Rough-and-rowdy Brantley Gilbert grows older and wiser.
STORY BY JIM HANNAFORD
If Brantley Gilbert ever needs a refresher on what’s important in his life, he can just look in the mirror at his own tattoos. The big cross on his chest represents his love for Jesus. The clocks on either side of it tell him that time is passing quickly, and they also commemorate the birth dates of his two young children. And then there are those seven big black letters stretching across, the ones that Aretha Franklin sang about so memorably. He still remembers the sharp pain from RESPECT being permanently inked across the top of his torso.
“It’s kind of a constant reminder that respect is big in my life,” says the rough-and-rowdy country artist. “It’s something that I’m serious about—not just making sure that I’m being respected but that I give out what I expect. You don’t give it away too easily, but there’s nobody that deserves any disrespect right off the bat.”
People ask about his tattoos a lot, and he doesn’t mind talking about them. “They’re a part of my life and they tell a story, all of them do,” he says.
The same can be said for his songs. His particular brand of high-energy country music has rock and rap elements to it, but there’s also a softer, sentimental side to Gilbert. While he is widely known for his boisterous party anthems, a spiritual thread weaves more quietly through his songbook. For every “Bottoms Up” and “Kick it in the Sticks,” there’s a thematic flip side like “My Faith in You” or “Fire & Brimstone,” which is the title track of his fifth and latest album. “I tell folks that if you want to know who I am or want to know my story, listen to those records, and that’ll tell you everything you need to know,” he says. “And if I left my faith out of that, it would all be a lie.”
As a songwriter, he says, he loves it when songs borne of his own personal experiences hit home with strangers. “When a song of mine really connects with somebody, it’s another level,” he says. “It’s the most rewarding part of my job.”
DIRT ROAD LEGACY
At the age of 36, Gilbert hasn’t completely let go of his bad-boy biker image, even while embracing family life along with his hometown sweetheart, Amber. The place they call home is the little town of Maysville, Georgia, which is just outside Athens and not far from where they both grew up. Their son, Barrett, is almost four, and his sister, Braylen, is coming up on two. “Living here (instead of Nashville) keeps me grounded,” he says, “and that’s worth its weight in gold.”
He finds inspiration there, too. He first recorded “Dirt Road Anthem” (with Colt Ford) in 2008, and Jason Aldean’s version later, became one of the biggest-selling songs in country music history. That song and others, including “What’s Left of a Small Town,” have their roots in that same Georgia dirt. The long stretch of gravel that runs past the landmark Potts Farm and helped to make Gilbert famous is just a five-minute drive from where he lives today.
Musically, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a big influence on Gilbert. He credits an old friend and neighbor, singer/songwriter Corey Smith, with helping to pave his career path. They did lots of shows together when Gilbert was just starting out, and Smith had a few years of experience on him. “He was one of the first to show me that it’s cool to write about home and about the people and places and the lessons learned there,” says Gilbert. “If it weren’t for him I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
YOUNGER, WILDER DAYS
When he was still a kid, Gilbert’s family took a trip to Indiana to visit his mom’s family. A long rumbling procession of black leather and chrome passed them on the highway and left a lasting impression. When the family got back home,Gilbert put baseball cards in the spokes of his bicycle wheels and started recruiting neighborhood pals to ride with him. It wasn’t long before he would ride for real with a grown-up biker gang. “I’ve been through some different chapters in life, like we all have, and some of mine were a little darker than others,” he says. “I hung around a really rough crowd for a while.”
He stopped drinking almost 10 years ago when he realized his lifestyle was already taking a toll on his body. His big turnaround came as “Country Must Be Country Wide” became the first of his seven number-one hits. He and his band and crew were getting ready for a big blowout celebration when he had the sobering thought that he would be partying it up anyway, no matter where his song was on the charts. “I’m good with it,” he says of his breakup with alcohol. “The only thing that bothers me is when people who drink don’t want to drink around me. One of the things that’s helped me most is I don’t look at it that I can’t drink, I look at it as I don’t drink. It’s something I choose not to do.”
And it’s not that he’s become a choir boy; it’s just that he wanted to make time in his life for other activities that would be more fulfilling. “Having kids and being married pulled me in another direction, and I’m really happy with what I have right now. God’s blessed me with an amazing family.”
He admits, though, that he will always feel another tug. “I think that rough crowd will always be my people. A lot of those people are the ones you’ll see at our shows, and they’ll always be my folks.”
STICKING TO HIS GUNS
There are a lot more tattoos to talk about, including some big ones he can’t see in the mirror. A pair of pistols adorns his back, and below them is the text of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The twin handguns are the likeness of the real-life matching Kimber 1911s he brandished in the video for “Bottoms Up.” They have silver handles and sequential serial numbers and are personalized with his familiar BG logo.
He had them inked along with his right to bear arms in 2015. “It was just something I felt strongly about,” he says. “And that’s how I feel about the Second Amendment and gun ownership in general,” he says. “It’s not debatable at all to me. Our founding fathers put it there for a reason, and there’s a reason it’s the second one, and not further down the list.”
To him, guns are as big a part of his culture as riding motorcycles on the back roads, partying with his friends on a Saturday night, and probably seeing them again in church on Sunday morning. “I was brought up around guns, but also around gun safety,” Gilbert says. “I was taught to respect them and to know that they are tools of war. They were designed to hurt and take lives, so they are to be respected, and gun ownership is a responsibility.”