Lets It Ride Down the Highway
by Danielle Speiss
For a guy that’s dubbed himself a “rebel,” a sour patch kid, and who thinks it might be cool to live like Bonnie and Clyde, Brantley Gilbert comes off pretty responsible and a bit serious. When chatting, he gives thoughtful, honest answers, although you can tell he does like to have fun. He speaks from his gut and it’s obvious he is passionate about his business.
He is a true musician and a great vocalist. His speaking voice is similar to his singing voice; raspy and mesmerizing, which is why he is a terrific Southern blues country singer. He is not just one of the new breed of country artist, but a proven talented songwriter with hits like “Dirt Road Anthem” and “My Kinda Party” performed by Jason Aldean and others. Now as a solo performer, he can carry sold-out headline shows in major arenas. He is no longer opening for the big names. Guys like Aaron Lewis, Tyler Farr and Chase Bryant and are opening for him.
As he says, anything you want to know about Gilbert, just listen to his music. It’s all the chapters of his life.
Here’s what Brantley recently had to say about his new album Just As I Am and his Let It Ride Tour.
What can fans expect you to deliver to the crowd on this tour?
We’re coming out real high energy. We’re going to come out of the gate with all the guns blazing and put ‘em back in the holster smoking. We put on the same show for ten people as 10,000, so it’s going to be a party. It’s going to be a good time.
What have you learned from previous touring that you’re going to take with you on this tour?
The main thing I’ve learned from other artists is that there’s always something to learn. To pay attention, even [to] guys that are supporting. I’ve had the opportunity to tour with a lot of big names and really successful artists. Their stage show is really probably my favorite part to watch. See how the crowd responds to what they do and what they say. You know everybody always brings something to the table that you can learn from. I think the main thing I’ve learned is to pay attention.
After being a support act over the years how does it feel to be headlining? What do you prefer, headlining or support act?
You know, man, like I said we try to put on the same show regardless of what stage or what platform we are on. Headlining and being the support act both have their positives. There’s a little less stress as a support act. The headliner carries the majority of the weight and that kind of thing. But as a headliner, you get to play a little bit longer. There’s good advantages to both. But a show’s a show. We try to put on the show we can for whatever audience we got, whatever time slot we got.
How does it feel to play a giant arena as opposed to a radio show or a festival?
Oh, it’s just like an amplified club show. A lot of the festivals are a lot of fun. They’re spread out. Depending, a lot of times they have chairs. They’re long they can run pretty late. That can be difficult sometimes, you can never get them on their feet. There’s been arena shows, they’re on their feet. Inside you can control the lights, you can control the sound a lot better. I definitely like the arena environment better. But then again, festivals have their up side, too. It’s always a good time, but I favor arena shows a little more.
Your songwriting has always made you separate from most of the other artists in your genre. What is it about your songwriting and why is it that writing your own songs means so much to you?
I am asked that question a lot. Not to take anything away from artists that don’t write their own songs, but there’s so much talent with these songwriters in Nashville and really all over the country. With other artists singing their songs, those songwriters may never get their songs out. As far as for me, it’s just always been important to me that it’s my story. You know that I put pen to paper and that I’m a part of the process. I definitely heard songs that I can relate to that I didn’t write. There’s a lot of songs I wish I didn’t write. It’s just really important to me. I think that to a lot of our supporters it’s important to them as well that I actually put pen to paper and that I am actually involved in that process. It just adds more credibility to the whole situation, knowing that these are stories about my life and things that I’ve been through. I don’t write songs about things that I haven’t experienced or been through. It’s just an important aspect for me. Songwriting’s always been really important to me. I think it’s the truest form of expression outside of prayer, putting the melody to poetry. It’s part of my job as a whole to me, part of what I love to do, the songwriting and the performing. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. I love it.
Can you name a song you’ve heard in the last ten years that you wish that you would have written?
There’s several. I could tell you one off the top of my head. Jamey Johnson’s “In Color.” The first time I heard I thought it was a well-written song from start to finish. When you hear songs like that, about things you don’t hear every other song on the radio about. That one was such a visual song. It painted such a picture. It just blew me away.
Of the different artists that you supported on tours, which one did you learn the most from in regards to live performing?
I don’t know if I could put one above any of the other ones as far as live performances go. Like I said everybody brings their own things to the table. These guys that have been in the business for a while, there’s always a lot to learn from what they bring on stage. Toby Keith is a kind of in-your-face guy. Tim McGraw is such a professional that everything is laid out and the show is really tight. So on stage I don’t know how to put one above the other. When you’re out on tour with these guys, sometimes you spend a lot of time with them and you get kind of close to them. I had that opportunity with Tim. We shared some lifestyle choices and he had a lot of advice for me. Any time you identify with somebody personally and on that level, when you take that on stage it just makes you watch that much closer.
