Billy Gilman: Wonder Boy (2001)
Back in his hometown, big-voiced phenom Billy Gilman is just a normal kid.
Originally published in the January 23, 2001 issue of Country Weekly magazine. The article is published here in its entirety.
Billy Gilman gazes out the huge picture window at his grandparents’ home in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. His eyes glimmer with glee as he points to the long, winding creek that runs through the back of the house.
“That is my favorite place!” he says with enthusiasm. “My brother Colin and I go out there and play games, we swim and when it freezes, we go sledding. Our dad takes us ice fishing there in the winter.”
Sounds like the world of a typical 12-year-old. But in the music world, Billy is anything but your ordinary kid on the brink of teendom. He has catapulted two albums – One Voice and Classic Christmas – into the Top 5, hobnobbed with Hollywood stars and performed for President Clinton at the White House. At one point last summer, he was selling more albums per week than Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain or George Strait. When his debut CD broke the million-sales mark (only three months after its release), it made Billy the youngest artist to ever have a platinum album. The prefix “12-year-old superstar” has practically become part of his name.
Ever since his smash single “One Voice” hit the charts last May, life has been a wild whirlwind of concert dates, TV appearances and media interviews. In seven short months, young Billy’s career blasted off like a Saturn rocket.
But today, William Wendell Gilman is just plain old little Billy, back in his quaint, almost hidden New England town. Grandmother Ginger Woodmansee has set out a plate of Oreos for him to polish off. Billy and his family – dad Bill, mom Fran and 9-year-old Colin – live only a few minutes away.
“Basically, I like to ride my bike and do rollerblades in my basement,” he says, flashing his signature toothy smile. “Colin and I play games on PlayStation all the time. I’m hoping to get PlayStation 2 pretty soon.”
That would likely be kept in the family area. “My room is a mess,” confesses Billy. “I’ve got CDs everywhere and posters all over the place – Faith Hill, Britney Spears, Dixie Chicks.
“I love my room. It’s very comfortable. I just shut my door and read and do my homework. I don’t have a TV in there,” he continues with a chuckle, “but that’s probably good.”
No star trappings here, and his family sees to that. Billy’s parents are nose-to-the-grindstone, working class folks who were both born and raised in Hope Valley. His dad works in maintenance for a plumbing and heating company started by Fran’s family, while his mom tends to younger son Colin. The family strives to make sure that Billy’s life remains as normal as possible.
Billy has specific household duties – and if he neglects them, there’s no allowance. “I have to clean up my room, and take care of my dog, Wizzer – feed him, let him out,” he says. “If I do all my chores, I get $5 a week. I wish it was $5 a day, though.”
Whatever the amount, Mom believes that this structure will pay dividends in the long run. “We’re helping to keep him grounded, so he won’t get too far from earth,” she says with a laugh. “We also monitor his movie habits. There are certain videos he can’t rent, and some cable movies he is not allowed to watch.”
While Billy is not a huge TV viewer – “I have to be in bed by 10,” he explains – he does have his favorites, including Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys and the hit sitcom Friends.
This afternoon, Billy and Colin are playing a video game. They share it without the usual arguments over whose turn it is or who’s “hogging” the remote. They’re typical siblings whose close relationship is peppered with brotherly spats and teasings.
“One time, Billy told me that the guy from that movie Halloween was in my room,” recalls Colin. “I ran running to Mom, because that really scared me.”
Before he and Colin can resume the game, Billy hears a car in the driveway and knows grandfather Gus Woodmansee – whom he affectionately calls “Bumpy” – has arrived. He gives Gus a bear hug, then gathers mom and the grandparents into the living room for a familiar scene – putting on a show.
Billy turns on the karaoke machine and swings into “I’m Gonna E-Mail Santa” from his Christmas album.
“Ever since he was about four, he’s been performing for the family,” says Fran. “We’ve had more free shows than anybody I know.”
Billy laughs as grandmother claps to the fast-paced ditty, but not exactly in rhythm. “Come on Nana,” he encourages. “Keep the beat.”
That’s never been a problem for Billy, practically born with a musical clock in his head. Recalls Fran, “When he was three, he saw Pam Tillis singing ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’ on a TV special, and he memorized that song in about an hour. By the time he was eight, he was doing shows at church.”
