August 16, 2021
Out Country Singer Billy Gilman Talks 'Back 2gether Tour'
John Amodeo READ TIME: 10 MIN.
Out country music singer Billy Gilman was a Grammy-award nominee, American Music Awards Winner, double platinum-certified recording artist, and entered in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the youngest singer to ever reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Album chart. He appeared on a Michael Jackson special, and worked philanthropically with Marlo Thomas all by the age of twelve. Then he lost his voice. "My brothers' voices changed in 24 hours. But it took me a good two years," bemoaned Gilman. "I thought I could still sing my high Fs when I was 16 and 17. But those notes aren't there. It's Mother Nature at work."
Gilman, now 33, skyrocketed to fame in 2000 at the age of twelve with his hit single "One Voice," released on his album of the same name. But after losing his voice, he had to pause his successful performing and recording career to see where his voice was going to land. It may have taken two years, but Gilman landed on his feet, with his voice returning intact, still retaining its impressive flexibility.
Once his voice returned, his country music career was back on track, with Gilman touring and recording well into his twenties. In 2014, at 26, he came out as gay in a video posted on social media. "Has it hurt my career? I don't know. I'm working. I don't think so," ruminates Gilman. In fact, coming out may have boosted his career, as he learned only a year later. "That's when 'The Voice' called," recalled Gilman. After lengthy discussions with his managers, they concluded he had nothing to lose. Gilman went ahead with it, but doubted country music would resonate with judges or viewers.
"I'd love to have stayed in the country music realm; that's who I am. But what if I get on stage and sing something out of that realm?" pondered Gilman at the time. "So I picked Adele's 'When We Were Young.' I did it my way – not pop, not country. And all four chairs turned. And that's how I got through to America. They let me go to the finale." Gilman sailed right through Season 11, during which judge Adam Levine said, "You can emote so well. You can draw people in so easily. You have a very special gift, and I'm just really proud and honored to have you on my team." Gilman placed second, but may have gotten the better prize; as he notes, "After that, I got a copious number of gigs and touring."
In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the release of "One Voice," Gilman re-recorded it in a special anniversary video in 2020 that, because of the pandemic, was not released until this past February. Combined with the 2019 release of his latest single, "Soldier," Gilman has been back out on tour to promote both, including an appearance at The Music Room in West Yarmouth, MA on August 25.
While "One Voice" may have been what launched his career, it wasn't what he had in mind when he was 12. "The truth of the matter is I hated it in the beginning. I thought it was boring," admitted Gilman. "We had another song that was a beautiful story song that was supposed to be the single. Then the producers came in, and brought in this song, and told me to do it. I bit my tongue and did it anyway. Angela [Bacari, his manager] said to trust them. Being a kid, I didn't pay attention to things like charts. Singing was a game. But when the song went off the charts, I realized I was wrong."
One thing that was always true for Gilman was identifying with the song's message of hope for those who are feeling isolated, depressed, bullied, or like an outsider. Perhaps it resonated with Gilman because of his own latent sexuality. "I always had this capability of understanding things in an adult matter," says Gilman, who, even at 33, speaks like an old soul.
A sense of social justice weighs heavily on Gilman, who has always viewed his celebrity as being as much a responsibility as a privilege. The song "One Voice" deals directly with teen suicide, and pleas with those contemplating suicide to listen to the voice that calls to them to not give up on life. Gilman understood, even as he introduced the song when he was twelve, that this was an essential message.
Gilman's insight and empathy come from his own deep personal struggle. Coming out is challenging for just about any young person, but add being a famous country singer to that, and the struggle becomes even more daunting. "There were many scary thoughts related to coming out with family and with work," concedes Gilman. "It was a double whammy, and things got dark. Luckily, I got to fight through it. Mental health is such a fragile thing."
Gilman, who had been singing other people's songs in the first decade of this career, turned to songwriting in his early 20s, which helped him cope with his struggle. "The song 'She Wanted More' was the start of my journey of who I am, what I want, and when I realized I was part of the LGBTQIA+ family," recounted Gilman. "I've been with someone for a while now, and with my very conservative family, I initially referred to him as 'she.' But I realized I had to get in front of this ship and get in control, so I came out to my family." Their initial reaction was not unexpected. "They shut down, and my father said, 'I am very angry here.' And I thought, 'Uh-oh!' " Gilman begins. But what came next really surprised him, when his father said, "I'm angry that you thought I'd be angry with my son. I'm upset you didn't think we'd love you."
"That began the start of my journey as a gay man," Gilman notes. "People magazine wanted to do a cover story [on his coming out]. I turned it down. I came up with the YouTube video where I came out instead. And whether anyone follows it or not, at least I'm happy." However, within eight hours the video had gone viral with 1.7 million views, and Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight picked it up. "I didn't ask for that. I was happy with the response that I got from so many young adults and adults, especially from certain areas of country music," marvels Gilman. "I heard from kids who lived under bridges because their family kicked them out. I got involved with GLAAD and HRC to do events for them."
Of course, his professional career was another story. "I came out to my team, many of whom had been with me since I was 13, and one person in Nashville said, 'Now that you've realized who you are, we have to tell you that there had always been a stigma around you that we never discussed.'" For some time, there was friction between Gilman and the country music industry. "It's not the country music fans," Gilman explains, "It was the industry that struggled with it. But I think they are evolving, or I would be stopped dead in my tracks."
For a short while, Gilman contemplated switching to another musical genre. In 2019, he told People magazine, "I didn't leave country music. Country music left me." But he found that he wasn't ready to quit the country music scene. "That's where my bones are, that's what is my nucleus. I want to be successful in country. It's my home. I think country music will evolve," remarks Gilman. He has already noticed a shift in attitude. "Fans are a melting pot of all kinds of situations," describes Gilman. "People wouldn't come if they didn't like you."
In his upcoming show at The Music Room, Gilman will feature many of his own original songs, but the program will broaden out as well. Gilman confided, "Barry Manilow told me, 'Only so many people are going to know your songs, don't lose them. Sing other songs and sing them your way.' " Gilman heeded that advice. "When I do a show, I will include variety, but I put the storytelling country songs in that really impact people."
One of those songs is, of course, "One Voice." Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of "One Voice," Gilman wanted to do something different with it, so it wouldn't be compared with the original. The a cappella singing group Home Free had contacted Gilman to do the song, and Gilman suggested they do it together. "I was grateful they let me," Gilman admits. "This was my first work in a cappella, with the harmony, with no strings, no guitars. Home Free did the bones of the vocal arranging. There wasn't much I changed. I wanted a mystique about it: Haunting, but not dark." There is no denying the emotional power of the new arrangement, especially as presented in the video release. Gilman and Home Free's Austin Brown sing lead, and, together with the rest of Home Free, they form a Greek chorus, emotionally detached from the heartrending story playing out, yet packing a powerful punch.
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.