Stilistisch fühlt sich der Singer-Songwriter aus Georgia zudem im Heartland-Rock von John Mellencamp und Bruce Springsteen zu Hause. Er schlägt einen – immer dramatischen aber nie überspannten – Bogen zwischen harten Rockern, Power-Balladen und Radio-Hits. Der Tradition des Country-Songwritings folgend, schreibt Gilbert authentische, autobiografische Geschichten entlang der Zickzacklinien des Lebens.
Mit 13 fing er damit an, Gitarre zu spielen und Songs zu schreiben. Ähnlich wie bei Jack Johnsonbegann Brantley Gilberts Karriere als Musiker nach einem schweren, beinahe tödlichen Unfall. 2004 kam er mit seinem Truck von der Fahrbahn ab, das Auto überschlug sich mehrmals. Kurz danach schrieb er die Songs "A Modern Day Prodigal Son" und "Indiana´s Angel", zog 2009 nach Nashville und veröffentlichte beide Songs auf seinem Debütalbum beim Country-Indie-Label Average Joe´s Entertainment. Dort erschien auch sein Durchbruchs-Song "My Kinda Party", den der Country-StarJason Aldean aufgriff und sein 2010 veröffentlichtes, preisgekröntes Platin-Album "My Kinda Party" sogar nach ihm benannte. Brantley hatte den Fuß in der Tür. Kurz nach Erscheinen seines zweiten Studio-Albums Halfway to Heaven warb ihn der Country-Major Big Machine Records ab und veröffentlichte eine zweite Version dieses Albums, die zwei Nr-1-Hits in die Country-Charts brachte: "You Don´t Know Her Like I Do" und "Country Must Be Country Wide".
Gilbert gewann in den vergangenen zwei Jahren rund eine Handvoll Country-Medien-Awards (ACAs, CMAs, ACMs) und hatte einen Gast-Auftritt in der Country-TV-Serie "Nashville". Auch die Songs seines dritten Studio-Albums Just As I Am stammen aus seiner eigenen Feder, aus einem Fundus von 250 Demos wählte er sie aus. Einige schrieb Gilbert mit renommierten Co-Autoren wie Dallas Davidson, Rhett Atkins oder Ben Hayslip. Es sind Momentaufnahmen aus der Zeit zwischen Halfway to Heaven und heute. Eigenen Angaben nach eine Zeit mit vielen Höhen und Tiefen für Gilbert, der seine 2013 geplatzte Verlobung mit der Country-Sängerin Jana Kramer bislang nie öffentlich kommentierte, der Verflossenen nun aber großzügig Platz auf dem neuen Album einberaumt hat.
Auch wenn er mittlerweile in den USA die Stadien füllt, hat Gilbert keine Star-Allüren, sondern bleibt mit seinen – vornehmlich unter-30-jährigen – Fans auf Augenhöhe. Entscheidend für seinen Erfolg war immer schon seine loyale, starke Fangemeinde, die BG-Army. "Wir haben keine Fans, wir haben Freunde", kommentiert der Mann, der momentan in Nashville den Nerv trifft und nach eigenen Angaben keine fünf Minuten stillsitzen kann. Brantley Gilberts stetig wachsende Anhängerschar ist einfach so normal durchgeknallt wie er – "his kind of crazy”.
