It’s a little ironic that the day after coming out, singing sensation Billy Gilman lost his voice. But for the best of reasons, Gilman was hoarse from answering the many phone calls of support he received throughout the night after posting a video where he talked about the hardships he has faced in the country music industry as a result of his previously rumored sexuality. After being inspired by country artist Ty Herndon, Gilman decided that it was time to share his truth.
“I’ve been an advocate for so many things in my life that I thought: why not now be an advocate for me and the cause that I believe in with my whole heart.” Since then Gilman has worked on music with a new sense of freedom and passion. He brings that passion to our area this month on Oct. 29th with a night of music at the newly opened RRazz room in New Hope.
I understand that you’re originally from Rhode Island.
Yes, born and raised. Nowadays I still split my time between Rhode Island and Nashville. People will ask me why; Nashville is fantastic work wise and I have friends and colleagues there, but I think in part because I was away so often when I was very young, there’s always a part of me that wants to be home. With any singing career, you have a lot of down time. You do a sound check and then go back to the hotel and spend hours doing nothing. So there’s a lot of time with just you and your thoughts, and those thoughts often turn to home. And Rhode Island is amazing, you have the ocean, you have the city, you have country life. I grew up on a 40 acre horse farm with my parents and grandparents, and my mother showed horses for 25 years. People don’t realize that RI has all of that, but it’s pretty amazing.
Tell me a little about life on the farm.
Oh boy, we had 10-12 chickens, 2 rabbits, and a lot of it stems back to my grandmother. She loved all things to do with horses. In fact she dated my grandfather because she walked by his house on the way to school and he had a horse in the yard. It was her thing, but when my mother was about 12, my grandmother told her, “You’re going to show horses” and became a bit of a momager to my mother on the riding circuit and then 30 years later she told me that I had a good singing voice and we needed to pursue it. She was the first one that enabled me to follow my dreams.
Was that Grandma Ginger?
Good job! Yes, it was Ginger. She was a character. She was one of those people that if you didn’t know better, you would think didn’t like you, when in fact they loved you.
What were you like as a kid?
Very outdoorsy. I had a four-wheeler and we’d make our own trails. I’d go golfing. Also the horse farm overlooked the main waterway, so we did a lot of fishing. People don’t think of Rhode Island as rural, but we lived a very country-ish life.
That must have been a nice respite from the craziness of the music industry.
As I get older and look back, I think that’s what kept me sane. My family didn’t care if I sold a single record or a million records. It was still, go do your chores or have you done your homework? It was never what was going on outside of our home.
Looking back, any early signs that you were gay?
This is so cliche, but I always loved strong, dominant women. I felt safe with them. First my grandmother, and then when I was four I loved country singer Pam Tillis, and then I fell for Barbara Streisand. I just knew I’d be friends with her if we met. Other than that, there really wasn’t anything that I recognized in myself. And I had gay friends. I never saw myself within them, but felt the need to draw people close. I was always the mediator, I was pulled out of school early because of my career, but before that I was the kid who sat in a chair and didn’t care if I was with the popular or unpopular kids, I just wanted to bring everyone together. But I didn’t come out until much later when I started to write songs… You know I was very lucky in that I was thrust into success right from the start. I didn’t have to climb the ladder. Now I’m doing it, but in the beginning I was a “personality” from day one. I was Billy Gilman on stage and never really paid attention to my insides. When I was in my 20’s I had to almost unwind, rather than rebuild, to figure out who I was and who I loved and that I didn’t want to sing “she” in my songs anymore. That I needed to get real because there was something missing in my life. It’s not that I shut it down, I just never thought of myself as a person to have a relationship. I was just a figure. I don’t know, that’s how I felt.
I was looking at a video when you had a little #metoo moment when you were accosted on camera by a woman who kissed you right on the mouth, and I’m talking about the Lamb Chop incident of course.
[Laughing] Yes! That was on the AMG Heritage Awards. You know, funny enough, I had a boyfriend at that time and no one knew. So it was at a time when I was just coming alive in my personal life and that was hilarious. I grew up with the puppet Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis, so working with her daughter who took on the voice of Lamb Chop was a riot.
I’m sure, but I did get a chuckle in retrospect when Lamp Chop was trying to woo you by saying, “I am a woman, and you Billy are a man. For every man, there is just one woman. You believe in destiny don’t you?”
It was a little awkward when you’re put on the spot like that no matter who you love! But yeah, that was funny.
How did you get to the point when you decided to come forward? And did you come out to the folks first?
When I used to do interviews, people would ask me things like “what are your parent’s names” or “what do they do” and my mindset was always, “none of your business,” because they never asked to be in this business, they are by association, but it’s my job; they don’t need their privacy invaded. And that’s how I thought my personal relationship life should be too. You’re buying my songs and when you come to my shows, I’m going to entertain you and make you forget your troubles or make you smile and then you leave. But I’ve come to realize that it’s more than that. People become invested in you, so in 2016 I was at a festival with my boyfriend Chris. People recognized me and were asking for autographs and taking pictures and there was a reporter there who asked to take a picture of us. I automatically said of course, and then panicked because now there was a picture of us out there. At that point I said to myself, you know, this is going to get out there and I need to get ahead of it and that’s when I started my path to coming out. I told my team first, agents, assistants, etc. and then told my parents. My parents were conservative, especially my father who was a Nascar, republican voting type of guy, so I was nervous, but they were nothing but supportive right off the bat. In fact the thing my father was most upset about was the fact that because of this facade, that I was afraid to tell him. And then I got on The Voice and was able to speak my truth to millions every Monday and Tuesday night! And by the way, Chris and I are still together.