You mentioned stress coming with headlining major arenas. What type of stress might that be?
You carry the weight of watching the numbers and making sure ticket counts are up. Anytime they are not blasting them out of the box office you wonder and try to figure out if there is anything you can to do pick them up. We just want to get as many people as we can to come out. See the show and see the support acts, so they can pass the word along and the next time we come back to town we can have more [people].
Do you think your experiences from the last year and a half will be reflected in what you are writing now and in the near future?
Definitely. Always. My records are chapters of my life. I like to tell people if you want to know me, listen to the three records I have out right now. [Then] you have a pretty good idea of who I am. The next one will be the next chapter. There’s already some pretty interesting things going on. I think we’re going to have a lot to write about. I’ve got some living to do to between now and the next one, so I am pretty excited about that whole process.
When you look at somebody like Robin Thicke, who devoted a whole album to the stuff that happened off stage in the last year, you’re not going to go to those extremes are you?
I haven’t listened to that record. That’s the first time I heard about it. Like I said the songs I write are my true life experiences and they are chapters of my life. Not necessarily in chronological on-the-record order, but if you listen to the record you can find them and kind of put together what went on. What happened and where I stand on things. Sometimes they are just about points in my life in between records where I was reminiscing back on some of the parties we had back home and stuff. Now that I live back home I am having a few more of them, so I’ll have some more stuff to write about.
How do you decide on your set list?
There’s several aspects to the songs that we pay attention to when we’re laying things down. Dealing with the familiarity of a song or what the feedback has been from it so far. A lot of these songs on this newer record, if they haven’t been on the radio. It’s interesting to see which songs the crowd really responds to. Lets you know what they are really listening to away from the show. But you always want to carry the correct energy. I try not to make it too much of a system where we go from just rocking your face off to an acoustic song. But sometimes it happens and sometimes it’s fun to take them on a roller coaster like that. So you just take the familiarity of the song and the key it’s in is always important. Guitar changes, transitions from song to song, has a lot to do with who’s got what guitar in their hand. You try your best to have everything you do be uplifting, but especially in country music there are some sad songs and you’ve got to go with them. Just finding the correct place to put them, sometimes that’s one of the hardest parts. But we have blast with it. Once you find your groove and you find your right foundation order, then you can find a place in line. If the energy is not getting where you want it to be, you can bounce around until we get them where we want them.
You had such a great year and a great career. Can you name any highlights, things that really stand out?
I can tell you that my goal in the music business was to sell out the Georgia Theater. That holds 900 people, twenty minutes from my home town. I did that around when I was twenty, so everything that has happened since then has really been a highlight but just icing on the cake. We found ourselves making new goals and trying to complete those goals every day. As far as working it goes, everybody in the organization is working it. It keeps us on our toes and keeps us working as hard as we know how.
What makes your current tour different than past ones?
Every time we head out on a tour we have different support acts. It’s always fun to see what those guys bring to the table. It can shift the whole momentum and the whole aura of a show. Right now we’ve got Aaron Lewis right before us and Chase Bryant and Brian Davis. All those guys bring something new to the table. A lot of it has to do with the changes in support acts. A lot has to do with the changes in production, how we add lights or video screens. It’s really fun to see these shows evolve. It’s almost like a transformer. You keep finding new pieces to it, new moving parts.
Can you give us an example of new stuff on your tour?
We added a large video screen in the middle. Visually I think it’s important that there’s a lot going on onstage. Not to take away what’s going on audibly, but I’ve always been visual. I like seeing things that are really cool. Plus it gives them something else to pay their attention to. So if I bust my ass on stage everybody’s not looking.
How do you and your band relax and have fun while you’re on tour?
Oh goodness, we’ve got a bunch of things we do. Everybody in my band is really driven musically. We added two new band members. Every time I turn around there’s another band member sitting in the back of the bus, or in the corner in the dressing room, just playing some different parts and getting better. That’s been really awesome to watch them.
You have a dog right?
Oh yeah. He’s actually looking out the window right now. Laziest individual God ever made. Wish you guys could see him, he’s a trip. Yeah, he gives us something to do always. It’s so funny, I sit on my bus and I think everybody that’s in my organization on the road with us stops by at one point in time to hook his leash up and take him for a walk. So he gets his exercise to say the least.
So do he and you like exploring the cities? What city do you most look forward to and what city has to out to you so far?
