Only 11 years old when he notched his first hit single, Billy Gilman was the youngest performer ever to reach the Billboard country charts, breaking a record held since 1957 by Brenda Lee. Out of the charts for nearly a decade, Gilman made a big comeback in 2016, courtesy of the reality show The Voice, and quickly regained much of the fame he had earned as a pre-teenager.
Gilman was born in Westerly, Rhode Island, on May 24, 1988, and grew up in nearby Hope Valley. He was singing before he started school and developed rapidly enough to start performing publicly at age seven. He was booked as an opening act at several county fairs, including one with headliner Jo Dee Messina. Gilman caught his big break when Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson heard him sing and was impressed by the precocious power behind his vocals. Benson had Gilman make a demo tape, which wound up landing the young singer a deal with Epic.
Backed by seasoned Nashville studio pros, Gilman completed his debut album, One Voice, in 2000. Its title song, a spiritual plea against school violence, climbed into the Top 20 of the country charts, and the album itself hit number two and quickly went gold. The follow-up single, "Oklahoma," was also a Top 40 hit, and the holiday album Classic Christmas was rushed out by the end of 2000; it reached number four on the country charts, and featured a duet with fellow vocal prodigy Charlotte Church. Gilman's proper second album, Dare to Dream, appeared in 2001 and hit number six; it also spawned two minor chart hits in "She's My Girl" and "Elisabeth," the latter a sentimental ballad about a girl battling a terminal illness. That theme became the basis for Gilman's third album when he met young poet and best-selling author Mattie Stepanek -- a muscular dystrophy sufferer -- during a TV appearance with Larry King. Gilman decided to record Stepanek's poems in song form, and several Nashville pros were commissioned to set them to music. The result, Music Through Heartsongs: Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie T.J. Stepanek, was released in spring 2003. Everything and More followed in 2005, and the eponymous Billy Gilman in 2006, but Gilman recorded very little during the rest of the 2000s and released no further albums. He did some charity work during the early 2010s, including the collaborative single "The Choice" for a shoe charity, and also announced that he was gay with a YouTube video called "My Story."
When Gilman next reached the public eye, it was in 2016 as a contestant on NBC's The Voice. During his blind audition, he wowed the judges with his version of Adele's "When We Were Young," and decided to join Adam Levine's team. Performing hits from the country and pop world, he sang Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," Roy Orbison's "Crying," Celine Dion's "I Surrender," and in the finale, an original titled "Because of Me." Gilman finished second to winner Sundance Head. ~ Steve Huey