What do you give a 12-year old singing star for Christmas? His own TV Christmas special, of course.
Wunderkind Billy Gilman has had a phenomenal year, by any measure. TNN celebrates the pre-teen's talent -- and his stunning success -- with Billy Gilman's Classic Christmas (Wednesday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m. ET/PT).
At the festively decorated Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Hope Valley, R.I., native welcomes fellow teen singers, country's Jessica Andrews and international classical star Charlotte Church. Also performing is pop and Christian favorite Michael W. Smith. And Gilman shines the spotlight on his mentor, multiple Grammy winner Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, who helped Gilman land a record deal.
The show opens with Gilman talking to Santa via his laptop. When Santa realizes that, above all other possible gifts, young Billy has his heart set on getting his first television special, the big guy relents. "That's what I like about you, Billy," he says. "You know how to dream big."
Gilman's big dreams found him making history before his 12th birthday when he replaced Brenda Lee as the youngest artist ever to place a song on the country singles chart. The boy wonder also is the youngest artist to debut in the Top 5 on the Billboard country album chart. His first album, One Voice, has gone platinum, for shipments of 1 million copies.
During the TNN special, Gilman and his guests -- accompanied by an orchestra -- sing a mix of holiday classics and new original songs. Three come from Gilman's new Christmas release, Classic Christmas. Combined one-week sales of Classic Christmas and One Voice made young Gilman the top-selling country artist in the U.S. for the week of Dec. 2. Mighty big dreams are coming true for the 4-foot-7-inch prodigy, who won four Billboard Video Awards in November for his hope-filled "One Voice" video.
After his cyber-visit with Santa, Gilman performs a spirited opening number of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." The diminutive Gilman and the towering, 6-foot-7-inch Benson do a lively duet on "I'm Gonna E-Mail Santa," while a teen dance troupe -- using real laptops as props -- strut the latest dance moves.
A former child performer himself, Benson feels a special bond with Gilman. "There is no age among performers, because if you can do what I do -- and you happen to be 11 or 12 years old -- you're the same," Benson said backstage at the Ryman during the show taping.
"He's obviously a great talent as a singer, but more than that, he's like a seasoned pro. It was obvious after we got to know him that this was a kid who wanted to sing and wanted to be in show business."
Amazed at what has transpired this year, Gilman is also a bit humbled at having his first television special so early in his career. "To have my own Christmas special is just overwhelming," he beamed at the Ryman. "I never thought of this in a million years. My vocal coach and personal manager, Angela Bacari, said, 'This is my dream for you.' She started crying when she told me. It's really incredible."
Choosing guests for the program was easy. "I picked these guests because I'm most comfortable with them and I love them," Gilman said. "And they're really big artists, like Charlotte Church -- awesome singer and a great friend."
Earlier this year, Church invited Gilman to perform a duet on the title cut of her new Christmas album, Dream a Dream. Gilman returned the favor by enlisting Church for his Christmas album (a duet of "Sleigh Ride") and the TNN special. A high point on the show is the perfect blending of their voices on "Dream a Dream." Church also sings powerfully on "What Child Is This," dressed in a shining gray, beaded halter top with hip-hugging, red crepe bell-bottoms.
"Jessica Andrews -- best buds, great voice," Gilman said of his other young warbling pal. Dressed in a shimmering black, cap-sleeved top with matching bell-bottoms, Andrews does a soulful version of "Bells Will Be Ringing." As an artist who also had big dreams and started very young, Andrews hit it off immediately with Gilman when they met in the lobby of their management office. "He's so full of life and energy," she said backstage. "He had all these questions and was just very curious about the business. I'm the same way. Billy is still learning a lot. He seems like he's got his head on so straight. He's a dear friend of mine."
Billy Gilman's Classic Christmas is a light-hearted evening, showcasing exceptionally talented young artists and the seasoned Benson and Smith. Dressed in a stylish suit or his "Perry Como" Christmas sweater, Gilman proves to be an engaging host. Closing the show, he thanks his parents and 8-year-old brother, Colin, for their support and offers, "Dream big, 'cause you never know what might happen."
Gilman also is featured in CMT's chuckle-filled Christmas special, Yulenanza!, airing throughout December. Young Bill trades witticisms with host Shane Caldwell and introduces his Christmas video clip, "Warm and Fuzzy."