Billy Gilman takes the stage like a seasoned pro. Dressed in black jeans and a white T-shirt, the 12-year-old doesn’t seem to notice the steam rising from the Wal-Mart parking lot where he’s playing a free outdoor concert near Nashville.
“How y’all doin’?” Gilman hollers in his best imitation of a Southern accent before kicking into an uptempo number from his debut record, One Voice.
The Rhode Island native gets an enthusiastic response from the 200 or so fans who’ve gathered around the portable stage, eating ice cream sandwiches to beat the heat. Most notable is the gaggle of pre-teen girls who line the edge, staring intently as the pint-sized singer works the crowd. Inside the store, several more wait for Gilman to sign autographs. Anna Robinson, an attractive 15-year-old from Hendersonville, Tenn., admits waiting for two hours to be the first in line.
“He’s a cutie, man,” she explains. “He’s just so adorable, and he can sing.”
Gilman’s appeal isn’t limited to teenagers. Standing just behind Robinson is Barbara Willard, a woman who drove more than an hour from her home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to secure Gilman’s autograph for her husband.
“My husband loves him,” Willard says. “He thinks he’s just the greatest thing. My husband doesn’t know where I’m at though. This is a surprise. He’s having surgery tomorrow, and I’m going to put in the tape on our way home.”
The single “One Voice” truly has struck a chord with children and parents alike. The tune drove sales of Gilman’s album, One Voice, to 29,854 during its first week of release, according to SoundScan figures. The record debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard country album chart, and the song bumped Faith Hill from the top spot on the Billboard country singles sales chart. Gilman already has made appearances on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, the Grand Ole Opry and the Academy of Country Music Awards, where he received a standing ovation after performing with Asleep at the Wheel. All of a sudden, it seems Billy Gilman is everywhere.
“This is the biggest day of my life, ’cause I’ve always wanted to conquer my dream and make an album to send to all the fans,” Gilman says in a phone interview from his home in Hope Valley, R.I., on June 20, the day One Voice was released.
“That was a lot more than any of us expected,” says Scott Siman, Gilman’s manager, about the first-week sales figures. “When we first talked about launching Billy, had we sold 5,000 records we’d have been really happy.”
Though both Gilman and his record label were excited to see such a diverse turnout for the Nashville Wal-Mart appearance, being away from home on the occasion of your first record release isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“Believe it or not, one of the local record shops, called Strawberry’s, they’re having a pizza party in regards to my album coming out,” Gilman explains. “I’ll be gone. I’ll be in the air. Doesn’t that stink? All my cousins are going, though.”
Such is the dichotomy of Gilman. One minute the kid is working the room like a veteran performer, the next he’s talking about pizza parties. That dual personality is clearly evident on his debut record, which includes teenybopper fare like “I Think She Likes Me” alongside adult themes like the Tammy Wynette hit “’Til I Can Make It On My Own.” When asked how he can sing such mature material, Gilman says he was exposed to the music of Wynette, George Jones and other traditional country artists early by his parents and grandparents. And besides, he’s already had his own experiences with love.
“Oh yes, I’ve had a girlfriend,” he says plainly. “So all those songs pretty much fit my lifestyle.”
And what does his mother think about her pre-teen son singing of kissing and heartbreak?
“Ay, yi, yi,” Gilman exclaims. “She goes, ’You’re too young!’ I go, ’No I’m not. I’m almost 13, Mom, there’s nothing wrong with having a girlfriend.'”
Fran Gilman says her son was “never really a kid.” He grew up outside Providence, in Hope Valley, which he describes as a Mayberry-type town where “it’s very quiet and nothing unusual happens and nothing bad happens.” It was there that a 3-year-old Gilman first heard Pam Tillis sing on a TV special. From that moment on he was hooked. He began singing for everyone, even for show-and-tell at school. At 8 years old he began taking vocal training from Angela Bacari, now his co-manager. Bacari gave his tape to a friend, saxophone player and former Roomful of Blues member Greg Piccolo, who passed it along to his friend, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson. Benson, a former child performer himself, was knocked out by what he heard.
“He sings, well, not like an adult, he sings like Billy, but he sings as well as an adult,” Benson says. “That’s something that doesn’t come along everyday.” Go here for Benson/Gilman interview video clip.
Benson invited Gilman, who was then 10, down to his studio in Austin, Texas, where the two cut a demo together. Later, on his tour bus at a celebrity golf tournament, Benson played that demo for Siman, who also manages Tim McGraw.
“There were three things that stood out immediately,” Siman recalls. “One, it was a great voice. Two, it was a young boy, and there has never been a young boy in country music, at least to my knowledge. And three, I thought it was a fascinating choice of song they played me, which was ”Til I Can Make It On My Own.'”
After hearing the tape, Siman wanted to see Gilman perform, so Benson arranged for his new protege to join the Wheel for a performance at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon. After seeing him live, Siman was committed to finding the kid a record deal.
“The funny thing is, we were actually supposed to go up there [Rhode Island] with the folks from Lyric Street to a concert to see Billy,” Siman says. “They had a conflict at the last moment and had to cancel. So, I called up [Epic Records’] Blake Chancey and said, ’Hey, do you want to go to Rhode Island and play some golf this weekend?’ I said, ’Let’s go up there and hear this kid, he’s opening for Alabama, and we can hit some golf balls around.'”
