Between the darkish clothes, the tattoos and the swaggering, hard-rock edge heard in his model of nation, Brantley Gilbert casts an intentional powerful man picture.
But “What Happens in a Small Town,” a brand new ballad that includes visitor vocalist-guitarist Lindsay Ell, gives a peek behind the masks at one other a part of his character. His longtime producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Kane Brown) insists Gilbert is a “closet romantic.”
Gilbert bursts out laughing on the remark — “He would fucking say that,” the singer responds — however the story on the core of “Small Town” helps the notion. It’s a tune about two folks in an remoted neighborhood who parted methods and discover that they'll’t escape the breakup. The city is stuffed with folks and locations that reinforce their historical past collectively, and their automobiles periodically cross on the road, reminding them that their ex seems to be shifting on with their life, though their very own existence appears to have floor to a halt.
It’s a storyline Gilbert can personally determine with. He married Amber Cochran in 2015, however that they had endured a prolonged cut up through which they each had moved on to different relationships earlier than reconciling. His efficiency in “Small Town” is a sonic flashback to the desperation and frustration he skilled throughout that interval.
“I keep in mind her not being within the image prefer it was yesterday,” he says. “It sucked. Remembering these emotions, that’s not very exhausting for me to do. For 5 years, man, eager about anyone on daily basis and by no means actually forgetting them and not likely having closure there, I don’t assume I’ll ever overlook the way in which that felt.”
“Small Town” owes its genesis to a different set of inauspicious feelings. Gilbert had a gathering in September 2018 with Big Machine Label Group president/ CEO Scott Borchetta, who was laudatory about Gilbert’s forthcoming album however felt it was lacking a definitive first single. Gilbert’s preliminary response got here from the tough-guy a part of his character.
“At first, it type of ruffled my feathers,” he admits. “We’d been engaged on this factor a very long time, and I used to be so happy with the songs on it. It’s like, ‘Dude, I’ve labored myself to the bone on this document. How do I not have these singles?’ But he wouldn’t say that if he didn’t assume I had one thing else within the tank.”
Before Gilbert even left Borchetta’s workplace, they positioned a name to songwriter Rhett Akins (“Life Changes,” “Dirt On My Boots”) to ask for last-minute assist throughout a street journey to upstate New York on Sept. 14-15. Akins agreed to go, although he was a tad intimidated by the deadline: They wanted the tune completed in time for Gilbert’s Sept. 17 recording session.
“I felt lots of instant strain,” concedes Akins.
Brock Berryhill (“Good As You”) got here alongside, and as he arrived on the Mount Juliet, Tenn., parking zone to board the bus, he flashed on “What Happens in a Small Town,” an thought he had already began with fellow songwriter Josh Dunne.
Gilbert, Akins and Berryhill knocked out an apparent uptempo tune first, however as soon as it was completed, Berryhill introduced up “Small Town,” which had a working refrain and some strains from the primary verse already in place. Fortunately, Gilbert may see his personal experiences in Maysville, Ga., within the storyline.
“We knew the place it was going,” says Berryhill. “It was actually type of letting Brantley put himself in it.”
Akins made some minor adjustments to the refrain, and the complete group tweaked the primary verse a bit, however the remainder of the tune was created that day. Gilbert’s private contributions included the “little white Jeep” and “hand-me-down Ford” that present up within the bridge.
“This tune was word-for-word for me,” says Gilbert.
While Gilbert’s real-life model of the story has a contented ending, within the tune, it’s by no means resolved, leaving the listener to surprise if the couple would possibly reunite.
“It’s type of an unanswered factor,” notes Akins. “It retains saying, ‘I’m nonetheless right here,’ and she or he’s like, ‘I’m nonetheless right here,’ and it’s like, ‘We’re over, I’m carried out, however I can’t assist however see if somebody’s sitting the place I used to take a seat in your automotive.’ There’s simply sufficient area the place they don’t see one another on a regular basis, however they see one another sufficient.”
They wrote the tune after Gilbert did a Sept. 14 present with Kid Rock in Syracuse, and the subsequent day in Saratoga Springs, they enlisted one among Rock’s backing singers, Stacy Michelle, to sing the feminine half as a reference. Gilbert minimize it at Starstruck simply two days later together with his common guitarist, Jess Franklin, and studio drummer Chris McHugh offering a lot of the muscle.
Huff’s largest problem got here in balancing the closet romantic the tune revealed with the gritty a part of Gilbert’s inventive persona.
“My solely fear with Brantley is in case you get it too comfortable and it’s too candy, it doesn’t sound sincere,” says Huff. “That was the primary dialog: ‘As lengthy as we are able to put some hair on this factor, it is going to be type of cool.’ ”
Borchetta recommended Ell as the right feminine foil. Gilbert was afraid she would possibly flip him down, so Borchetta positioned the decision. Ell had already grow to be acquainted with each Gilbert and his spouse, and as soon as she heard “Small Town,” she was onboard by the top of the primary refrain.
“Not solely was the melody nice and the monitor nice, however the premise of the tune was a factor the place I used to be like, ‘Yes, I can get behind that,’ ” she says. Ell had skilled her personal relationship breakup with radio character Bobby Bones within the small neighborhood of Nashville’s music trade, so she was in a position to personalize the story in her personal method. It was, she says, a “bucket-list second” to work on the monitor at Huff’s home, significantly when she used one among his Les Paul guitars to craft a brief solo loaded with classic-rock perspective.
“As I used to be enjoying the solo, he was altering knobs on the amp and looking for the correct tone and the correct sound,” she says. “It was like Dann Huff was guitar-teching for me, and that's wonderful.”
She was so pushed to make the monitor work that she requested to return again the subsequent day to work on it additional, though Huff was pleased with the outcomes of that first day.
“I’m fairly thorough on vocals, and she or he saved saying, ‘Let me do it once more,’ ” he remembers. “That type of impresses you. Same factor with the guitar. We completed the primary evening, and I do know we spent three or 4 hours engaged on it, and I keep in mind her saying, ‘I’d love to return again and do that once more.’ ”
Valory launched “Small Town” to nation radio PlayMPE on Dec. 14, and it debuted on Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs earlier than the shut of 2018. It’s presently at No. 33 after eight weeks on the Airplay chart dated Feb. 2 and No. 37 after seven weeks on Hot Country Songs.
Gilbert is inspired by the early returns, particularly figuring out they handed a troublesome check by writing, whereas below intense strain, a possible hit that reveals private vulnerability.
“We write year-round, and to catch lightning in a bottle doesn’t occur fairly often,” he says. “You don’t simply sit down and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to write down a No. 1 tune.’ ”