Brantley Gilbert owes his life to Keith Urban. Living in a world of whiskey and women, they are now two staunchly sober men. Brantley was on his way to death– suicide by addiction or gun. Then he found hope in a fellow survivor. And like most stories of healing, it took someone who’d been there.
Growing up Baptist
Brantley’s childhood wasn’t one that obviously led to his drinking. He came from a stable home. His father was a pastor who gave up preaching once Brantley was born. To support the family, he started an insulation company. His mother a preschool school teacher at their Southern Baptist church.
In fact, the family regularly attended church. From the outside in, it looked like a slow-moving, idyllic childhood. In reality, Brantley grew up fast. He started working in the family business young, although this isn’t uncommon in country upbringings.
Gilbert doesn’t clearly remember his childhood, but he does have crystal-clear memories of working on the back of an insulation blow truck at 5 a.m. He was in junior high at the time, so not more than 13 or so.
“I’d dump 100-pound bags of stuff into the grinder and stack all the bags,” he said. “It got hot.”
But overall, it was pretty normal. He sneaked a few drinks here and there; again, nothing unusual. He also excelled at sports. Gilbert was the wide receiver on the football team and a baseball outfielder. Ironically, his athletic prowess was part of what led to his drinking.
The Beginnings of Addiction
Anyone who remembers high school sports knows that sports get rowdy. And for most of us, drinking was just part of that experience. It was no different for Gilbert.
He described drinking openly in high school at parties after games, or as part of the team. Drinking became so regular that he would actually try the “hair on the dog” trick–drink the next morning to cure the hangover.
“I think I remember liking it more than the other guys,” he told The Tennessean. He said he “remember[ed] drinking it off in the morning.” Brantley also commented, “I never was a fan of a hangover.”
Sports provided another pathway into addiction for Gilbert. He was small for his age and sustained injuries on the field. He and his friends began taking pain pills.
Then there was the fact he engaged in fighting. Perhaps it was his small stature (the Napoleon complex, as they say). Perhaps it was his fascination with motorcycles and the tough bikers who rode them. Whatever it was, he seemed to have an anger bubbling inside him.
“I was a small kid in high school. I don’t know if it was little man’s disease,” he said. “If I got to a certain point, I just wanted to fight.”
And fight he did–almost to the death.
“I’m going out like this?”
Whatever the combination of the factors in his life, it proved to be a recipe for disaster for Gilbert.
When he was 19, he found himself drunk at a party. He argued with a friend– then Gilbert punched him. The friend took off and Gilbert chased him in his truck. Intoxicated, he ran off the road and flipped his vehicle, somewhere around five or six times. He recalled his thought as his truck flipped over, eventually ejecting him: “I’m going out like this?”
Some people stop there. Gilbert didn’t.
Packing a Pistol
They say you have to hit rock bottom before you can get sober. But Gilbert wasn’t there. He was just getting started.
Following the accident, Gilbert was court-ordered to attend group therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Neither slowed him down.
It wasn’t that he didn’t realize the seriousness of the event. He knew he was lucky to be alive. In fact, he was already singing and writing songs, and he wrote “Halfway to Heaven” about the crash. He even returned to the crash site to make a video.
He just wasn’t ready to give it up drugs or alcohol.
In 2009, he moved to Nashville to pursue music full-time. And he fully embraced the lifestyle of some famous country predecessors (George Jones and Keith Whitley come to mind). Besides, whiskey is simply a part of country culture. It’s like tractors and turnip-greens.
And so he continued drinking and abusing pain pills. As a measure of the seriousness of his addiction, he admitted that he carried a laptop bag with him everywhere that contained two bottles of whiskey and a pistol. He didn’t say what the gun was for. The assumptions are chilling.
His world was about to careen off course.
A Thriving Career; a Failing Body
What’s most interesting about Brantley’s life at this time is the collision of his worlds.
On the one hand, his career was exploding. It’s 2011, and Gilbert has two consecutive No. 1 hits: “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do.” On the other hand, the drug and alcohol addiction was destroying his body. He eventually landed in the hospital with pancreatitis.
He had finally hit rock bottom.
A week after he was admitted to the hospital, he was in a residential treatment facility in Nashville, Cumberland Heights. And he was about to come face-to-face with the man he would later describe as the one who saved his life.
A Drinking Environment
Gilbert actually didn’t intend on staying in rehab. It was his plan to leave against medical advice. His counselors knew that what he needed was someone who had been there. Someone who could speak to Gilbert not just as a survivor of addiction– but as a fellow musician.
Enter Keith Urban.
Urban had spent time in rehab several years earlier. Part of recovery is helping others. So he took on the challenge.
He knew what it meant to be successful as a musician. But more importantly, he knew what it meant to be successful as a sober musician.
Being successful as a sober musician is an important detail. This is partly because Brantley’s concern was that he would be less effective in his career if he gave up booze.
“I told him, I don’t think I can do my job. I don’t know if I can ever play a song at my shows without being [messed] up. Or writing, I was worried my songs wouldn’t be the same, that I wouldn’t be on everyone else’s level,” Gilbert said. “It’s a drinking environment.”
Urban didn’t comment on the interview. However, Gilbert said that Urban shared with him that he had had the same fears when he was first sober. The funny thing was, though, that Urban thought he was better sober– in every respect.
According to Gilbert, Urban told him that he was a better performer, songwriter, husband, father, and musician sober. The addiction had actually impeded his life– not helped it. Gilbert said this is when it all changed.
“My whole world flipped,” he said. “At that point, I was like, ‘All right.’ ”
“I am what I am”
Gilbert stayed in rehab one more week. Freshly sober and scared out of his mind, he headed out to join Eric Church on tour. More than five years later, he said he hasn’t touched alcohol or pain pills.
He credits Urban with saving his life. Not only did Urban reach out to him in rehab, but the two remained in contact after Gilbert was released. They developed a friendship that helped Gilbert stay on the wagon.
“If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if I’d be sober or be in this business anymore. I’d probably be dead.”
He also said that as a result of his recovery and Urban’s friendship, he knows who is he and what he’s about.
“As a man, I feel like I’m leaps and bounds ahead of where I was. I’m concerned about things that matter.” He went on to say, “I’m more comfortable in my own skin, and before, I needed a drink to get there. Now, it’s like, I am what I am, so let’s have a damn good time!”
Baptism by Fire
As it turns out, Gilbert’s fears about sobriety negatively impacting his life were unfounded. His career and his personal life are both thriving.
Gilbert’s music has incorporated his addiction and his recovery. His song, “Three Feet of Water,” is about redemption and baptism. He sings about being aware to keep temptation at bay and to remain strong in his sobriety.
Additionally, he released a new song earlier this year and went on his Devil Don’t Sleep tour. He married his wife, Amber, in 2015. And on Nov. 11, 2017, the couple welcomed their first child, a boy they named Barrett Hardy-Clay Gilbert.
And so Gilbert has been baptized and reborn. But it was a baptism by fire, as anyone experiencing addiction will tell you. Death looked him in the face. And staring back, he found the love and help of a friend. Now, he carries a message of hope.