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Billy Gilman brings his country comeback effort to New London

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New London — The singer onstage at the Garde Arts Center Monday afternoon had sold over 5 million records - a significant achievement for any musical act. As fog rolled out of an effects machine and a crew of six prepared to shoot footage for a new video in the otherwise empty theater, the artist joked easily. He dropped to the floor to do push-ups, broke into an over-stylized falsetto version of "The Sound of Music," and then mimed that an imaginary cigarette was responsible for the atmospheric smoke.

When the cameras finally began rolling, he lip-synched to repeated and loud playbacks of "Say You Will," his latest single - a hooky, anthemic tune that sounded utterly contemporary and perfectly competitive with the material on modern country radio.

And why not?

Though he's only 26, Hope Valley resident Billy Gilman has already had a long run. He was only 11 when he became the youngest singer ever to score a Top 20 Billboard Country Music chart with the song "One Voice," and by 2006 Gilman had released several major label albums and toured with artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Sara Evans and Jo Dee Messina.

And yet, Gilman's career lost momentum a few years back - in a business when second acts are particularly rare. In his case, the odds may be greater than usual. For one thing, it's typically difficult for a "child star" to maintain popularity into adulthood.

For another, last November, Gilman released a video on YouTube revealing that he's gay. Chely Wright, Ty Herndon and k.d. lang (at the conclusion of her honky tonk phase) are the only other major country artists to come out, and the genre's fan demographic - typically more conservative than rock or hip-hop audiences - may be less accepting of openly gay artists.

Gilman is absolutely positive about his situation, though he panicked last fall when, as he attended a harvest festival with his partner, a journalist snapped a photograph of the couple.

"I thought, uh oh, if this somehow gets out ... and I decided I had to stay in front of the story. It was time," Gilman said in a conversation Monday in the Garde lobby. Dressed in black with a gray patterned scarf, he was thoughtful, warm and witty. "I told my family -everyone from my parents and brother and cousins to aunts and uncles and dogs. They were completely loving and that means the world. I mean, my father shoots guns and loves NASCAR - I do, too! - but it was just total acceptance."

Gilman next notified his publicity and management teams in Nashville and was gratified to receive the same unconditional support. He then spent a few weeks working on the YouTube video - which was finished the same day that Herndon came out.

"It was a coincidence, but Ty is a friend and artist I admire greatly, and that made things a little easier, too," Gilman said.

To his delight and relief, fans were also loving and supportive, and Gilman said he hasn't experienced any negative reaction. Throughout, he continued working on new songs, which has been a rewarding experience because, for the first time, he's co-writing the material rather than just interpreting the work of professional songwriters. Gilman has worked with some of the best in Nashville, including Windsor native Al Anderson, who's penned tunes for Tim McGraw, Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood, and frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose.

"I love songwriting," Gilman said, "and it was something I wasn't sure I could do. Sing? Yeah, I had that down. But I've gotten to sit down with some amazing writers and it's so rewarding to have a lyrical concept and tell a story with a great melody and hook."

If the Nashville major labels don't come calling - for whatever reason - Gilman isn't worried about it. In fact, he's already working on a different strategy. "Say You Will," which was originally released last August and has been re-mixed to coincide with the new video, will be the first in a series of sequential online singles.

"This is a new age," Gilman said. "Fans go to iTunes and pick a song and buy it, rather than a whole album. And our idea is to present a new tune every few months. I've got a lot of songs written and recorded, and we want to put them out a little at a time."

As for shooting the "Say You Will" video in New London, Gilman said he's always loved the city.

"To capture the mood of what we wanted - sort of a 'day in the life' look through the singer's eyes in the song - I originally thought of Providence. But then (producer/director) Alec Asten suggested New London - and he was right. If you're familiar with the town, you'll see a lot of the landmarks. If you're not, the shots look an old European city. It's a beautiful place."

"Say You Will" is the third video Gilman has done with Asten's Firesite Films production company after "Everything and More" and "Hey Little Susie."

As for shooting footage in the Garde, Gilman said it was a dream come true.

"It's my favorite venue," he said. "I love country music - I always have - and I saw my first concert here. Ronnie Milsap. The next year, I saw another of my heroes here, Pam Tillis. Someday, I only hope I can headline the Garde."

r.koster@theday.com

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