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12-year-old from R.I. is Nashville's new boy wonder
By VAUGHN WATSON
Journal Pop Music Writer
The SUV is backing out of the Sony Music building's parking lot when, suddenly, something catches Angela Bacari's eye. The tour manager nudges the arm of the 12-year-old country singer sitting next to her.
"Oh, my gosh," Bacari says. "Billy, look."
"I know," says the blond boy from Richmond, R.I. "Awesome."
"Twelve years in the making: Billy Gilman," reads a banner you can see from a block away, stretching across the top of the Sony building. "Country music's next superstar."
With appearances on the Grand Ole Opry stage on Saturday, The Rosie O'Donnell Show
on June 26 and TNN's Class of 2000
on June 28, and a debut album on Sony Records hitting stores this Tuesday, Billy Gilman will probably be a national name by the end of the month. He's country's next big thing.
Nashville is an insider's city, where if you're hot, there's a golden aura around you. Right now, Billy is a major insider.
The music city last saw this sort of buzz for a young singer when LeAnn Rimes exploded on the country scene in 1996; a 13-year-old singer was its new young voice, illustrative of the face of new country, with acoustic roots and pop music's marketing.
But when Billy's first single,
, debuted on Country Music Television in May, about a week before Billy's 12th birthday on May 24, it fueled sales of the song in record stores. The song landed on Billboard's country charts and Billy eclipsed Brenda Lee as the youngest country artist ever to score a Billboad hit. (Brenda was 12 years and 8 months old when she did it in 1957 with
One Step At a Time
"It's so much of a phenomenon," said Sony sales executive Dale Libby, "you almost just want to get out of the way."
The big time
Nashville is a place where the NASCAR Cafe on Broadway stays open late on a Monday night and, across the street, Boots 'n' More sells custom-made leather boots and size 4X cowboy hats.
It's a place where, in 1996, Garth Brooks signed autographs at Fan Fair at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds for 23 hours. People who were there say he didn't even stop to go to the bathroom.
He was that dedicated because the fans who trek to the week-long music fest are dedicated, too. They crowd the concrete bleachers of the grandstand to see their stars up close, 15,000 people waving programs to keep cool in the 95-degree sun. They bring cold drinks and binoculars, smear on sunscreen and say that sticking it out for one of the multi-artist morning-to-dark concerts running all week is a badge of honor.
Every so often, they walk out of the grandstand and into a line that keeps moving. It whisks them past the stage, past the jumbo screens and 30-foot speakers pointing back at the crowd, where they snap as many pictures as they can in the time it takes to walk past the stage. And if they're lucky and push to the front, they can extend a hand for a star to kiss or, maybe, to touch.
Last Monday, it was Billy Gilman's turn to be the star on the stage.
It's early evening backstage at Fan Fair, and Billy Gilman is already the center of attention, a little boy wearing black pants and black cowboy boots, a white shirt under a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up, white over black.
"Can we get a sound bite real quick?" asks a woman, gripping a microphone. "We're WDIV in Detroit, doing a two-hour TV special."
Billy's tour manager, XXXXX XXXXXXX, is at his elbow, checking her watch. It's 7:15 p.m. Billy is due on stage at 8.
"He's so poised around adults," says 14-year-old XXXXXXX XXXXXX, standing behind Billy, clutching a soda. "Then as soon as you get to hang out with him, he's just like a normal kid."
Roseanne's words are lost as Karen Newman, as her nametag says, gets her sound bite.
"I'm here with Billy Gilman," Newman says, "definitely the cutest . . . he's a doll. This kid's gonna be huge."
Billy hugs Karen, and she disappears into the masses gathered under three big tents sprawling away from the stage.
The trio of tents resembles the after-party of a Hollywood movie, where tags saying "Press" or "VIP" dangle from necks like access keys. Where 27-inch TVs are posted in the corners so no one misses the action, cold Pepsi and Budweiser flow from taps, and people answer cell phones by saying "Hello" into microphones clipped to their shirts.
