11-Year-Old Billy Gilman Competes With The Big Boys

Singer is youngest country artist to hit radio chart since Brenda Lee in 1957.

NASHVILLE — With "One Voice" rocketing up the country-music charts following his stellar Academy of Country Music Awards show appearance May 3 with Asleep at the Wheel, young Billy Gilman, now all of 11, is rolling back the years even further in the current country-music youth trend.

"One Voice" (RealAudio excerpt) is at #6 on the country singles sales chart. Meanwhile, Gilman, who turns 12 on Wednesday, also is out on the road with his own tour bus, just like the big boys in country. His debut Epic album, also called One Voice, is due June 13.

"A lot of kids are pushed into show business," said his mother, Fran Gilman, "but Billy's pulling us into it!"

Gilman is well on his way to achieving his four dream goals: He's already performed on the Grand Ole Opry, so that one's out of the way, as is getting his own tour bus, in which he's now tooling around the country appearing with Asleep at the Wheel on the George Strait stadium tour. He still dreams of building his own recording studio, which certainly seems well within reach. And he yearns for a Grammy. That could come as early as next year if "One Voice" continues to climb. It debuted on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart at #71 this week, making Gilman the youngest solo artist on that chart since Brenda Lee at age 12 in 1957.

The uplifting lyric (a child's cry for help from above in solving the world's problems), rather than running away from the fact that Gilman is but a child, plays on it as a strength. So does the rest of the One Voice album: Songs such as Tammy Wynette's "Till I Can Make It on My Own" and the bouncy '50s rock 'n' roll hit "Little Bitty Pretty One" are credibly delivered by the youngster, while Bobby Braddock's "The Snake Song," about an unbiased but confused reptile who falls in love with a garden hose, is tailor-made for the upbeat Gilman, who owes more to Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson than to his tour and TV visibility.

'He's Really Well-Rounded'

Benson had been forwarded — by former Roomful of Blues sax player Greg Piccolo — a tape of the Hope Valley, R.I., boy singing Martina McBride's "Broken Wing." "Ray flipped and asked me to a demo at his studio in Austin [Texas]," said Gilman, who has been singing country music since age 3 and who cites Benson and Tim McGraw as his favorite male singers, Pam Tillis and Reba McEntire as his fave females.

Benson, who likens Gilman to a young Wayne Newton, lauds his knowledge of modern and traditional country music — especially western swing. "He does one of my songs, 'Boogie Back to Texas,' in his show, so he's really well-rounded," Benson said.

After cutting Gilman's demo of "Till I Can Make It on My Own" and "Little Bitty Pretty One," Benson sent it to Scott Siman, McGraw's manager. Siman now co-manages Gilman with Gilman's vocal coach, Angela Bacari. Siman took him to Epic Records in Nashville, and executives there were floored by the power of Gilman's voice. Producers Don Cook and David Malloy wrote "One Voice" for him, and they were off to the races.

No one seems worried that Gilman, who, besides performing, enjoys such youthful pursuits as roller skating, bowling, fishing, video games, and playing baseball with younger brother Colin (whom Billy feels is a budding Tiger Woods), will lose his boyish charm once his voice deepens.

Right now, he's relishing life on the road, a spot on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," an upcoming appearance on TNN's "Class of 2000" on June 28, getting an opportunity to duet with McGraw onstage, and receiving career advice from Dolly Parton backstage at the ACM Awards show. What did she tell him? "Billy, I hope you like all this, because you're going to be dealing with it for the rest of your life!"