Southern comfort

Brantley Gilbert in Cincinnati

By Alan Sculley

Photo: Brantley Gilbert will perform at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati on Oct. 9; photo: James Minchin III

With a string of chart-topping country hits and a pair of hit albums under his belt, Brantley Gilbert has become a bona fide headliner in the genre.

Stepping up to headlining status means Gilbert is expected to deliver a polished show that brings his songs to life and be able to work a big stage while engaging and entertaining an audience numbering well into the thousands and beyond.

Gilbert, though, doesn’t seem to have found headlining arena stages that much of a challenge. He’s been topping bills since fall 2012 and looks to have taken to playing big shows like he’s been doing it all of his life.

And that makes sense when he compares the shows he does now to the ones he played while cutting his teeth and honing his performance chops coming up. “Looking back, we had the hard time, but the privilege, of actually coming up playing biker bars and little bitty college bars,” Gilbert explained in a mid-September phone interview. “I’ll tell you, looking back in comparison, trying to keep an audience engaged with just you and a guitar as opposed to – even though it’s a larger audience and a larger platform – I’d say that’s 10 times harder any day of the week than [it is now] going up there with my guys [in the band] and being up there in that comfort zone. I feel [at home] up there. That’s the one time, that and hunting and on a motorcycle, those are about the three times that really there’s no stress. I’m up there to have a good time, sing songs and throw a party.”

Gilbert indeed paid his share of dues before he became a big name in country music.

Born Jan. 20, 1985, the native of Jefferson, Ga. began his music career a decade ago by playing solo acoustic gigs around the Southeast before moving to Nashville and landing a publishing deal with Warner Chappell.

Those early shows eventually gave way to full-band gigs, which allowed Gilbert to begin creating the rock-influenced country sound he envisioned for his songs.

Gilbert’s songwriting began to put him on the country music map about five years ago after Jason Aldean covered the Gilbert tune, “The Best of Me” for the Walmart version of his 2009 album Wide Open. Aldean later had a top five hit with the Gilbert tune, “My Kind of Party,” and also cut the Gilbert-Colt Ford co-write, “Dirt Road Anthem.”

As he gained songwriting credits, Gilbert also started recording his own music. Signed to the indie label Average Joe’s Entertainment, he released his first album, Modern Day Prodigal Son, in 2009.

His second album, Halfway to Heaven, was released a year later on Average Joe’s, but got a second life when Gilbert signed to Big Machine’s Valory Music imprint in 2011 and that label reissued the album.

That’s when Gilbert’s career began to take off. The first two singles from the album, “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do,” both topped Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Songs chart. By the end of 2012, Gilbert was starting to headline sizeable venues and Halfway to Heaven has gone on to sell more than a million copies.

His career and profile has only accelerated with his current album, Just As I Am, which arrived this past May. The album gave Gilbert another number one single, “Bottoms Up,” and the follow-up single, “Small Town Throwdown,” has gone Top 15 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

The new album delivers more of what fans have liked from Gilbert. There are brawny Southern rock-tinged country on tunes like “If You Want A Bad Boy,” and “Small Town Throwdown,” mixed in with a few rockers that have a slightly softer edge (“Bottoms Up” and “17 Again”) and several muscular, but tender-hearted, ballads (“I’m Gone” and “Let It Ride”).

Lyrically, Gilbert lives up to the album title Just As I Am with songs that feel authentic and lived through. That honesty is something he’s tried to convey throughout his career, and Gilbert says the image of him as a bad boy with a heart of gold is pretty close to the truth.

“I don’t write about anything I haven’t been through,” Gilbert said. “I don’t try to be somebody I’m not. They’re real stories. They really are about me. I tell everybody, if you want to get to know me, if you listen to those three records, you’ll have a really good idea. And they were released at different time periods in my life, and those are the things I was going through.”

Gilbert seemed to come along at a time when country music was ready for some guys with a little tougher exterior. Sure, the charts still feature plenty of the sensitive, romantic guys whose songs have always been safer to play on radio and have traditionally been big sellers in country.  But now, some of the hottest acts in the genre are guys like Gilbert, Aldean and Eric

Church as well as Toby Keith, who for years seemed like the lone wolf in cultivating an image of the rugged, pickup-driving, tequila-drinking, good-time guy.

Gilbert is busy bringing his brand of country to life with this fall’s second leg of his tour in support of Just As I Am. He said fans can expect him to bring the party, as he plays songs from across his still-young career.

“We’ve enhanced the production a little bit,” Gilbert said of his live show. “We have some new aspects coming out, some tricks up our sleeve. It’s still going to be all guns blazing right out of the chute. We’re going to come out with all guns blazing and put ’em back in the holster the same way. It will be a real high energy [evening]. And we’ll take you back a little bit and kind of pull some heart strings, or try to, then go right back to raising all kinds of hell.”

Brantley Gilbert will perform on Thursday, Oct. 9 at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, located at 100 Broadway. The show begins at 7 p.m. Aaron Lewis is also on the bill. For more information, please visit brantleygilbert.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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