No one is happier than me that Billy Gilman did so well on The Voice, finishing second last night.
I was there, at Billboard, for Billy’s first album, One Voice, released in 2000 when he was 12, and got to know him, his mother, and his manager at the time—not to mention Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who had discovered him at age nine. The album’s titletrack hit the Top 40, and with it he also became the youngest artist to have a Top 40 country single.
Back then Ray was confident that Billy had what it took to stay successful after his voice changed, and last night proved him right. Meanwhile, Billy courageously came out as gay two years ago, hours after fellow country artist Ty Herndon came out.
But Billy always had a pop sensibility, as evidenced by his performance in 2000 of “Dream a Dream” with then 14-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and most significantly, his 2003 album Music Through Heartsongs—Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek.
Recorded when he was 14, Heartsongs already showed a deepened voice and a more mature album content due, remarkably, to the “heartsong” lyrics of Mattie Stepanek—the then 13-year-old best-selling poet whose books stemmed from the incurable form of muscular dystrophy that would take his life just before his 14th birthday—and the stylistically varied music by top Nashville songwriters including Richard Leigh, Tom Douglas, Bruce Roberts, Randle Chowning, James Slater, and the album’s (and One Voice‘s) producer David Malloy.
Billy and Mattie had met on Larry King Live.
“He started to read his poems, and I looked over at my father and mother choking up—and it wasn’t like my father,” Billy told me upon the 2009 publication of Messenger: The Legacy Of Mattie J.T. Stepanek And Heartsongs by his mother Jeni Stepanek.
“The kid was really touching someone who wasn’t touched a lot. But they didn’t sound like ordinary poems, but like lyrics. I wondered if there was any way I could do one on a record—as a bonus cut or something—and I called everybody in Nashville who were involved with my career at that point and pitched the idea, and it ended up being the whole record.”
Billy later learned that Mattie had rejected numerous other like offers.
“Other artists couldn’t get the message of his heartsongs,” he explained. “I’m so honored they chose me, because he was one of the greatest people anyone could ever meet.”
Heartsongs‘ standout track was “I Am/Shades of Life,” which combined two of Mattie’s heartsongs.
“David Malloy wrote the melody and I thought, ‘Man! That’s not a song but an anthem!’ I still get letters about it! But it was really long so they cut the words in half for radio. Mattie and I both felt they needed to keep the whole thing because otherwise the story was lost, so the song was re-cut. It was kind of like ‘One Voice,’ and the video was awesome.”
Billy was 21 when I last spoke with him in 2009, and had just begun writing his own songs.
“I had to go home and wait for my voice to change—which gives you an awesome out for anything!” he said. “You can say, ‘Thank you, I’m done,’ and then go on to the next thing. But at the end of the day I’m a country singer, and I never had the opportunity as a kid to do what I wanted to do with my sound—and now I can.”
I believe Billy remains a celebrity ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, having served as co-host of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. As for “I Am/Shades of Life,” it remains a favorite song of mine, with a melody and vocal I find very moving, along with, of course, Mattie Stepanek’s poetry and spoken words.