One of Brantley Gilbert’s most popular and successful songs is “Bottoms Up,” a track from his third solo album, “Just As I Am.”
It’s a twangy country rock song, driven by a midtempo groove that gets heavier as it proceeds. Lyrically, it’s filled with familiar themes and triggers. It opens with a Bonnie and Clyde reference: a couple “goin’ 95 (mph), burning down 129 / Looking for the law …”
From there, that air of defiance and confrontation continues and includes other touchstones of modern country: tailgates, trucks, beer kegs and a pretty girl in “daisy dukes,” shorthand for the cutoff denim shorts made famous by Catherine Bach in the TV series “Dukes of Hazzard.”
“Bottoms” is rife with the sounds of modern country: a barrage of guitars, fiddles, banjos and heavy percussion, all leavened by a singalong melody lacquered with harmonies. It all sounds assiduously crafted to snag the ears of radio programmers but, at the same time, to identify with an audience who grew up like Gilbert did — in a small town where having a good time was second only to religion.
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Writing about what you’ve lived and what you know, Gilbert told The Star recently, is the only way he knows how to write. He performs Saturday at the Sprint Center.
“All my records up to this point have been stories of my life, and this one’s no different,” he said. “I just try to tell the story the best way possible.”
“This one” is “The Devil Don’t Sleep,” his fourth full-length, released in January. Like its predecessors, it delivers songs about love (“You Could Be That Girl”), lust (“Smokin’ Gun”) and encounters with the law (“Tried to Tell Ya”).
Gilbert is no country cowboy, and he doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, he epitomizes a breed of country star who has emerged over the past 10 years or so. He owns a small fleet of motorcycles and a small arsenal of firearms, wears a ball cap backward, sports an array of tattoos, including a full sleeve on his left arm, a menagerie of rings on five or six of his fingers and an earring on each ear.
He tours with a band that looks more punk and rock than country. From a review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of an August show: “He had a drummer with a yellow Mohawk (Ben Sims), a multi-instrumentalist with a ZZ Top beard and Amish hat (B.J. Golden), and another guitarist (Noah Henson) who was flipping his long dreads.”
Gilbert is often swept into the class of performers whose music has been nicknamed “bro country,” a hybrid of several genres, including country, rock and hip-hop, with lyrics that focus on trucks, beer, women, partying and small-town life.
His inclusion is partly due to big-hit songs he wrote that were recorded by one of the genre’s biggest stars, Jason Aldean: “Dirt Road Anthem” and “My Kinda Party,” the title track to Aldean’s most successful album.
By the time Aldean had released those hits, Gilbert had already released albums of his own, including “Halfway to Heaven,” his most successful to date.
“Heaven” includes songs that tap into Gilbert’s small-town Georgia upbringing, a life that was filled with “workin’, spittin, huntin’ and fishin’” and partying and fighting (“Take It Outside”), plus lots of God and religion.
But Gilbert also addresses broader topics:
“Country Must Be Country Wide” is a song about the appeal and many faces of country music: “Country must be country wide / In every state there’s a station / Playing Cash, Hank, Willie and Waylon / In foreign cars and four-wheel drives.”
The title track to “Halfway to Heaven” chronicles a near-fatal car accident Gilbert had while in college — “They say I took a swing at my best friend / For trying to take my keys / Next thing I knew I was upside-down / Thinking, ‘This is it for me’ ” — and the come-to-Jesus moment he experienced after surviving.
“I’m Gone,” a ballad from his “Just As I Am” album, is a breakup song with some memorable lines, like, “What you’re hearing is an echo / What you’re seeing is a ghost / I’m just dust that hasn’t settled / Back on down the road.”
In a 2012 New York Times story headlined “Outlaws Who Play It Safe,” writer Jon Caramanica called Gilbert “a deceptively sharp” songwriter, “a fact obscured by the outright muscularity of the riffs that knock those words around. … Mr. Gilbert has strong instincts that can take him beyond power country and into more vivid territory.”
Two years later, in a review of “Just As I Am,” Caramanica wrote: “(Gilbert) has a writing credit on every song here, and certainly an intimate understanding of how his hard exterior allows him to flaunt softness when it’s called for. He’s a lunk with poet dreams, a bodybuilder cradling a newborn.”
Asked what he listened to growing up in Jefferson, Ga., Gilbert, 32, told The Star, “a little bit of everything,” That “everything” obviously includes Southern rock and metal, which underpin many of his heavier anthems. Gilbert started writing songs in his teens, when he wasn’t playing football or basketball.
He credits a fellow hometown songwriter, Corey Smith, with giving him the impetus to start playing live.
“He was a few years older than me,” Gilbert said. “It’s a very, very small town. They opened a bar downtown. I was getting kicked out of there one night and he was playing and he stopped them before they threw me out and said he’d heard that I’d written some songs. And he asked if I’d be interested in playing. … I ended up touring with him for a few years.”
He moved to Nashville, where, in 2009, he released his first album, “A Modern Day Prodigal Son.” A year later, on Valory Music Co., an imprint of Big Machine Label Group, he released “Halfway to Heaven,” which has since gone platinum (more than 1 million sold). Four years later, he released “Just As I Am,” which would become his second platinum album. He has put five songs into the Top 20 of the U.S. Hot Country charts, including “The Weekend” from “The Devil Don’t Sleep.”
Gilbert still writes anthems about partying, but his life has settled down. He has been sober since 2012, and in 2015 he married Amber Cochran, a schoolteacher from his hometown and a former girlfriend. Their renewed relationship inspired the song “Way Back”: “Got a call from your best friend, Becky / Says you’re hanging out at her place / Guess you heard I was home and you wouldn’t mind taking / A ride for old-time’s sake.”
Wherever his life takes him, Gilbert said, his experiences will find their ways into his songs because writing isn’t about suiting a genre, it’s about something bigger and more enduring and connecting with the listener.
“I try to focus on the things in my personal life that affect me deeply,” he said. “And those are the things that usually end up translating into songs that folks can relate to the most.”
Brantley Gilbert performs at the Sprint Center. Tucker Beathard, Luke Combs and Brian Davis are also on the bill. Showtime is 7 p.m. $27.75-$32.75. SprintCenter.com