When "What Happens in a Small Town" hit No. 1 on Country Airplay, it also reached No. 53 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Ell's first time on the chart and Gilbert's highest peak since 2014. There's only one way for Ell to describe how the song's success feels, even a year later: "Surreal."
Billboard chatted with both Ell and Gilbert about how their collaboration came together in the first place, how they kept the momentum up throughout the past year, and how close they've become on the hunt for a No. 1 hit.
How did this duet happen?
Ell: [Big Machine Label Group president] Scott Borchetta called us -- Brantley was too nervous because he thought I was going to say no. It took me 30 seconds listening to "Small Town" to be like, "This is such a hit. Yes, I'm in 100 percent."
Gilbert: We’d shaken hands and knew who each other were, but we never worked, wrote or played a show together. That relationship wasn’t there, and I was thinking, “It’s harder to say no to Borchetta than to me.”
A lot of the ideas [for collaborators] were crossover; pop names were on the table. The minute Scott said Lindsay, we looked at each other like, "That's the route." She’s been grinding in this genre and really hasn't been able to catch that break. She made it that much more special.
Ell: When I first didn't know him well, I really wanted to make him proud for asking me to be a part of the song. I felt like I had all of these expectations I really wanted to surpass. Now we're like brother and sister, and all that fear has been totally broken down. I'm kind of ruining his rock image, taking all these interviews being like, “Brantley Gilbert is the nicest, down-to-earth human.” [Laughs]
How do you feel like having a male and female voice on "What Happens in a Small Town" brings the narrative to a new level?
Gilbert: It really brings that angst in, seeing that both people in the song are really struggling with the one that got away. It creates that friction and brings the story full circle. It wouldn’t have been the punch in the chest that it is had we not brought Lindsay in.
Ell: Guys and girls look at memories, especially sentimental things with past relationships, differently. A guy's and girl's perspective of this scenario are both so relatable and identifiable.
Brantley, you wrote this song about a time when you and your now wife, Amber, weren’t together. What made you want to write a song about that when you’re happily married?
Gilbert: All my albums are chapters of my life. This one's [Fire & Brimstone, which arrived Oct. 4] a little more reminiscent, and we took some steps backwards and shared the journey instead of it being just a snapshot of my life. Although I am happily married, I remember when that wasn’t the case, and when my wife was the one that got away. This song was one of those that put the puzzle pieces together when it came to my wife and I’s journey.
Lindsay, how do you relate to the song?
Ell: I grew up in Calgary [Alberta, Canada], which is a city, but I can identify so much with this lyric, because everybody knows what a "small town" feels like -- whether that's your group of friends, whether that's the people you work with. I always think Nashville feels like a small town even though we're a city. It’s such a small group of people, especially in the music industry, especially in the country music industry. And you go through these things in your life that are moments of transition, whether it's a breakup or moving away or something happening in your family, and your small town knows everything.
As a songwriter, I loved the honesty in it. Sometimes being a woman and standing up for everything that you believe in is a hard thing to write, and a hard lyric to stick to. But the lyric of "What Happens In A Small Town" does that so well and so effortlessly, in such a relatable way, I've wanted to take that and recreate it, and bring it into other elements of my own album.
The song has been on the Country Airplay chart for almost a full year. How did you maintain momentum on it?
Ell: It's a game of patience. The first 30 weeks you're slowly gaining chart position, and the audience you have isn't even that big, when you break it down. It’s also making sure you have a live show and other music you can surround it with to keep fans engaged. The relatability of the lyrics is another big factor, and the melody of the chorus is so easy to get stuck in your head.
Gilbert: A six-week radio tour didn’t hurt. For us, it’s always been effective to get in front of people, remind them who you are and how much you care about your music. The finish and push week was really tough, especially when you’ve got somebody like Luke Combs on your heels that’s just been hotter than a firecracker.
You toured together this year. Did you bond over your rock influences?
Ell: There were many days on tour where we'd be talking about music or watching the Georgia ‘Dawgs game, talking about rock music. We'd talk about [Jimi] Hendrix, even old country too, like [Merle] Haggard.
Gilbert: She nerded out with my band about guitars. I tell people I play good enough to write a song that I can sing, but the way she plays makes you want to put mine in a case and never get it back out again. She mops the floor with it on this song.
What are each of your favorite male/female duets?
Gilbert: Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson.” It was just a lighthearted, going back and forth thing that I always dug.
Ell: Tim McGraw and Faith Hill had so many good duets like "Let's Make Love” -- they just have so many of them. My favorite recent duet is Lauv and Julia Michaels’ [“There’s No Way”]. The melody is just so infectious.
A version of this article was featured in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.