He’s got a quintessential Texas attitude – work hard, think big, don’t let anyone fence the music in.
Grant Gilbert is a young, hustling front man for a five-piece band, an ensemble that embodies the spirit of the Lubbock musicians who’ve preceded it. Like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Josh Abbott Band and Dixie Chicks, Gilbert is ostensibly country, but really so much more. Classic rock, the blues, Southern rock and – yes, country – are all ingrained in an energetic, powerful package that’s become a major part of the club circuit.
That spirit is evident in Gilbert’s forthcoming EP, an intense musical workout that mirrors his band’s college-town beginnings. “Held On To” features Gilbert’s scrappy vocals atop power chords in a track awash with mystery. “Denying Desires” houses a tortured, pleading storyline within a smoky ‘80s power-pop groove. And “Hub City Shakedown” cradles a snarling, fuzzy guitar solo inside a blues/rock setting with all the passion of the late Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues.”
Gilbert’s music plays the stylistic field, invariably capturing heartbreak and hard times in muscular, inspiring frameworks. It’s the epitome of a Grant Gilbert recording.
“I love the sad, down-and-out songs that are still upbeat,” Gilbert says “They give you that constant feeling of mellow, and make you think about specific times in a relationship or your life. I just want to capture that as best as I can.”
Gilbert and his crew – guitarists Dylan Price and Morgan Baker, bass player Dakota Merida and drummer Gunner Driver – are following a well-worn path in that respect. Motown hits, John Fogerty, Journey and country acts from Merle Haggard to Jason Aldean have all connected downbeat storylines with uplifting sonic textures, hinting at the complexity of everyday existence.
That’s a natural mix for Gilbert, since the band knows the love/hate experience of the road well. They spent their formative years fitting grueling weekend travel schedules alongside weekday deadlines and tests at school. The hard work chewed up more of the clock than the good times, but those good times were – and still are – completely awesome.
“You drive eight hours, but you get the 90 minutes of fun from playing music, making it together with my friends,” Gilbert says. “That's what makes it all worth it.”
The band’s dedication and attitude have made a mark with public audiences and inside the music business, too. Josh Abbott, whose own self-named band has racked up a series of Top 10 country albums in Billboard, signed up to manage Gilbert in tandem with Triple 8 Management, a firm that already represents such disparate acts as Texas-bred country/rock group Eli Young Band, mainstream-country singer Scotty McCreery and Iceland indie rockers KALEO. William Morris Endeavor added Gilbert to its concert-booking roster.
“I can't keep up with them because they're so on top of things,” Gilbert says of his management team. “They do everything correctly, no matter how long it takes. They want it to be done the right way. And they don't cut corners.”
That makes for an ideal match with Gilbert, who’s steadily chased music since high school. He comes by it naturally. Raised on a 1,000-acre farm in tiny Lipan, Texas (population 430), his parents frequently took Grant and his brother, Bryson, to Fort Worth, where Mom and Dad would dance in clubs such as the White Elephant Saloon and Pearl’s Dance Hall while a friend tended to their underage kids at a side table.
The energy in those joints was palpable, and Gilbert sought it out in other mediums, too, honing in on the radio and on the best albums from his parents’ collection. He became a big fan of John Fogerty’s vocal grit in Creedence Clearwater Revival and of the smoothness in Glen Campbell’s classic country recordings. When Gilbert discovered the passionate vocals and energetic anthems about working-class life in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, his musical path was set.
Grant and his life-long friend, Dylan Price, played football for the Santo Wildcats, where Grant became an all-district running back. And when he turned 16, Grant’s brother got him a $200 booking at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in Mineral Wells. He had to buy a sound system from Guitar Center the night before the gig to even fulfill the date, and he learned the equipment on the fly to collect that first check.
“I didn't know how to work it in the first place,” Grant recalls. “We just turned knobs until we got some noise and plugged stuff in until it worked.”
That single experience gave Gilbert the music bug. He started booking shows in clubs, restaurants and coffee shops from Abilene to Fort Worth, doing at least one show almost every weekend since that inaugural Fuzzy’s performance. That also motivated Gilbert to start writing songs with abandon, building enough of his own material to fill out two-hour shows and learning to capture the joys and turmoil that accompanied his complicated mix of school and weekend touring.
Naturally, broken hearts and go-nowhere experiences with girls are at the heart of many of those songs, though even when things have gone wrong, Gilbert tends to find at least something redeeming in the center of it.
“Even though it was like a hard time, it doesn't mean it was all bad,” he reasons. “There might have been something good in that time, like maybe you learn something from that person or you learned about yourself. We're still in our early twenties, and we're learning about ourselves a lot. I think that it's a time when you do that through your relationships.”
Gilbert’s father and uncle had graduated from Texas Tech in Lubbock, and Grant had always expected he would enroll there, too. When he did, he majored in agricultural economics, but soon immersed himself in musical economics, too. Gilbert and Price started showing up at open-mic nights at the Blue Light, a rowdy club that became a proving ground for some of Gilbert’s heroes: Josh Abbott, Wade Bowen and William Clark Green. Santo-bred Morgan Baker joined them within a year. The rhythm section came together next, with Lubbock-born drummer Gunner Driver and bass player Dakota Merida, from Brock, Texas, filling out the lineup.
After an initial EP, Gilbert plotted an entire album for release in the fall of 2018, and in the middle of that project, he co-wrote “Denying Desires” with Abbott. It was an eye-opening experience for Abbott, who was impressed with Gilbert’s budding talent. On the way to a show at Nashville’s Basement East in July 2018, Gilbert received a text from Abbott, who wanted to manage him. In short order, Gilbert scrapped the album they'd finished and started over with Austin-based producer Dwight Baker (Josh Abbott Band, Missio), who’s played drums with Heart and Enrique Iglesias and engineered for Kelly Clarkson. Baker found the right balance of polish and rawness for Gilbert and his band mates.
“I’m Buying” mixes stacked harmonies and a brash drum sound with burning guitar tones, while “Hey Bartender” layers a soaring guitar solo over a heartbeat kick drum in a solidly country song. “Hub City Shakedown,” owing its title to Lubbock’s status as a regional center, captures the spontaneity and hard-charging existence that marked the band’s time at Texas Tech, when Gilbert and Price shared a house at 9th & Slide that became a hangout for the band. The first line of the chorus, “Slidin’ down 9th Street,” is a not-so-subtle nod to that period in their evolution.
“It was just this old, beat-up college house,” Gilbert recalls. “It was just a party house, made for the tons of college kids who lived in it. We kept all of our band equipment there, parked the van and trailer in the driveway. Our friends would sit around and drink, and we'd play songs for them on the back porch.”
Gilbert’s growing audience has been hungry for the music since he announced it was on the way in early 2018. The project offers a whole new set of songs to take back out on the road, where the band’s passion lies.
“Playing for an audience gives you an adrenaline rush,” he says. “It leaves you wanting more. It's like you’re on top of world for that little bit, and then it's gone. You just chase that feeling constantly.”
That search for the next musical peak is what led Grant Gilbert to his quintessential attitude, a relentless belief that his band’s Texas-sized sound might find a home outside the Lone Star State, too. He’ll never turn his back on Lubbock, or on his home state, but he’s determined to see just how far he and the band can take this music bug.
“All we want to do is just work hard, grind and earn everything we get,” he says. “We don't want to be in boxed in by anything.”