Few could’ve predicted that Brantley Gilbert would have such success translating his cult following of small-town teens and twenty-somethings, bikers and vets into a mass audience. The Georgia native was among the first in country music to incorporate Mohawk- and dreadlock-sporting hard rock musicians into his backing band, pilfering the guitarist from a Christian alternative metal outfit. Another thing Gilbert brought over from rock was an insistence on recording only his own, autobiographical songs.
Half a dozen years into his recording career, his chain-sporting, confessional approach is serving him strikingly well. His most recent album, Just As I Am, debuted atop the Country Albums chart, reclaiming the spot when it was re-released in an expanded Platinum version, and its third single, “One Hell of an Amen” — an anthem aimed at channeling grief into pride — is currently hovering in the Top 10 of the Country Airplay chart.
“One Hell of An Amen” hasn’t exactly blazed up the charts, but it’s hung on through the first half of this year. Why do you think the song has had such staying power?
We released it in November. The charts freeze in December. When we came back I was going, “This song is getting a slow start.” I decided to go out and do a radio tour again. I went out and I told the story. I think once people realized it was a true story and it wasn’t just a song — it was about two people that actually changed my life — they took to it. I think it got real for them, too. It’s changing lives. This song, I can honestly say, out of all the singles I’ve completed, this one’s actually doing something. We’ve released big songs before, and they did things.
One of the song’s major themes is losing a loved one who’s serving on the front lines. Didn’t you give your tickets to the CMT Music Awards to a military veteran and his wife?
We actually text or talk every day. He had been kind of curious; he’d seen award shows. Me and [my fiancé] Amber weren’t able to go, so I was like, “It’d be pretty cool if we could send them.” …He sent me some pictures during the show, him and his wife.
I think it probably meant more to him than it ever would have to us. The people that knew he was there, and the reason that he was there, I think that did more for them than being able to see me. You know what I mean? They’ve seen me before.
So where were you when this was going on?
Oh, I can’t tell you. [laughs]
You recently released the platinum version of your album Just As I Am, and either wrote or co-wrote each of the 19 tracks. Not every country artists writes all of their own material, but you’ve said your songwriting is essential to making personally authentic music. Where did that idea come from?
I’ve always written everything. …I think it’s just really being able [to get my] two cents in, and say, “I did write this song and it did come from my heart and my brain.” My co-writers will tell you I’m kind of a stickler. It’s got to be something that’s based on something that happened to me, that’s heavy on my heart, that I saw somebody close to me go through. …When I perform them, I think there’s a whole other level of expression and passion in there because they are so close to my heart.
Do you feel it really matters to your fan base that they’re hearing lyrics and melodies that you wrote?
I do. You know what’s funny? I’ve been asked that question by people in the business several times. …Like, “Do you think people really care that you write every song that you put out on record?” My answer is always, “Yes.” And whether or not they do, it’s important to me.
This summer you’re doing stadium dates with Kenny Chesney. How would you say his crowd compares with yours?
It’s completely black and white. …When we’re on stage, it’s pretty intense, real loud. They got their rock faces on, the head banging. A lot of the crowd that doesn’t usually listen to that kind of music is having fun with it, because they see how much everybody else is having fun. But when Kenny Chesney comes on stage, it’s something like I’ve never seen. We’ve all talked about it, my crew. These people have literally got their arms around each other singing “Kumbaya.” There’s a healing, feel-good, buddy-buddy [feeling] going through the stadium of thousands of people. You can watch that transition happen.
This story originally appeared in the July 25 issue of Billboard.