Billy hugs one of The Kinleys, stunning twin sister singers who look like supermodels, making their way to a radio interview. Then, "I need a few minutes to work with him," says Bacari, leading Billy away from the crowd.
Waiting to go on
Thirty minutes later, country star Ty Herndon is finishing the last few lines of
You Can Leave Your Hat On
with a noisy band behind him.
Billy's on next. He climbs the four steps to the edge of the huge stage, trailed by Bacari and by his publicist, road manager, tour manager, parents and little brother.
A woman, about 40, screams his name. "Billy!"
Billy smiles and signs his name on a pad for the woman, who's seated in a set of VIP bleachers on the edge of the stage, unseen by the crowd but better than box seats at a ballgame. His entourage stops. He continues to cross the massive stage.
He takes three big steps, past a rack of guitars, and peeks around a tower of speakers, seeing for the first time what 15,000 fans look like at Fan Fair. Left to right. Front to back. Sunburned faces sing along to Herndon, extending from the stage as far as he can see.
Billy leans away from the speakers, taking a long, slow step backward. He turns back toward Bacari, clenches his first sideways, raises his fingernails to his mouth and smiles in a mock-nervous gesture.
"Wow," he mouths.
A few feet away, Colin, Billy's 8-year-old brother, sees a pole that is part of the stage and swings around it like a fireman.
"Come back here," the boys' father says, waving his arm. Colin climbs up the pole one last time, then slides down.
Bacari leans over to Billy and straightens the cuff on his right arm. He smiles. She fidgets.
Herndon, who has left the perfomance area, hovers nearby. The Kinleys, who performed earlier in the night, stand at the edge of the stage. They're all curious to see what Billy's going to do, and how the audience is going to react.
In the roar of noise from the crowd, you can only hear part of what the emcee is saying.
"And he's . . . only 12 years old . . . Billy Gilman!"
The crowd erupts.
A buzz has followed Billy ever since music critics and other country artists said he stole the show singing the traditional-country
with Asleep at the Wheel at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Los Angeles in May.
Sony rushed the video for
to Country Music Television. The touching song about a peaceful world captured through a child's eyes debuted the week of the Million Mom March against gun violence.
Now, inside the Sony building on Nashville's Music Row South, a college intern walks into the office of tour publicist Craig Campbell and asks a reporter, "Were you needing the Billy Gilman press kit?"
The press kit is a glossy folder with the poster image of Billy, a tuft of blond hair and a soft smile, leaning against a mike stand, and displaying the title of his debut album, which is also
In an industry where image is essential, the press kit shapes that image, as much -- and at times more -- than Billy speaks for himself.
The words say he's a kid; he likes eating ice cream and reading Shel Silverstein's
The pictures show Billy as a professional, perfectly combed hair, a neat suit jacket, leaning into a microphone.
A camera crew is buzzing through a conference room in the Sony building. It's one of seven TV and newspaper interviews in two days.
One technician tapes a piece of translucent orange paper in front of lights to bring a homey feeling to the set, which is a leather chair in front of a wall smothered with Billy Gilman posters.
"I'm afraid to put him in a moving chair, or a high-back chair," the other technician says. "He may be swallowed up."
The second tech speaks up. "Can we use two sets of Yellow Pages?" Problem solved.
A moment later, laughter from the other side of an open doorway propped open with a trash can. And in comes Billy, wearing a black T-shirt, black jeans and black cowboy boots.
Jess Ponce, a producer for Media-Savvy, the Los Angeles production company interviewing and filming Billy, waits in a chair off-camera. Billy takes his seat.
"Okay," says Ponce. "This is for the TV Guide Channel. I'm not seen, not heard . . ."
Billy fidgets for a second. "Just remember you're tied up here with mike cable," a technician says. Bacari fusses with Billy's hair.
"I'm gonna have to have you center yourself up in the chair," says another technician.
Billy straightens up, lowers a leg, then crosses his leg. He folds his hands and lets his cowboy boots dangle.
He opens his mouth and sings a few notes, something he does often when he's passing time.
"And 5-4-3-2-1," the cameraman says.
