At a listener event at KJUG Visalia, Calif., on March 3, a woman asked Brantley Gilbert to sign her arm. She then proceeded straight to the local tattoo parlor to turn his autograph into a permanent testament of her devotion.
The scruffy country singer's fans (collectively known as The BG Nation) are rabidly loyal, and thanks to a new chart-topping hit, their numbers seem to be growing. "Bottoms Up" spent its second week atop Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in the week ending March 9. Fan fervor has been outpacing radio play as the slinky, guitar-heavy song's primary driver so far, a rarity in country: "Bottoms Up" is topping the Country Streaming Songs and sales-based Country Digital Songs charts for the fifth and third straight week, respectively.
But radio is catching on, a sign that the song could have even longer legs: It moves 18-14 on Country Airplay, and all 145 stations that report to the chart are playing it.
Gilbert, 29, knew he'd latched onto something special with "Bottoms Up," which he co-wrote with Brett James and Justin Weaver. "Brett brought his Pro Tools rig on the tour bus," says Gilbert. "After we finished it, we looked at each other and said, 'We did something special today.' "
Gilbert's fans jumped on the track, which has sold 545,000 copies since its December release, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"The fans weren't waiting for radio," says Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta. Hitting No. 1, he adds, will be "a big tool to take to radio to say people are responding."
But fans have always led radio when it comes to Gilbert. "Bottoms Up" is his third trip to the top of Hot Country Songs as an artist or songwriter - Gilbert's "Country Must Be Countrywide" and Jason Aldean's cover of his "Dirt Road Anthem" hit No. 1 in 2011. (Aldean also reached No. 2 with a cover of Gilbert's "My Kinda Party.") Gilbert's peak on Country Airplay as an artist, however, is No. 7, with the midtempo ballad "More Than Miles" in 2012.
Is radio ready to match fan excitement? KJUG PD Adam Jeffries thinks so. "For radio, he's a solid B artist and has the potential to be an A artist. He's ascending."
Borchetta and Gilbert credit much of the chart success for "Bottoms Up" to the imaginitive Shane Drake-directed video. Playing off the song's first line - "I see you and me riding like Bonnie and Clyde" - the clip features Gilbert as a 1930s bootlegger who clashes with the law. Making him temporarily trade in his baseball cap for a period-appropriate fedora required negotiating: "I said, 'I'll wear the fedora as long as I get to carry my guns in the video,' " says Gilbert, who owns two 1911 pistols. He won.
Needless to say, Gilbert, who sports ear gauges, a tattoo sleeve and more silver rings than Keith Richards, is more rough-around-the-edges than the typical country artist. His merchandise includes a T-shirt featuring his mug shot from a 2005 arrest for disorderly conduct. "I was framed," says Gilbert with a wink. "I was totally innocent."
"It took a few programmers a minute to get it," says Borchetta of Gilbert's look and sound. "Early on, people were afraid of it."
After signing a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell in 2008, the Jefferson, Ga.-native released A Modern Day Prodigal Son on Nashville indie Average Joes in October 2009. Gilbert's second album, Halfway to Heaven, released in 2010, is what caught Borchetta's attention. In 2011, Valory Music signed the singer and released a remastered version of Halfway to Heaven (combined, both versions have sold 984,000 copies, according to SoundScan).
"Bottoms Up" is the opening single from Gilbert's first full Valory release, Just As I Am, due May 19. It's also his first album since he became sober in 2011, and it mines deeply personal terrain, including Gilbert's struggles with alcohol, his breakup with country singer (and former One Tree Hill star) Jana Kramer and his spirituality.
"I'm a bad boy and an outlaw," he says, "but I'm a believer first."