Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Brantley Gilbert talks about his outsider attitude before tour kickoff in Tampa

Think of music's great microphones. You've got the scarf-bedecked stand of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. And there's the H.R. Giger-designed monstrosity used by Korn's Jonathan Davis.

It might be time to add Brantley Gilbert's brass knuckles to the list.

The spinnable knucks, tough and imposing, are a perfect fit for Gilbert, a tattooed, tight-jawed rock-styled sonofagun.

"Ain't nobody else toting brass knuckles around on stage," the country singer said by phone recently from his deer farm in Alabama. "It drove me nuts holding my hands in the same spot and not being able to do anything with it. So with the knucks on there, I can twirl it, twist it around like a little pistol, and it keeps me occupied and looks kind of cool, too."

When Gilbert kicks off his summer tour at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Friday, the knucks will be spinning as pyro and CO2 fill the air, giving fans an eyeful of his tough-guy attitude.

Gilbert, 32, has shot through the ranks in Nashville in recent years, first as a songwriter (his tracks include Jason Aldean's Dirt Road Anthem and My Kinda Party) and then as a singer, where his hits include 2013's Bottoms Up.

He's also one of those guys who's gotten lumped into this decade's "bro country" movement — a distinction he somewhat sheepisly says he was never really comfortable with.

"It sold a lot of songs, sure," he said. "But I don't know. I didn't really go for that whole movement. This is the god's honest truth: We figured out that wherever the box is in this business, in this genre, we always know where our place is, and that's right outside that box."

Like another self-avowed outlaw, Eric Church, Gilbert writes or co-writes all his own songs. And while he has no problem sitting down to write and record with Aldean and Thomas Rhett or playing stadiums with Kenny Chesney, he'd prefer to do pretty much everything his own way.

"When I came into this business," he said, "I ran everything I could on my own, and I didn't hire people until I absolutely had to have them. At first I didn't want a manager, I didn't want a booking agent, I didn't want anything. And that did give me a good bit of bargaining power, and with a lot of those decisions, it left the ball in my court. So I do have a good bit of say of every aspect of my career. That's one of the things I'm most proud of."

This tour comes on the heels of The Devil Don't Sleep, an album that hews in places toward the depth of his 2014 meditation on death, One Hell of an Amen. The title track deals in part with past battles with addiction to drugs and alcohol.

"I feel like we all have our devils in life," he said. "It's about knowing that even though things are positive and going well, you've got to keep your head on a swivel, you've got to stay on your toes because the devil don't sleep. Temptation's right around the corner."

On the other end of the spectrum is Bro Code, an "inside joke" of a song about the bro-country movement. Gilbert was conflicted about including Bro Code, thinking people might miss that he wasn't being totally serious singing about girls "standin' in my doorway, rockin' them curls" in "cutoff Daisies."

"The song was written to be kind of humorous in a little smarta-- way," he said. "But it made it. It was fun. We had fun with it in the studio."

Despite his explosive stage presence, Gilbert expects this tour to offer his fans a little emotional give-and-take: "The whole show's a roller coaster ride, but you don't want to spend too much time at the bottom of the hill. Everybody's flying high, they want high energy, they want in-your-face."

Backstage, Gilbert will be preparing for the birth of his first child this fall. On the day we spoke, the news had just come out, and Gilbert was managing a full phone of congratulatory texts and messages.

"It's been haywire," he said. "I think I've talked to everybody I've known, and a lot of people I didn't."

It'll keep his hands plenty busy all summer. He might not even need the knuckles.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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