"Fan Fair," Ponce says. "You have this whole thing down. You should see people who have years and years and don't have it down."
"This is my first time," Billy says, "I've always wanted to go and I got my wish."
"What do you do when you're not singing?"
"Fight with my brother. Play, golf -- just hit around the house. Fish. Rollerblade . . . I have a brother, Colin, who is 8. I'm sorry to say he's almost as tall as me."
What does Colin think of your success? Ponce asks.
"He thinks it's cool," Billy says. But Colin wants to be a professional baseball player, not a musician.
"What about the success of
?" Ponce asks.
"It's funny," Billy says, "being it's me, you know."
"What do you mean?"
There's a long pause, and Billy turns to Bacari. "What
"You mean you're excited because it's the number one requested song on CMT," Country Music Television.
"It is?" Billy asks. And he smiles.
"I really don't know what to think about this," says Fran, Billy's mom, headed for the Fan Fair stage, walking past VIPs and scanning the faces backstage for Colin and for her husband, Bill. "It's almost like you're in shock.
"I love both my kids. They are extremely talented at what they do," Fran says. "Billy's been like this since he was 3 years old. He could learn the lyrics to a song at 3. He knew."
Bill and Fran are a typical Rhode Island family, working to support their two kids, Fran in the office of H.C. Woodmansee and Son, her father's plumbing and heating company, Bill doing maintenance for the company.
He likes car racing and plays baseball, wears his NASCAR shirt to Fan Fair and hopes to take his boys to the NASCAR Cafe, where they can be kids, playing video games and ordering pepperoni pizza or fried chicken surrounded by the atmosphere of country music's national sport, auto racing.
The whole family -- aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents included -- lives within a few miles of Billy in Hope Valley. Billy likes to sing in his grandmother Ginger Woodmansee's living room. She's the one who took him to Angela Bacari to build his voice when he was 9 years old.
Bacari knew Greg Piccolo, formerly of Roomful of Blues, who knew Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. On Piccolo's recommendation, she sent Benson a tape. Benson introduced Billy to Scott Siman, who would eventually be his manager.
Siman flew to Providence with Blake Chancey, a Sony executive, watching Billy open for Alabama at the Warwick Musical Theatre. Back in Nashville, Chancey passed a videotape of the show around the Sony offices in Nashville and New York.
Billy would sing at the Wood River Inn in Richmond, and on the WCTK-FM (Cat Country) morning show before anyone thought he'd be singing before 15,000 screaming fans in country music's heartland.
"I'm not forced to do music, like, everyday," Billy says now, speaking to the world on a behind-the-scenes videotape of his music video for
"My mom and grandmother are like, 'If you want to do this you can, but if you want to stop, you can stop right now.' "
Billy's parents aren't pushing their oldest son into stardom, fulfilling a parent's dream of a glamorous life. Billy is an intensely driven kid who's pulling his parents into his dream.
And right now, there's no stopping.
Number two on Billboard
No one at Sony will say how many Billy Gilman albums the label is expecting to sell. "Success will be determined at the end of the run," says Sony sales executive Don Libby.
Out for just over a month, the
single is sitting at number two on Billboard's country chart, behind the Dixie Chicks and ahead of Faith Hill.
Sales of 45,000 to 70,000
albums would be considered a modest success for a debut artist. If sales go well, Billy could record a Christmas album, which would hit stores in October. And he could perform at the Country Music Awards that month.
"You gotta be careful," Libby says, "to not burn them out."
The people managing Billy's career insist that they're seeking to preserve his childhood, not rush it. They insist that Billy is a normal kid in every way.
But typical kids are getting to bed early for trips to Six Flags New England, not for tomorrow's national tour.
In that way, Billy is not an everyday kid; he's a professional kid, and Nashville is where he goes to work.
"The only people I've worked with who are near his age and the level of maturity are the guys from 'N Sync," says Don Cook, who co-wrote
with David Malloy in his corner office at Sony Music Publishing, and co-produced the song with Malloy and Chancey. "These guys were focused and professional. They've been at it for a lot longer than Billy.
