Between the dark clothing, the tattoos and the swaggering, hard-rock edge heard in his brand of country, Brantley Gilbert casts an intentional tough guy image.
But “What Happens in a Small Town,” a new ballad featuring guest vocalist-guitarist Lindsay Ell, provides a peek behind the mask at another part of his personality. His longtime producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Kane Brown) insists Gilbert is a “closet romantic.”
Gilbert bursts out laughing at the comment — “He would fucking say that,” the singer responds — but the story at the core of “Small Town” supports the notion. It’s a song about two people in an isolated community who parted ways and find that they can’t escape the breakup. The town is filled with people and places that reinforce their history together, and their cars periodically pass on the street, reminding them that their ex appears to be moving on with their life, even though their own existence seems to have ground to a halt.
It’s a storyline Gilbert can personally identify with. He married Amber Cochran in 2015, but they had endured a lengthy split in which they both had moved on to other relationships before reconciling. His performance in “Small Town” is a sonic flashback to the desperation and frustration he experienced during that period.
“I remember her not being in the picture like it was yesterday,” he says. “It sucked. Remembering those feelings, that’s not very hard for me to do. For five years, man, thinking about somebody every day and never really forgetting them and not really having closure there, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way that felt.”
“Small Town” owes its genesis to another set of difficult emotions. Gilbert had a meeting in September 2018 with Big Machine Label Group president/ CEO Scott Borchetta, who was laudatory about Gilbert’s forthcoming album but felt it was missing a definitive first single. Gilbert’s initial response came from the tough-guy part of his personality.
“At first, it kind of ruffled my feathers,” he admits. “We’d been working on this thing a long time, and I was so proud of the songs on it. It’s like, ‘Dude, I’ve worked myself to the bone on this record. How do I not have these singles?’ But he wouldn’t say that if he didn’t think I had something else in the tank.”
Before Gilbert even left Borchetta’s office, they placed a call to songwriter Rhett Akins (“Life Changes,” “Dirt On My Boots”) to ask for last-minute help during a road trip to upstate New York on Sept. 14-15. Akins agreed to go, though he was a tad intimidated by the deadline: They needed the song finished in time for Gilbert’s Sept. 17 recording session.
“I felt a lot of immediate pressure,” concedes Akins.
Brock Berryhill (“Good As You”) came along, and as he arrived at the Mount Juliet, Tenn., parking lot to board the bus, he flashed on “What Happens in a Small Town,” an idea he had already started with fellow songwriter Josh Dunne.
Gilbert, Akins and Berryhill knocked out an obvious uptempo song first, but once it was finished, Berryhill brought up “Small Town,” which had a working chorus and a few lines from the first verse already in place. Fortunately, Gilbert could see his own experiences in Maysville, Ga., in the storyline.
“We knew where it was going,” says Berryhill. “It was really kind of letting Brantley put himself in it.”
Akins made some minor changes to the chorus, and the full group tweaked the first verse a bit, but the rest of the song was created that day. Gilbert’s personal contributions included the “little white Jeep” and “hand-me-down Ford” that show up in the bridge.
“This song was word-for-word for me,” says Gilbert.
While Gilbert’s real-life version of the story has a happy ending, in the song, it’s never resolved, leaving the listener to wonder if the couple might reunite.
“It’s kind of an unanswered thing,” notes Akins. “It keeps saying, ‘I’m still here,’ and she’s like, ‘I’m still here,’ and it’s like, ‘We’re over, I’m done, but I can’t help but see if someone’s sitting where I used to sit in your car.’ There’s just enough space where they don’t see each other all the time, but they see each other enough.”
They wrote the song after Gilbert did a Sept. 14 show with Kid Rock in Syracuse, and the next day in Saratoga Springs, they enlisted one of Rock’s backing singers, Stacy Michelle, to sing the female part as a reference. Gilbert cut it at Starstruck just two days later with his regular guitarist, Jess Franklin, and studio drummer Chris McHugh providing much of the muscle.
Huff’s biggest challenge came in balancing the closet romantic the song revealed with the gritty part of Gilbert’s artistic persona.
“My only worry with Brantley is if you get it too soft and it’s too sweet, it doesn’t sound honest,” says Huff. “That was the first conversation: ‘As long as we can put some hair on this thing, it will be kind of cool.’ ”
Borchetta suggested Ell as the perfect female foil. Gilbert was afraid she might turn him down, so Borchetta placed the call. Ell had already become acquainted with both Gilbert and his wife, and once she heard “Small Town,” she was onboard by the end of the first chorus.
“Not only was the melody great and the track great, but the premise of the song was a thing where I was like, ‘Yes, I can get behind that,’ ” she says. Ell had experienced her own relationship breakup with radio personality Bobby Bones in the small community of Nashville’s music industry, so she was able to personalize the story in her own way. It was, she says, a “bucket-list moment” to work on the track at Huff’s house, particularly when she used one of his Les Paul guitars to craft a short solo loaded with classic-rock attitude.
“As I was playing the solo, he was changing knobs on the amp and trying to find the right tone and the right sound,” she says. “It was like Dann Huff was guitar-teching for me, and that is amazing.”
She was so driven to make the track work that she asked to come back the next day to work on it further, even though Huff was happy with the results of that first day.
“I’m pretty thorough on vocals, and she kept saying, ‘Let me do it again,’ ” he remembers. “That kind of impresses you. Same thing with the guitar. We finished the first night, and I know we spent three or four hours working on it, and I remember her saying, ‘I’d love to come back and do this again.’ ”
Valory released “Small Town” to country radio via PlayMPE on Dec. 14, and it debuted on Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs before the close of 2018. It’s currently at No. 33 after eight weeks on the Airplay chart dated Feb. 2 and No. 37 after seven weeks on Hot Country Songs.
Gilbert is encouraged by the early returns, especially knowing they passed a difficult test by writing, while under intense pressure, a potential hit that reveals personal vulnerability.
“We write year-round, and to catch lightning in a bottle doesn’t happen very often,” he says. “You don’t just sit down and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to write a No. 1 song.’ ”