That’s great! Let’s talk about your music now and what you’ll be doing at the RRazz Room.
I’m excited, I used to be afraid of smaller rooms, and I’ve been in the business for 21 years, but I’ve always found that people reacted to me differently. Even at 12 years old I’d be at an autograph signing because I always try to meet everyone that I can, to me that’s what it’s about. But people come and tell me stories that they were driving to a bridge to end their life and one of my songs came on and stopped them. There’s a song called “Oklahoma” that was on my 1st record and I’ll be singing it in New Hope, and it’s about a boy shuttled from foster home to foster home and then he finds his birth father. There was a woman giving her son up for adoption and the song was on the radio as she was giving birth and she decided then and there to keep him and now they’re best friends. So there’s a connection with my fans that’s deep and I feel a responsibility as a result. So, unlike stadiums, where all you see is a black wall and lights and you can make up what you think is happening, when I do smaller rooms, you can see people cry, or laugh and it’s very intimate. And as I get older, I’ve come to love them, so I’m really looking forward to the 29th.
Me too! So some random questions, who would you want to pair with on “Dancing With the Stars”?
Well, I see that they have the first female same sex pairing with Jojo this year, so I’d love to dance with Gleb.
For sure, even this lesbian finds him hot. He reminds me of a gigolo from the 1920’s.
Absolutely! That’s spot on. Or Cheryl Burke, she’s got such a great spark.
What do you like to do off the stage?
I love to cook. If I weren’t a singer I’d love to be a chef and have my own restaurant.
Any paranormal experiences?
Yes! When I was about 13, I had a separate tour bus from my band. Because I was a minor, I couldn’t ride with them. I was always interested in the paranormal, and one time after a show, I was allowed to hang out with the band before going back to my bus with my parents. They had a Ouija board and I asked to join in. They asked if I had anyone in my life who’s passed away and the only one I could think of was my great grandfather. So we started playing with it and it started to spell out, “s-o-r-r-y s-i-n-g p-r-o-u-d.” Everyone got quiet and they folded the game up and put it away. I was 13 and thought it was kind of strange, but didn’t know why. April 15th, 1999, my great grandfather passed away, he was 99. The week before he had just purchased a plane ticket with my grandfather to see my debut at the Grand Ole Opry. He never made it and I don’t know if it was a joke or a genuine message from him, but I don’t know how they would have known, so it was pretty wild.
That is wild. Who would be your ultimate duet partner?
Barbara Streisand is my number 1 favorite of all time. If I got to sing with her it would be like [vocalizes a heavenly note] “ahhhhh!”
And I have to ask about your experience with Michael Jackson.
So when I was 13, I’d just come off a tour and was exhausted. I got a knock on my door at 6 a.m. and my mother said, “Billy! Michael Jackson is on the phone!” I was like, “Mom, Michael Jackson would not be calling Rhode Island at 6 in the morning.” I picked up the phone and heard, [in a high pitched voice] “Hi, this is Michael.” I said, “And I’m the King of England” and hung up. My mom was like, “This is serious, I think that was really him”. And I said, “People are mean, obviously, someone got our number and is playing pranks. We’re going to have to change it.” Then he called back and I hung up again. The third time, his assistant called and that’s when I realized that it was real. I immediately turned pale and started stammering, “I’m so sorry” and she told me that it happened all the time. So Michael got back on the phone and asked if I would sing “Ben” at his tribute concert. Of course I said yes and then gushed about how much I loved him! I got off the phone and my mother and I started crying. So we did the show at Madison Square Garden; it was the biggest show I’d ever done at that point, 27,000 people on September 8, 2001. I got to hang out with him and Tito and Janet during the show and they were all wonderful. The next day I went home because they were doing a parade in my honor, a Billy Gilman day, and afterwards I got a call from Michael. They wanted me to come back to tape the concert. Sept. 8th was more like a dress rehearsal, but they wanted to do it again on Sept. 10 for different camera angles, etc and that was the one that was going to be on TV. Unfortunately, I had to tell him I couldn’t do it because I was booked to sing with the LA Philharmonic and I was flying out of Boston that Tuesday for the performance. It was a big deal, a movie themed night with the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. So I told him I couldn’t do the show and we ended the call. The next thing, I get a call from my manager telling me that she got a call from Michael and that they arranged for me to be the 2nd person on the show in primetime and that I HAD to do it. So I went to New York for the show on Sept. 10 and left from there. If it hadn’t been for the show, I would have been on that flight from Boston that hit the towers on Sept. 11th.
Yeah, I don’t tell that story too often and I never told Michael even though I hung out with him numerous times after that. There was never a moment when it seemed right, but now I wish I had.
Well, I appreciate you sharing it with us. So, what’s coming up for you?
Just getting back to normal. We’ve started touring again, which is great, because what the world needs right now is to be together. So to let people be in a theater together and to help people forget their troubles is amazing. I have a meeting today about a possible television opportunity, and I’m working on new music. I have a dozen new songs we’re working on! It’s exciting. And of course, I’ll be headed your way soon!
I can’t wait.