Gilman Gives Stepanek's 'Heartsongs' A Musical Voice

Excerpted from the magazine for

Even at age 12 when he scored with his debut single, "One Voice," Billy Gilman showed unusual maturity. Now, with "Music Through Heartsongs - Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek," Gilman, who turns 15 May 24, has matured more, both in deepened voice and especially in album content.

The unique new disc, which Epic Records released April 15, matches the words of Stepanek -- the 13-year-old best-selling poet with an incurable form of muscular dystrophy that has debilitated him since birth -- with music by top Nashville songwriters, including Richard Leigh, Tom Douglas, Bruce Roberts, Randle Chowning, James Slater, and the album's producer, David Malloy. It debuted at No. 15 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart.

"It's his poetry and message. All I'm doing is putting a voice to it," says Gilman, who met Stepanek Feb. 15 on "The Larry King Show" on CNN. "My vocal coach Angela Bacari called after the show and said it would be cool to put his poems to music. I wasn't really sure, but then I saw my father crying and realized Mattie's message doesn't just reach kids but adults as well. He also touched me so deeply, because I relate to everything he's saying."

Indeed, Gilman's project essentially complements the themes of peace and hope that motivated Stepanek to write his poetry books -- all of which employ the key word "heartsongs" in the title. Stepanek defines a heartsong as the song in one's heart that helps make you a better person, and he has clearly struck a similar chord with others involved in the album concept.

"Angela called my manager Scott Siman [of RPM Management] and he was out buying the books, so it was like a chain reaction," Gilman continues. "He got the writers together, and they came up with great ideas in fitting the music to the words."

Gilman also credits Siman with enlisting record-company support, which fell in line accordingly -- even though the album did not fall into standard artist development plans.

"When we started the project, it was like, 'OK, it's certainly an interesting strategy and piece of business,' " says Sony Music Nashville executive VP/GM Mike Kraski, who then met Stepanek at a muscular dystrophy fundraiser. "He touched my heart too, and it stopped being about business and became something very personal. He's just an extraordinary young man and an incredible inspiration."

Gilman is recovering from a lengthy bout of double-pneumonia, which hit him after he finished an exhausting 90-city tour in 2001. "Plus, on top of that, my voice started changing around January 2002, and I went from mezzo-soprano all the way down to high tenor, and let me tell you, that was a drop," Gilman says. "Right now I can get down lower. You sit at the piano and say, 'There goes my high "F," '-and then my high 'C'-but you can't let it affect you because you can't stop Mother Nature, and compared to Mattie's problems, mine are like nothing."

Gilman -- who was recently named national youth chairperson for the Muscular Dystrophy Association -- modestly asserts that he only put his voice to Stepanek's poetry and message. "To sing these songs was really hard, because I had to portray his life," he says. "He had three siblings die of the same disease, and his mother is in a wheelchair with the same disease. That's a lot to digest, and [that is] why we have to get the message out as soon as we can, because it could kill him tomorrow."

Excerpted from the May 3, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

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