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Garth Brooks Has Socks Older Than Billy Gilman

Pop Beat * 12-year-old has the No. 3 country music album in the country. He's a 72-pound heavyweight.

September 23, 2000|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Country singer Billy Gilman is a rebel.

Not in his attitude or demeanor, both of which are unfailingly open and sunny, but for representing the polar opposite of the genre's stereotypical modern male performer.

On first listening, many mistake his high-pitched voice for that of a girl. He's lean (72 pounds) but not long (4 feet 7). He's not from Texas but Rhode Island, and his Stetson is measured in pints, not gallons. He honed his singing not through years in the honky-tonks but in his parents' house practicing for countless hours with a karaoke machine.

And despite having the No. 3 country album in the nation in "One Voice," he's still eight months too young to be in Teen People (though the magazine plans to slip him in early with a story next February).

Amazing as it is to be a star at 12, the towheaded kid with the ear-to-ear smile has been striving for that stardom for the last several years.

He's a veteran at sharing the stage with big names--when he was 8 he opened for Jo Dee Messina at the Washington County Fair in Rhode Island. Indeed, along with a voice of exceptional power and control for one so young, what impressed Sony Music Nashville executives sufficiently to sign him was Gilman's stage act.

"We went [to Rhode Island] to see him open for Alabama, and he got three standing ovations," recalls Blake Chancey, the Sony Nashville senior vice president of artists and repertoire who co-produced his album and also works closely with the Dixie Chicks. "He worked the crowd like he's a 30-year veteran."

Yet despite a strong tradition in country of young talent rising to the top, stretching from LeAnn Rimes back to Tanya Tucker and Brenda Lee, Chancey credits the discovery of Gilman to luck more than anything.

"To an extent you can create some of these boy bands," Chancey says, "but you can't create a singing phenomenon like Billy. This is something that really just fell into our laps."

To all those around him, it appears little Billy was to the performance stage born.

"At 3 1/2, you knew," says his mother, Fran Gilman, who lives outside Providence with Billy's Dad, Bill Gilman, and their other son, Colin, 8. She had videotaped a Sea World TV special for toddler Billy to watch and he immediately latched onto Pam Tillis' performance of her hit "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial."

"He knew every word in 20 minutes, and was singing it along with her," his mother recalls. "That just did it. After he started school, for show-and-tell, instead of bringing in a toy car or truck, he'd bring his Pam Tillis tape and sing three or four songs. I don't think [a singing career] was ever an issue. We just knew."

As for Gilman, he's just jazzed to be living the dream he's had since, well, pretty much since he started dreaming.

"It's really cool," the effervescent preteen says. "We get 40 to 50 hundred e-mails a day from people saying things like 'We love your song' and 'You've renewed my faith in the youth music business.' My mom and I just read them and we're beside ourselves."

If he sounds articulate, he is, but he's also very much still a kid.

Asked if he thinks there's anything he's missing in the way of normal life, Gilman says, "Basically not, because when I go home I'm as much of a kid as possible. I play ball, fight with my brother, water ski--things like that."

That's as normal as it can get for a youngster who practically brought down the house during May's telecast of the Academy of Country Music Awards, where he sang Bob Wills' "Roly Poly" with Asleep at the Wheel.

Because Gilman's voice can still soar into the upper stratosphere, it's not surprising the two singers he cites as his favorites are female: "Patsy Cline, because her voice is just so strong. But the voice that inspires me most is Barbra Streisand. The way she can go from belting out loud to real down mellow."

New Country Chart Record Holder

While he confesses a love of Broadway and pop tunes, he insists that "I'm going to stick to country."

What he looks for in a country song is "basically the message, what the song means and how it goes and if it fits my style." And what kind of message? "Happy messages."

That certainly applies to his album's titular power ballad, which also is now picking up airplay on Top 40 and middle-of-the-road stations. The album has sold 480,000 copies to date, according to SoundScan.

In getting "One Voice" on Billboard's country chart when he was 12 years and three days old, he replaced Brenda Lee as the youngest artist to place a hit on that chart, a record she held for 43 years and nabbed when she was a few months older than Gilman.

While other country singers have hit the charts young, most (Tucker, Rimes, Lila McCann) have been female. That gives Gilman the blessing and curse of novelty, as well as a question those predecessors didn't face: What happens when his voice changes?

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