After that trip, Gilman was signed to Epic Records, which put him in the studio with veteran producers David Malloy and Don Cook. The two men wrote “One Voice” specifically for the project, which has proven to be a good move. Radio jumped on the single, and the buzz began growing about Gilman’s talent.
Because his career momentum is going full force, Gilman is no longer attending public school like his younger brother, Collin. He is being privately tutored and has just finished up work for the sixth grade. Despite his busy lifestyle and preternatural poise onstage, the youngster insists he is still just a kid. He likes to swim, rollerblade and hang out with his friends when his hectic schedule allows.
“We call each other every now and then,” he says. “Most of my friends live just five minutes down the road, so they just ride their bikes over and we have fun. I go to my brother’s baseball games, and I’m signing up for golf.”
Unfortunately, those golf lessons recently caused him to postpone an appearance on NBC’s Today show and a few concert dates. A stray golf ball hit Gilman in the mouth, knocking out his left front tooth. Luckily, the dentist was able to reinsert the tooth, and Gilman is doing fine. The doctor prescribed “popsicle therapy” for his recovery.
When Gilman is out on the road, he mostly travels with one of his managers. His mom stays home with his eight-year-old brother during the school year and comes out with Billy in the summertime. Fran Gilman says she’s perfectly comfortable with Billy being chaperoned by his managers because they treat him like one of their own kids.
“As a mom, I’m getting a lot of feedback like, ’How can you let this happen? He’s only 12 years old,'” Fran Gilman says. “I would rather have it done this way so I can guide him, get him with the right people, than to say ’No, we’re not going to do this right now, Billy. You’re going to go to school and be a regular kid.’ Say he gets mad or angry at 16 or 18 or whatever and says, ’You know, I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m not going to school anymore. I’m going to Nashville.’ You never know. I can honestly say that when he’s gone, I’m comfortable. I know I’m happy with who he’s dealing with. They’re the kindest, nicest people.”
Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee knows the scene all too well. She herself was a child star, charting her first song in 1957 at the age of 12. Ironically, Siman’s father, Si Siman, was a booking agent and music publisher who worked with Lee in the 1950s. Gilman recently broke Lee’s 43-year-old record as the youngest charting artist when “One Voice” debuted on the Billboard country singles chart in May (he was still 11 at the time).
“Records are made to be broken, and, Good Lord, I held that one a long time, so that’s pretty darn good,” Lee says. “I’m so happy for him. He seems like he loves it, and you can’t fake that.”
Lee, whose youthful exuberance earned her the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite,” has been reflecting on her own show business experiences for a book she’s writing about her life. Not many people have been in Gilman’s shoes at such a young age, but Lee can speak with the clarity of someone who has been there and lived to talk about it.
“He certainly has the talent to do this, but it’s awfully hard when you’re young like that,” Lee says. “For one thing, he’ll be facing his voice changing. They’ll just have to wait and see how it’s going to do. Another thing he’ll be facing is working a lot.”
When asked, Lee offers some advice that she says it took her too many years and a lot of grief to learn.
“I would tell him to learn how to say no,” she says. “For many years I went through that syndrome where I couldn’t do it [say no], and it jeopardized my health and my family life … If you’re having hit records, you do have to get out there and do the dates while you’re in demand, but you also have to know there are other important things in life. You have to pace yourself and your career.”
Siman says pacing is just what they’re doing with Gilman. The young singer recently made a big splash at Fan Fair and on the George Strait Music Festival, but instead of booking him on a major tour this summer, he’ll play only select dates. The plan will allow Gilman the time to reach a broader audience through TV and radio appearances. Requests have been pouring in.
“Sending him out on the road for three months would just be a bit too much,” Siman says. “He wants to, though. He wants to have a bus and a band. He’s ready to go. The artist is willing, but the manager is hesitant. We’ve got plenty of time to be a road dog.”
Gilman will, however, be back in the studio this month cutting a Christmas album. It’s a project the label and management wanted to get in before Gilman hits puberty and faces a voice change.
“We have thought about that, and clearly that’s one reason we want to do a Christmas record,” Siman says. “I think years from now we’d look back and really regret it if we didn’t take the opportunity to do that. There’s certainly not a race to see how many pieces of product we can get before his voice changes or anything like that.”
Gilman says he’s thrilled about heading back to the studio, and he already knows what the album will include.
“I think two of the songs are new,” he says. “One is called ’Santa.com,’ and the other one is called ’Mistletoe From Heaven.’ But most of them are like ’Silent Night,’ ’O Holy Night’ and I think I’m doing an Italian song in it, too. How I’m going to learn that, who the heck knows?”
To hear him tell it, Gilman is living his dream and loving it. The performing is great, but he admits the travel “gets a little boring when you’re on a six-hour flight to Las Vegas or something.” The exceptional youngster generally shrugs it off like a veteran, but one who perhaps has seen a few too many Nike commercials.
“When I know I have to do it, I just do it,” he says. “There’s no buts about it, I just go.”