It's title is a shrug, but it's also defiant, an admission that Brantley Gilbert can't be anything but who he is -- a stance adopted by outlaw country singers since the early '70s, or perhaps earlier. Gilbert does welcome comparisons to Waylon and Willie -- the former more than the latter; he does really like such niceties as swing or jazz -- but he's a child of the '80s, raised on arena rock and volume; the first Hank he knew was Jr., not Sr. That may mean he favors amplification -- every song on Just as I Am feels cranked to 11, even the heartbroken ballads -- but he's not a guy who lives in the suburbs, strutting in tight jeans as he sings about trucks. He may live in the same world as Luke Bryan, but he's not pining for a past he never experienced, not even when he's singing about how his baby is Guns N' Roses, a band who had their breakthrough two years after his birth -- he's a sober-minded singer whose breakthrough hit "Bottoms Up" marched to a minor-key riff that echoes throughout Just as I Am, Gilbert's second major-label album. It's a muscular and knowing collection of contemporary country -- country that feels rooted in wayward traditions while still nodding at the conventions of Nashville. Unlike Eric Church -- a singer who certainly influenced this 2014 set -- Gilbert neither favors the sheer noise of arena rock nor celebrates the swaggering outsider stance of Church. Gilbert doesn't romanticize, which is what gives Just as I Am its resonance: he's an unfussy songwriter, a singer without affection, a musician with good instincts that never celebrate his taste. He soldiers on, playing music that seems grounded and present in its era, even as it references older sounds, perhaps even styles he's never grasped. He's not carrying the torch for any specific singer or songwriter but rather an attitude, standing for the guy who'd rather tear things up than recede into the corner. He's big, strong, and muscular, creating a roar grounded in '70s outlaw and '80s arena rock, but Gilbert is nervy, loving his well-known heritage but never wanting to succumb to the quirks everybody else knows. This tension gives Just as I Am energy, but its endurance is due to his craft; he's smart and sharp, playing with conventions and revealing the truths in their cliches, perhaps not even wittingly. Gilbert is hardly a savant -- there's a clear indication he knows what he's doing -- but he's not writing for an audience, he's inhabiting his time and speaking plainly and clearly, and that's why Just as I Am works so well; he's an outlaw with no desire to rebel, an insider who doesn't belong, so his music exists just outside of the perimeters of what is accepted and is all the more powerful for it.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Like Texas’ Red Dirt artists, A Modern Day Prodigal Son doesn’t focus on what is popular in Nashville at the moment but what actually works for Brantley and his tenor voice. The album, which features 13 tracks, kicks off with a story song about how high school romances can indeed become longtime romances, even when they should’ve probably ended after High School. The romance continues and the way they keep a young relationship strong (even when it’s normal to go through a plethora of relationships during the 15-25 decade) is to remember what got them started in the first place, that freshman year. “What’s Left Of A Small Town” is another well-written story about the ending of a small town and how it has changed but it’s still where Brantley Gilbert is proudest to be from. It’s a story that could be written about any small town as they’ve moved on or become homogenized by the encroachment of urban sprawl and housing developments. With an acoustic guitar leading the melody in the opening of “G.R.I.T.S.,” the song (listen here) really feels like something that could work well on the country radio as Brantley sings about the beauty and charm of southern girls who “have every head turning” in a club or bar but “know their roots” and “love their mom and daddy and the lord to death.” It’s a well-worn theme but it sounds refreshed on this southern fried rock track that’s likely a big ole hit when performed live. While Brantley’s great with the party songs, when you hear his soft acoustic-based ballads, this is where the artist really comes out. “Whenever We’re Alone” speaks of small moment pleasures between a man and a woman while the title track, with gentile piano and guitars leading the way, finds Brantley singing a story about what feels like his own life. It’s a song that recalls the best ballads from Garth Brooks and the chorus has a powerful hook that will have you singing along. “The Best of Me” and “Picture On The Dashboard” both follow the soft/gentile acoustic ballad approach as well. While Brantley can and does do the up-tempo stuff quite well, and it is needed for the live shows, it is the ballads that stick with you the longest. For a debut record, Modern Day Prodigal Son shows remarkable potential. It’s potential that shows that Gilbert was right to choose to do music instead of another career path and it also shows why he’s able to play before packed houses while touring Georgia and other states in the southeastern part of the USA.
Words: Matt Bjorke
It wouldn't be out of line to call Brantley Gilbert a country rocker or an outlaw country artist, but don't let those terms conjure nostalgic images of Willie and Waylon in your head, because they mean something different when applied to Gilbert's generation of Nashville rebels. For one thing, he's nobody's cowboy -- in an industry where image tells all, Gilbert's leather jacket, motorcycle, and close-shaved cranium make him look more likely to pal around with Rancid than with Tim McGraw, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. While Gilbert has cited the influence of fellow Georgians R.E.M. and the B-52's, these inspirations are inaudible on his second album, Halfway to Heaven. A more accurate assessment of his musical roots is made on his Southern pride anthem "Kick It In the Sticks," where he shouts out "AC/DC, Hank, Skynyrd, and George Strait" over huge, hard-rocking riffs worthy of the first name on that list. Exactly which Hank he's referring to is uncertain, because with an artist like Gilbert, it's just as likely to be the second or even the third. Of course, the equally tough-sounding "Country Must Be Country Wide" does indeed find Gilbert singing about radio stations "playin' Cash, Hank, Willie and Waylon," but the biting rock feel running throughout much of Halfway to Heaven suggests that those are bad-ass icons emblazoned on his personal Mt. Rushmore more than direct musical influences. Granted, romantic ballads like "My Kind of Crazy" and "Fall into Me" are the kind of tunes that seem tailor-made for the top of the country charts, and they're obviously a part of what Gilbert is about, but everything else about Halfway to Heaven seems to mark Gilbert as a rock & roll roughneck, albeit one with the requisite soft underbelly.
Words: James Allen