In the spring, Eric Church, a country artist with a pronounced leaning to Southern-infused rock, found himself on his first headlining tour playing to surprisingly sizable crowds from coast to coast. Among them were 13,000 eager fans at Rupp Arena.
Such a feat reflected an almost meteoric rise to stardom. Whereas in the weeks leading up to the performance, many pop fans said, "Eric who?," when told of his Rupp date, Church now stands as one of the most bankable touring acts in the business.
Among Church's opening acts that night was Brantley Gilbert, a Georgia songsmith with a similarly eclectic electric sound. Once again, all but the most devout of fans had little or no clue as to who Gilbert was. Now, here we are, six months and two No. 1 singles later. Guess who is bringing his first headlining tour to Lexington?
But here's a switch. Add to the list of those that have yet to absorb Gilbert's seemingly sudden popularity the name of Gilbert himself.
"Man, it's a crazy feeling," said the singer, 27, who tops a country-rock bill Sunday at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum that includes Brian Davis, Greg Bates and Uncle Kracker.
"I was telling somebody the other day about a venue that was 20 minutes from my house called the Georgia Theatre. I sold it out when I was 19. It held 2,300 people," he said. "Now that was 'making it' to me. But that was also as far as I ever thought I would get. So everything since then has been like an added bonus. Having my own tour with all this equipment and all these lights, ... I mean, this is just crazy."
While Gilbert's hometown of Jefferson, Ga., might not have been a metropolis of musical inspiration, he was situated near a city that was. The artistically fertile Athens was 20 miles away. The city's star exports — R.E.M., The B-52s and Widespread Panic — couldn't help but catch his ear. But Athens was also home to Corey Smith, the indie folk-rock songsmith with an insanely loyal following among college-age audiences. Smith became one of Gilbert's first touring pals.
"That's my buddy," he said. " I actually got started playing my own songs with Corey when touring for me was just me and a guitar. He had a guitar player with him and tour manager, and we all just rolled around the Southeast playing shows.
"Before that, I was in a couple of bands, and we would play rough, rough, rough joints. We would play cover songs, but during breaks they would let you stand up there onstage and play your own songs. But I think I was right about 17 when I was out with Corey, and we had a ball. He's a great guy and almost a mentor in so many ways."
Gilbert's first two albums, 2009's Modern Day Prodigal Son and 2010's Halfway to Heaven, created sufficient buzz in Nashville. But that wasn't how mainstream audiences came to know his music. The introduction was made when country star Jason Aldean forged major hits out of two Gilbert songs, My Kinda Party and Dirt Road Anthem.
"Most of the time, ideas for songs come from my life," Gilbert said. "I'd never write about anything that I haven't experienced or been through. And if I go through something with somebody else, like a hard time with a family member and I feel really close to that person, I'll feel like that's my experience as well, so I may write about that.
"But having Jason cover those songs really helped us out a lot. We were at a point in our career where having me release a song like Dirt Road Anthem would have been insane. We needed somebody with Jason's status to push that song to where it could go. Those songs are still on my records and I still play them every night. So it's not like I gave them away or sold them to somebody. They're still my babies."
But sealing the deal on stardom were Gilbert's own pair of successive No. 1 singles, Country Must Be Country Wide and You Don't Know Her Like I Do. The songs also turned a reissued edition of Halfway to Heaven (titled Halfway to Heaven Deluxe) into a gold-selling hit.
"It's a thrill," Gilbert said. "If you would have told me just a year ago I would have two No. 1s, I would have said you were crazy. But it's definitely a great feeling to be kind of on top of the mountain for a minute."