Before every show on his summer tour, Brantley Gilbert plugs a set of tiny monitors into his ears. They feed him the audio from his band, but those in-ears also pump in noise from afar.
Gilbert, who is bringing his rock-driven country show July 30 to Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, has microphones throughout the crowd. So while you can hear him, he can hear you. And he’s listening deep.
“I can actually hear the crowd volume,” Gilbert said during a phone interview as his tour bus traveled through South Carolina on a recent afternoon. “When it’s coming up and coming down, who’s singing to what song and how loud. Are they singing this song like they know it, or are they singing it like they’re proud to know it?”
For Gilbert, 32, the distinction is important. The Georgia native writes or co-writes each of his songs and refers to his albums as “chapters of my life.”
Those chapters are candid. Gilbert, whose most recent album is “The Devil Don’t Sleep,” packs his songs with stories of relationships, partying, love, addiction and faith.
Here is our equally candid conversation, edited and condensed for clarity:
Q: How much of a personal connection can you make with your fans from the stage?
A: You see something different every night. Maybe a poster somebody is holding up or when people bring their kids. I don’t like they bring their kids and sit them on the rail of the pit, because I just think it’s a horrible idea. People get a little wild down there.
For me, I can’t get sucked into the one-on-one thing too much, because I feel like with the crowds the size that they are, you have to address them like we’re all at the same party. Get them doing the horns together, pointing to different sections, getting them all to do it together. Plus, we play some rowdy music, man. If you try to get folks on the same page as each other, you can avoid some of the hand-to-hand combat that seems to take place sometimes.
Q: So have fun, but try to minimize that stuff?
A: Yeah, we try to minimize that.
Q: What have you learned from traveling around seeing people all over our country?
A: Most of it I couldn’t tell you. Most of the time we play a show, I get done, I lay down and I wake up in the next state, behind another venue, usually next to a Dumpster. I don’t know if it’s an inside joke that I’m not aware of, but they’re parking my bus next to a Dumpster in every parking lot we go to! I really enjoy days like today where we spend some time on the road, and it’s daylight and I can see landscape and scenery.
My experience has been mostly people-based. One of the first things you notice is the different accents, how people talk in different parts of the country. I feel like there are some places where I almost need a translator to travel with me!
One of my favorite parts of my job is figuring out what song grabs what person. What are different people relating to, and in what way? It’s not so much regional, man. If it’s showed me anything, it’s that all over this country, we’re really wired pretty similarly.
Q: Are there any song that have surprised you when you’ve seen the way fans relate to them?
A: Songs that pertain to my faith seem to grab folks and maybe help them through hard times, or they find something in there that relates to them. Find hope in it. Those are the songs that I’m most proud of.
“One Hell of an Amen” (a song from Gilbert’s 2014 album, “Just as I Am”) — I think we’re going to put that under a microscope. That was the first song we’ve done that wasn’t about partying or drinking or relationships. It was targeted toward people that were hurting, people that were in need, some folks that were healing. When you write a song like that and you release it as a single, you’re kind of asking for it, and we were. I feel like the overall effect was extremely positive.
There was a similar feeling that I had to a song called “Three Feet of Water” on this new record. I knew it was going to do something. I didn’t know on what scale, and I didn’t know with “One Hell of an Amen” either. It’s just kind of a gut thing.
Q: How do you gauge fan reaction? Social media comments? What you hear from the crowd?
A: To be honest with you, my social media thing, I try my best not to be too involved there. My involvement with social media is mainly when people write stories that my management knows I would appreciate and like to respond to. They send them to me and they keep me informed on what people are talking about and what’s relevant. But they won’t give me my password to my Twitter and my Facebook because I think they’re scared I’ll get on somebody. (He laughs.) I’m just kidding.
But in all seriousness, I feel like the folks that really follow us appreciate the fact that I write songs about my life, and I write records that are chapters of my life. I think they’d probably rather me be living and writing songs about what I’m living through than telling them when I’m at McDonald’s getting a double cheeseburger.
Q: Speaking of social media, I saw on Instagram that you added some tattoos. (Gilbert has several, including a large tattoo on his back support the Second Amendment.) Tell me about the Bible verse on your knuckles.
A: It’s quite literal. It’s Psalm 144, verse 1, and it says, “Praise the Lord, my God, prepares my hands for battle and my fingers for warfare.” He didn’t draw a line and think that it’s about fighting. It’s more than that. That’s my guitar hand, and not just my guitar hand, but the one I form the chords with. That is basically the foundation.
I feel like every battle you fight in life, your hands are involved in some way, form or fashion. If you’re battling a bottle, you’re picking that thing up …
It’s one of those things that reminds me that, with my faith being what it is, that I’m not by myself. I’ve got some extra manpower.
There’s handcuff, actually, that’s new on that wrist. It’s got the day I stopped drinking on it. It’s got a broken chain. It’s kind of breaking free from that deal. They all tie in together and tell a big long story, kind of like my records do.
Q: What’s that date?
A: 12-18-2011. December 18. That’ll be six years this December.
Q: Congratulations on that.
A: I appreciate it, my friend. I have to use the term “sobriety” loosely because I am a Willie Nelson fan. That’s why I said it’s my “non-drinking day.” I don’t want to act like I’m doing more than I’m doing. But I’m definitely proud of that.