked in with the wife, laid down for a minute, and got up and showered. Me and the guys will stand around backstage and say a prayer. We’ll catch up with each other, see where everybody’s heads are at, and make sure that we’re in the game. We’ll then say a prayer, and take on to work.”

He smiles when asked about the road life, because he stresses that it’s nowhere near as glamorous as one might think. “People ask me all the time what it’s like to travel the world and the country. I tell them that I have no idea. I fall asleep in one place and wake up in another.” But, though he might not be doing a lot of sight-seeing on the highways of America, when he gets on stage, he views the crowd as one – whether it’s his native Georgia, a working class state like Michigan, or anywhere else, for that matter. “What you do experience – in every state and every country I’ve been in – is the people. The ones who relate to these songs are more alike in a lot of ways than not. I do think that country people are country people. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture. It’s about hard work, and being outside the lines.”

With Detroit having a well-earned reputation for its rank among working class America, one couldn’t help but ask Gilbert on a Sunday evening in Michigan – if you were not a singer, and had to be back on the job Monday morning, what would he be doing? “I was one of those kids who had a bunch of different majors,” he admits. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. At first, I thought about criminal justice. Then, I looked at my friends and myself and our records, and I knew that wasn’t going to be a good call. At one point, I looked into doing some counseling or therapy, like a relationship counselor, and thank God that didn’t work out. I’d be responsible for more divorces than social media. I had a blast coaching. That was probably what I enjoyed more than anything. I coached football at the high school I went to for a little while. I really enjoyed being around the kids. That would probably be a safe bet, I guess.”

Dustin Haney
Brantley Gilbert performs during his The Devil Don't Sleep Tour.

One subject that Gilbert has no problem discussing is his faith, which comes through on The Devil Don’t Sleep album cuts like the spellbinding “Three Feet Of Water.” He says that has always been an important aspect of his life – and always will be. “We’ve always had spiritual songs on all of our records. I feel like if these records are chapters of my life, and I’m giving you the good, the bad, and the ugly, if I left my faith and the spiritual side out of them, I’d be a complete liar. I think that would be selling everybody short. That’s been the most powerful and truest thing in my life is my faith. I am a Christian. I’ve been accused of being a ‘Sunday Christian,’ and that’s all good. To me, that judgment’s not the one that counts. I have my relationship with God as I understand Him, and I feel like I need to share that with people. That’s a big part of my life. I think that’s one of the reasons that we’ve been blessed the way that we have. God knows I am going to put that in there. Who knows, if you sell a record to a guy who wants it for the fighting songs or the party songs, and he gets that record and goes home, maybe he leaves it in the player a little bit, and he’s by his self, and hears a song like 'My Faith In You' or 'Three Feet of Water' comes on, and it catches him by surprise, and he thinks ‘Wait a minute. You mean this guy who sings these songs about this other stuff is a believer.’ You don’t have to be absolutely perfect or pretend to be to be a believer. We’re all sinners.”

The Devil Don’t Sleep Tour Dates

August 17 – Harrisonburg, VA
August 18 – Fairlea, WV
August 25 – Syracuse, NY
August 26 – Essex Junction, VT
September 2 – Thornville, OH
September 3 – Key Biscayne, FL
September 8 – Bangor, ME
September 9 – Hartford, CT
September 15 – Cincinnati, OH
September 16 – St. Louis, MO
September 22 – Virginia Beach, VA
September 23 – Raleigh, NC