But because of an early medical problem, no one is sure how he developed that talent. When Billy was nine, his family discovered that the mastoid bone in his left ear was pushed out, requiring surgery.
“They had to go in and rebuild his whole ear,” says Fran. “The doctors told us at the time that they didn’t know how he does what he does. It was really bad.”
Not as bad on the psyche, however, as his recent run-in with an errant golf ball. Billy was attending a junior golf clinic near his home when a ball knocked out a front tooth. “They glued the tooth back in,” he says, “but I’ll have to wear braces for a while.”
Ironically, Fran’s efforts to keep Billy’s life “normal” led to the accident. She allowed him to play golf, against the wishes of Billy’s vocal coach and co-manager, Angela Bacari.
“He had to do the Today show in two days, and Angela fought me on it,” says Fran, laughing. “But I said yes. I have to let him be a kid – and he wanted to go. It’s one of the few times I have ever gone against her, but I felt this was important.”
With a red-faced laugh, she adds, “I also thought it was safe!”
Meanwhile, Billy is safely in the arms of family. He scoops up Wizzer — named after one of the pups in 101 Dalmations – and strokes his head. “Right before we got him a couple of years ago, he broke his foot,” relates Billy. “Now he runs all over the house.”
With some “down time” from the road, Billy looks forward to some running around of his own — with his buddies.
“My best friends, Ben and George, live about five minutes away,” he says. “They go to the same school I did until I started home schooling last year,” says Billy, who is now in the midst of his seventh-grade curriculum.
When they get together, the usual activities center around two typical pastimes: movies and food. “When I got back from the White House, we all went to see the Grinch movie,” Billy reports.
“When we’re hanging out, we go to Wendy’s or McDonald’s, but my favorite,” he pauses and grins, “ is the Best Eatin’ Coffee Shop. Their homemade donuts are the best. I also like to go to the Stop & Shop supermarket. I’m best friends with the man who runs the bakery department, and he lets me go behind the counter and pick out something.”
This is one little guy who can wolf down mass quantities of junk food. “The other night, I was so hungry I ate a whole 5-pack of Twinkies,” he reveals with a mischievous gleam. “Of course, I got sick. I also like to snack on Fritos, the barbecued kind, and Gushers, which are jelly-filled candies.”
These days, Billy’s showbiz life is hotter than a candy fireball. From October through December, he appeared on Oprah, Rosie (twice), the Billboard Music Awards and Christmas At The White House. President Clinton told him, with obvious understatement, “You might have a future with this singing.”
That would be heady stuff for anybody, much less somebody still a year shy of his teens. But given his normal surroundings and steady home life, it likely will not go to Billy’s head.
“My family and friends don’t treat me any differently,” Billy begins in a serious tone. Then, he can’t help but smile. “Well, sometimes, the girls chase me down the street.”
Fans around the world want to chase him, too. “I get hundreds of e-mails every day,” he says. “A lot of people just say ‘thank you’ for a particular song or a video. Other people want me to sing at their wedding. Which is really weird – I’m not even old enough to date yet.”
Billy sighs and stares at the ceiling. He appreciates the accolades, but the “star treatment” still makes him uneasy.
“I love singing and getting up on a stage,” he says, grinning. “That’s what I want to do. But at the same time, I’m just a regular ol’ kid.
Billy By the Numbers
He stands only 4 feet, 11 inches tall, yet Billy Gilman is already a giant among entertainers, especially when you tally his impressive stats. We did, and the figures dropped our jaws.
- 1 Spot Billy’s video, “One Voice,” captured on CMT's Top 100 Requests.
- 4 Position on the charts Billy's album, One Voice, landed in its first week.
- 7 Number of albums Billy has sold for each hour of his life so far.
- 12 Age when Billy made history by becoming the youngest artist to ever score a song on the country charts.
- 19 Difference in inches between Billy and his mentor, Asleep At The Wheel's 6 feet 6 inches lead singer Ray Benson.
- 220,985 Copies that his single, “One Voice,” sold in its first four months.
- 500,000 Number of hits per day on his website.
- 1,000,000 Sales of his One Voice album, making him the youngest artist to reach platinum status — or even gold.