Brantley Gilbert on Jelly Roll and a Wave of New Country Outlaws [Exclusive Interview]
Brantley Gilbert has two words for anyone who wants to tell him that, in 2022, there's not room for rock or rap in country music. They're not the two words you might be thinking of.
A decade ago, when the "Heaven by Then" singer was just beginning his mainstream country career and figuring out a life that wasn't dependent on alcohol, he'd have used those two other words. These days, the married father of two knows how to self-edit, kind of.
"What are you? You got a PhD in your opinion?" he asks of these traditionalists.
"At the end of the day, music is music, and if you don’t like it there’s a volume button or a power button. Skip it. Kick rocks."
No, Gilbert's not as volatile as he used to be, but the swap he's made is a full realization of what he's capable of as a man and musician. That should be frightening for purists. As the calendar flips, this artist's potential is meeting a new wave of country singers that he helped bring to the conversation. Almost all of them mix genres with a heavy hand. Many of them come covered in prison tattoos.
"I feel like Jelly Roll is leading the charge," Gilbert insists. "There’s a whole underground movement that a lot of mainstream folks have no idea exists. I’m talking about the world of your Adam Calhouns, your Tom MacDonalds, your UpChurches. These guys that are very much alive and well on social media, but kind of kept hush-hush on the mainstream side of things. I feel like Jelly is opening room for them, too."
During a conversation with Taste of Country, Gilbert — who turns 38 in January — explains how the digital generation has moved this outlier a little closer to a very strange center. A tour with Five Finger Death Punch? That's not the exception any longer.
“It’s a cool time in music for me. I like when s--t gets shook up," he admits.
"Heaven by Then" is Gilbert's new song with Blake Shelton and Vince Gill, two bucket list artists for the Georgia native. It reflects a set of lost values that traditionalists will identify with.
“I feel like society might have walked off and left me, and I think I’m OK with it," the self-described "old soul" says. Find the song on his new So Help Me God album.
The following conversation was first heard on the Taste of Country Nights podcast.
Taste of Country: If I went back and told 21-year-old Brantley Gilbert that in 15 years he’d have several Platinum No. 1 songs, be married and have two kids, what would be most surprising?
Brantley Gilbert: I think wife and kids for sure. Both of ‘em I would have probably called you crazy and tried to fight you, but that was just kind of my deal back then. (Laughs)
So you never thought you’d be settled down with kids?
No. Honest to God there was a point in my life where, man, I wanted to be a biker. I was comfortable with that. I liked the people in that culture, what it meant and what it was. When I stopped drinking — when I got sober, a lot of things changed and I realized that, like, I wasn’t prioritizing any of the things I was raised to prioritize, like being a good husband, being a good dad one day.
We’re talking about the same timeframe that I didn’t think legitimately … in my mind and in my heart, I believed that I’d go in my early 30s if I made it to 30. I just didn’t think I’d be here a long time. Getting alcohol out of my life changed that. Then getting married and having kids. No dude, where I’m at right now — didn’t ever expect this ol' boy would see this.
This new album So Help Me God came without an announcement. Why?
Man, why not? We’ve been waiting years now to release an album. Every year we go to Texas with Hardy, Will Weatherly, Brock Berryhill, the Phillips boys … it’s just a laundry list of the guys that are really killing it right now. Those trips are a week long. We got two of those under our belt worth of songs and I’m kind of a song hoarder, meaning probably one of the worst habits of my career is I freaking hog songs. I don’t pitch ‘em. Because I think I’m going to cut all of them. In my mind, we’re going to release 16 records this year, knowing that’s not possible.
I would like to put something else out. We’re planning on doing a lot next year. Jelly Roll let it slip the other night that we’re actually working on an EP, if not a whole record right now together. I know he’s got a project that he’s coming with. There’s a lot in the windshield for next year.
Tell me how you linked up with Jelly Roll.
Neither one of us can remember exactly how it happened. But I can tell you the first song I heard of his is a song called “Fall in the Fall.” It was him and Struggle (Jennings). I loved that song. I loved the way that it was written, I loved what it said, I loved that it was unapologetic about what it was. I had heard that he was the real dude, but guys like us recognize each other in the room. When I met him it was like, immediately, this dude is real.
In my opinion, as soon as you get a face tattoo, that’s next level. So as soon as I saw him I was like, all in.
(Laughs) Almost everybody in our business is obsessed with being real and authentic. It don’t get more real and authentic than that bubba. He’s telling you stories that are true that are uncomfortable. When you ask about his story and you sit in the room, some people, they get uncomfortable. And I can relate to that.
My story makes people uncomfortable. But the dude is putting it all out on the table. He’s writing songs about things that people don’t have conversations about. He’s talking about things that aren’t easy that aren’t easy to talk about. He’s talking about addiction. He’s talking about growing up in the streets. And this dude really did. He’s a gigantic white dude that knows everything, but he’s a street guy. I have a mad respect for that. This dude made something and then something of himself without having any kind of road paved for him. This trucker cut a trail through the woods to get here.
He’s a genre-bending artist who does rock, rap and country. You’re on tour with Five Finger Death Punch, obviously not country. Where does that end? Will you keep touring with rockers?
I think we’re gonna keep mixing it up man. Post-COVID touring is a little bit weird. We’ve always known where it belongs when it came to this genre, right? As long as there was a box, we belong right on the outside of it, at a safe distance. We can reach out and touch it if we needed to get something on radio.
But let’s be honest, stylistically, on all my records from the beginning, there’s R&B vibes, there’s hip-hop vibes, there’s rock vibes — you can find a little bit of everything. I’ve always been a guy that listens to a little bit of everything. But I write about my life. I grew up in a small town, did s--t jobs, worked farms — I’m a country dude. That’s really the only life I knew, being country and a little bit of the biker world.
You can call it Southern rock or rock or whatever. Man, I just think it’s music. I like songs — especially right now the way people are consuming music, it’s a song at a time at best — I feel like we don’t have a lot of room to try to turn songs into something else. Because there was a time — and you can hear this on my records — we’d try to take a song that had a lot of hip-hop influence or a lot of rock influence and we’d try to make it really country and it came across as apologetic. And I’m not going to make that mistake anymore.
Now, the way people listen to music, if a song is a rock song, then by God let’s bring the guitars and go to work. If it’s got a hip-hop vibe, you’re going to hear a track. You can't stay in your little comfort zone when things start shaking. You either gotta be something and be about it, or you go away.