"I have always really been committed to the idea that I'm not gonna be a part of stealing somebody's childhood," Cook said. "A lot of people know people whose childhoods were absolutely stolen by their parents in a desperate attempt to fulfill a parent's dream.
"I would tell any singer's parents that unless they have a remarkable gift, they aren't any more valuable to me at 15 than they are at 22.
"Billy has such a remarkable gift that he's ready to go to the marketplace."
Tuesday afternoon, Billy's walking between rows of long blue buildings at Fan Fair, trailed by his personal manager, his publicist, his tour manager, his mom, his dad, his brother, a Journal reporter and a photographer, all walking, nearly running, but walking.
Billy turns left, smack into a street three deep with fans waiting in a line outside the exhibition hall where artists are signing autographs. The line zigzags like one outside the new ride at an amusement park.
"Billy, how about an autograph," says a man, about 45, darting under a rope he probably wasn't supposed to cross and holding out an acoustic guitar filling up with signatures.
"Sure," Billy says, grabbing the man's magic marker and signing his name.
Billy starts walking again. "That's Billy Gilman," someone says.
"Oh, he's so cute."
A woman who tells Billy she's from Columbia, Ind., walks backward, facing him, fidgeting in her bag for a throwaway camera. Snap the photo. Get the autograph. Stop walking. She's got a routine.
"He's great," she says, "and cute."
A woman with a uniform and a badge that says "Metro Police" greets Billy and his entourage at Building A. She leads Billy past a blue curtain that says "Artists Only" and into a booth for Country Weekly Magazine. He'll sign autographs for the next hour in the same seat where Billy Ray Cyrus did about an hour ago.
In the back of the booth, there's coffee and a spread of pastry, a stack of oversized Billy Gilman postcards with the poster image. Billy's not hungry after the bagel and doughnut he ate for breakfast, but there's a commotion on the other side of the curtain and Billy is wondering what's up.
He peeks his head through the curtain. "Ooh, it's Vince Gill," he says. "I saw Vince Gill."
Billy just got a police escort through a phalanx of fans, and he still gets a kick out of seeing Vince Gill.
"I'm gonna peek out more," he says. "See what else I see."
"He goes crazy to meet everybody," says Bacari. "He's a real kid. A down-to-earth kid. And that's what our aim is, to keep him that way."
This trip to Nashville is Billy's family's first time on the road with him. Between April and early June, Billy toured places like Austin and Dallas, Buffalo and Baltimore as a special guest of Asleep at the Wheel.
Bill and Fran couldn't make it to the tour, where George Strait was the headliner.
"We can't afford to go all the time right now," says Bill, a patient man with an athletic build and firm handshake, standing in a corner of the Country Magazine booth. "Colin has to be in school; Billy's fortunate enough to be tutored. I have to work."
"But we just wanted to go [to Fan Fair], to be close. We won't be in the way. We just wanted to go."
Nashville has changed since Bill, 37, was last here, to visit Opryland when he was 15 or 16. Country, always about tradition and a deep respect for its fans, has faced off against itself, sparking debate over what's better -- a traditional acoustic based sound or a more pop-oriented one, where electronic beats replace musicians.
Bill liked country, but early on he was listening to rock 'n' roll, to Bill Haley & The Comets, then AC-DC. "When we were older," he says, "we started listening to country."
Billy and Colin started listening too, and Billy says he has wanted to sing since he heard Pam Tillis singing on TV when he was 3.
Kicking back on the bus
There's a line tucked inside the Billy Gilman press kit. Billy's idea of "perfect happiness" he says, is "driving down the California coastline in a tour bus."
It's midday Tuesday, and Billy is resting on a tour bus. It's rented for him and his family to give them a place to kick back during Fan Fair, but it's a tour bus all the same.
Like most tour buses, the bus is divided into several rooms, including bunk beds, a kitchen and a bathroom. Billy and Bacari sit in a back room, answering questions from a freelance writer for USA Today.
