The laws of the land in “Gentry Country” sound straightforward enough: work hard, party harder, and always do the right thing. Obeying them, though, can get complicated faster than it takes to gulp a Jell-O shooter, as the songs reveal on Countrified, the forthcoming album by Bill Gentry and the 35 Cent Rodeo.
In the titular song, a blue-collar narrator dreams of fishing while he swings a hammer, straining his back and stretching his paycheck. Meanwhile, in “Who’s Gonna Take Me Home”—the existential question hanging in the smoky air of honky-tonks everywhere—those “last two Jaeger bombs” and a “left-hand cigarette out back” have rendered him unable to drive, and he’s “little too high to crawl.” And in “Nineteen,” Gentry tenderly channels Toby Keith in a tribute to a 19-year-old who forsook a football scholarship to enlist in the Marines after 9/11. All in all, Countrified functions as a rowdy jukebox hymnal, seasoned generously with the salt of the earth.
“We’re still holding on to the country flag in the ‘traditional values’ sense—doing what you say you’re gonna do, belief in your country, nothing comes for free,” Gentry says, explaining that he grew up on a farm in Carrollton. “But I’m a rocker by trade.”
His warm vocals and hard-driving, neotraditional hooks have attracted the kingmakers of the industry—producer Garth Fundis (Sugarland, Keith Whitley); Charlie Brusco (Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws); attorney Joel Katz (James Brown, Willie Nelson)—and created the phenomenon known as “Gentry Country,” a hearty, unpretentious new zip code in the Nashville Sound. These developers are banking on nationwide Gentry-fication, with a radio push of the single “I Want What You Want,” followed by the release early next year of “Countrified.”
“We really believe the sky’s the limit with Bill,” says Sterling Bacon, of Brusco’s management team. “He has the voice, the stage presence, and this amazing record.”
The band, named after the “horses kids ride outside Wal-Mart,” is putting more groove in the twang, too, with the additions of Gentry’s stepbrother, Scott Freeman, a blues guitarist, and Ike Stubblefield, the Motown keyboardist known for his work with Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Clapton. Stubblefield was recently named the band’s music director.
“A lot of people ask why I joined a country band,” Stubblefield says. “But country and R&B come from the same place in the heart. They’re both downhome-rooted. When I heard the album, especially the ballad about the importance of home, ‘A Place Down in Georgia,’ I could relate to it; it moved me.”
Those shared “moments of feeling” are what drive Gentry to make music, he says. That, and mediagenic, over-the-top showmanship well-suited for “Nashvegas.”
Never on a small scale
If you’re a carousing connoisseur of Georgia honky-tonks, you’ve probably encountered Gentry, and you likely would remember him, no matter how many “Jaeger bombs” you had consumed. As friendly and guileless as a golden retriever, with a halo of gilt-blond hair, he played the Wild Horse in Gainesville before building his own venue, Wild Bill’s, a cavernous nightspot the size of a Balkan country in the mall-sprawl of Gwinnett County. With room for 5,000 fun-seekers, it is the nation’s largest honky-tonk, he says.
“I envisioned a Grand Ol’ Opry of the New Millennium,” Gentry says. “So I traveled all over the country, taking notes on all of the major venues, because I wanted the biggest and baddest.”
Freeman adds drily, “My brother never does anything on a small scale.”
On a typical Saturday night, Gentry rappels from the ceiling to the stage, amid smoke bombs and the swiveling “Wild Girls,” and then struts down a catwalk that leads into the mob of fans extending their hands for “Gentry Country” T-shirts. It all makes for a sweaty, revival-spirited spectacle that closes with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” dedicated to Gentry’s late father, a preacher.
“When Bill first started out 12 years ago, it was sometimes painful to watch,” Freeman says of his younger brother, who’s fortyish now. “I thought he sounded like a poor man’s Garth Brooks. Over time, though, he found his voice, and he found his muse. I left Georgia for a couple of years, and when I came back, there was this whole Bill Gentry underground that had sprung up. And it’s a lot like Springsteen in his early days: Once you see the live show, you ‘get’ it.”
In fact, Gentry often risks “borderline heatstroke” with his antic performances. “I approach every show as if it might be my last,” he says. “Until my body is completely depleted, I’m not done.”
Ironically, for a performer known for going to extremes, his breakout single, “I Want What You Want,” is a call for moderation in divisive times.
“It’s about all of us who are stuck in the middle, just wanting to work hard and live our lives, and often we’re the ones hit hardest by hard times,” he says. “We all want the same thing, for life to be normal. As the times have changed, the song has become more relevant since I first recorded it.”
It is not a “political song,” he says, despite his other ambitions. You read it here first: Gentry, who used to work for Sen. Sam Nunn, plans to run for governor some day.
“I just want people to come together, one way or another, for something good,” he says.