Everywhere we go there’s something there that’s definitely new and fun to see. But I tell people a lot of times I see a tour bus and the back stage area of the stage. A lot of times we have to pull out right after the show is up. But on days like today we get some time. If I am not writing a song, and that’s what I find myself doing most of the time. I’ve got the first of four Brian Davis albums. He’s a great friend of mine, has been for a long time one of my favorite people to write with. We’ll hide away and if we get stuck on a song we don’t get out for anything. Other times I’ll take a motorcycle out and take off and see what I can see. My motorcycle is my free bird. When I am on that thing [and] it’s just motoring on the highway, [it] frees my mind up a little bit. If I want to think about stuff, I can. Or if I want to pay attention to driving like I should, I can do that.
As an avid motorcycle guy do you bring many of your bikes on tour?
I do actually. I am lucky enough, I got a buddy named Ricky Kelley from Cool Springs, Tennessee that gave me three motorcycles to take out with me so I wouldn’t have to bring my personal ones. But to be honest with you, my newest one and my 99 I am so addicted to both of those things. I love them so much I end up bringing them anyway. I definitely do bring them out.
Do you have an opportunity to ride between cities?
We do. A lot of times before the show. I’ve met several people in several different states that will come out. If we don’t know a lot of the road systems, they tell us what roads are good to ride, with a good bit of scenery. These guys will show up and we will follow them around and get a good ride during the day.
Do you ever incorporate bikes in your shows?
Oh we definitely do. Definitely. One of the first award shows we ever performed we had motorcycles and flames and everything on stage, but they made us dump all the gas out of them. Guess it would be bad news if one of them caught on fire. But I’d love to drive one on stage and do a burn out. I think it’d be awesome but might be a little dangerous.
As a kid were there shows you saw and thought one day I’d like to have a show like that?
I remember seeing Garth Brooks. The guy just attacked the crowd. He was all over the stage, just acting crazy. I was like, “Man, if I ever perform, I want to be like that. I want to have fun and have a lot of energy up there.” I still try to do that to this day. I remember that show really rubbed off on me.
Any rock shows you saw?
Any show I saw I pulled from it. Any show can motivate you and inspire you.
How is the writing experience different on the road versus at home or in the studio?
I write a good bit at home. When I am in Nashville, I do my best to get out and write with as many folks as I can. There’s always a different room and every room has it’s own feel, depending on what kind of song you are writing. I remember we were writing “Kick It In the Sticks,” Rhett Akins and I just could not get it done in the right room. It just wouldn’t work, finding the right kind of inspiration. We loaded up in his truck and we drove out to a farm outside of Nashville. We rode around on four wheelers and set up out on the back porch in the middle of the country. He’s got a good bit of land and the words came a little easier. It has a lot to do with your surroundings. I spend a lot of time on the bus. I am kind of partial to this thing and not flying, so I pretty much live on this thing. It’s almost like writing at home. But every room’s got it’s inspiration.
Do you find that the songs you write for yourself are different than the songs you write for others?
I never sit down to write a song for anybody else. I guess I’m kind of selfish. But it’s great when you write a song and somebody else feels like they can relate to it and they would like to release it. But as far as I am concerned I never sit down to write one for anybody else. I think that’s helped me a lot of times.
How do you choose your opening acts?
That happens a million different ways. A lot of times it comes from management. We have a list of different acts that come from management. A lot of these guys I have personal relationships with, but some I don’t. I text Brian. I talked to him but I hadn’t met him before we got out here on the road. I got the chance to meet him and I actually met his folks the other night. This was the first show his mom had ever been to, his or any body’s. That was a pretty cool thing. Just getting to know these guys out on the road is part of the fun. We really just try to find the guys that will carry the energy. I knew with Brian right off the bat. It’s just him and the guitar. He’s up there ripping it. He’s having a blast and it just steps up as the show goes along. Everyone we have had in the past has done a wonderful job. I try to keep it around what our demographics really like too. It would be kind of mean of me to put someone who is really far away from my sound musically. It would be like throwing them to the wolves. Got to find somebody who is pretty close to the same sway.
Have you thought about collaborating with a guy like Aaron or Tyler Farr?
Oh definitely. The first collaboration I did I had a blast with, Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore. I think a lot of people thought we did that because we were label mates, but those guys are actually buddies of mine. We hang out and we tour together. We have a ball so that was a blast. Any time guys get out on the road or we are on tour together, it’s always an opportunity to write and tap into a whole new catalog. It’s always fun to see what you can come up with.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 14, 2014.
Photos ©2014. Courtesy of Valory Music Group.