Colin's up front, wearing an Adidas T-shirt and shorts, dancing around. Bill is sitting on a couch, watching the movie
. Fran is reading a brochure about Fan Fair in the kitchen area, empty plates and bottles of Pepsi and Mountain Dew still on the table. A family relaxing on the road.
"We got a kitten," Colin says. "Her name is Zoe."
"She's black and white," Bill smiles, "with a stubbed tail."
Billy comes down the hall. "Mom, Dad," he says, "they want you back there. They've got a few questions."
"The tour bus is fun," Billy says when asked. "But one time the A/C didn't work, so everybody got into a bunk and stayed put." He laughs.
Although it's summer vacation, he says, his tutor has told him "I have to make up all the work because of what I missed at Fan Fair."
When he's back in Rhode Island, there will be school five days a week for three hours a day. He likes reading and spelling best.
He sings songs other people write about country's favorite subject -- falling in love, falling out of love -- but he says, "It's so busy to have a girlfriend. I have a girl I like, but I have a busy schedule."
So he and Colin have fun on the tour bus. They fight, Billy says, as all brothers do. They play games with names like "Guess Who."
Billy runs to the back of the tour bus. The phone rings at the front, near the driver's seat.
"Hello?" says Campbell, tour publicist. "Hello? Hello?"
"It's me, ringing the bus driver," Billy says, laughing all the way to the front of the bus.
But Billy can blend work and fun. The game is finished; it's back to questions.
What do you tell the media, who may be skeptical of such a young singer?
To answer this question, Billy sits down for a moment on the couch where the reporter is sitting. He leans forward.
"They're like, 'Oh, my God, who's this young kid?' " Billy says. "When I get on stage, I show them."
He peers into the reporter's notebook while the answer is being written down.
Then Colin whips off his sock, and tosses it at Campbell.
"Colin," Billy says, tugging his brother by the shirt, "stop."
Colin retrieves the sock, and tosses it again.
"All right," Billy says, "Stop it." He looks at the reporter. "See. This is how we get into fights." He smiles.
Then he darts to the kitchen table, picking up a cell phone.
"Hi, Nana," Billy says after a minute or so. "I'm at Fan Fair. I'm doing a couple interviews. Then I think I'm gonna ask LeAnn Rimes to interview me. They're working on it."
Later that day, Billy and LeAnn sit down for Sonicnet.com, with Billy asking the questions.
Moment of truth
It's 8:04 p.m. Monday, and Billy Gilman is standing at Fan Fair's center stage, ready to sing, mike in hand.
He stands shorter than the mike stand, alone in front of the crowd.
"You having a good time?" he asks. 15,000 people scream back, "Yeah!"
"As many of you know, this is my new song. It's called
, and I hope you like it."
"Some kids have and some kids don't/ And some of us are wondering why?" Billy sings.
At the end of the first line, girls scream hysterically.
"Mom won't watch the news at night/ There's too much stuff that's making her cry."
A mother passes a bouquet of flowers overhead. A girl, maybe 13, leans forward, stretching hands to the stage, hoping to touch a pants leg or, maybe, Billy's outstretched hand.
"We need some help/ Down here on Earth/ A thousand prayers, a million words . . ."
Fran, standing in the background on the stage, sways left to right, quietly, and cups her hands to her face as if in prayer. The band increases its tempo. Billy raises his high tenor, never missing a high note.
He stands alone at the mike, the sun setting beyond the grandstand, behind the crowd.
When Billy sang back at the Wood Street Inn, he would sway his hips wildly, making the older woman giggle.
In Nashville, there are no flamboyant gestures to suggest a boy trying to be a grownup. It's just a boy trying to be a boy, doing what he wants.
Still singing, he lifts his left hand into the air, and bows. With clarity and focus in a voice 12 years in the making, he finishes strong, and sings, "One voice was heard."
"Amazing, isn't it," says a man standing backstage, arms crossed, shaking his head right to left.
"Well, I had enough for one day. I've seen the prodigy."
So have 15,000 fans, rising to their feet.
Billy steps back and waves with both arms. Then he turns to his left and heads off the stage.