Makin’ Tracks: Brantley Gilbert Enlists Blake Shelton, Vince Gill For ‘Heaven By Then’

Few things are more unsettling than change – moving to a new home, losing a job, getting married or ending a relationship are all fear-inducing events that lead into unknown futures.

And yet, as songwriter Bobby Braddock noted in his 1996 Tracy Lawrence single “Time Marches On,” “everything changes.”

That’s truer in 2022 than it’s probably ever been. New technologies, new vocabulary and new cultural trends are coming in and out of life faster than at any time in history. Upheaval is stressful, especially when it means letting go of people or lifestyles before we are prepared.

“I’m good at the things I like, the things I love,” says Brantley Gilbert, acknowledging his antipathy to change. “If they’re not part of life anymore and something happens to me and I go to heaven, at least I’m in a better place.”

That’s essentially the theme of Gilbert’s new single, “Heaven by Then,” a collaboration with Blake Shelton that includes prominent harmonies by Vince Gill. It debuted at No. 29 on Country Airplay Chart Dated Nov 19.

The song’s resistance to change is ironic, since its very existence is the result of a change in direction during a songwriter’s excursion. It was a little past midnight in February. 22 on a ranch in coastal Matagorda, Texas. Brantley hung out in a backyard during the retreat, drinking beer and working on a new song with six other writers. As they struggled for a line, Taylor Phillips (“Hurricane,” “Like I Love Country Music”) blurted out the phrase “heaven at the time.” As the words left his mouth, Phillips acknowledged that the line actually worked even better as a title. HARDY (“wait in the truck”, “God’s Country”) also recognized it.

“HARDY looked at me and was like, ‘What did you just say?'” Phillips recalls. “I tried to play it off like I didn’t say anything. And then I thought, ‘Guys, I think we’re writing the wrong song.’ HARDY grabbed the guitar and I mean, honestly, it was pretty much a walk in the park. It was written very quickly.”

So fast that Jake Mitchell (“One Beer”, “Some Girls”) was able to send a working tape to everyone at 2:03 AM. “It was like a pack of dogs on a three-legged cat,” says Gilbert. “We were all so excited to get it done.”

As they searched for an opening line, HARDY served up a few examples of changes that a boy from the south country would find unacceptable. Brock Berryhill (“What Happens in a Small Town,” “Homesick”) rhymed one of these examples with “When No. 3 is just a number.”

“Yes,” said HARDY—they had the first line.

No. 3, as NASCAR fans know, was painted on the hood of the late Dale Earnhardt’s car. “I grew up with my dad watching them race every Sunday,” says Phillips, who has a No. 3 tattoo on his wrist. “When Earnhardt died, it was like the last of a dying breed. I mean, it definitely changed racing.”

The number 3 also represents change in other ways. During the 20th century, die-hard baseball fans associated it with Babe Ruth. The current hip-hop generation associates the track with Chance the Rapper’s ball cap.

Together with Randy Montana (“Beer Never Broke My Heart”, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”) and Hunter Phelps (“Give Heaven Some Hell”, “Cold Beer Calling My Name”) – a total of seven writers – they created a series of images that would demonstrate the disintegration of a Southern life: When the dirt roads are paved, deer hunting is prohibited, and “John Deeres are dinosaurs.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever hit that line,” Phillips says. “When the boyhood of the country dies out, that’s really what it is. To me, when we can’t be a country anymore, there’s no point in living. I’d just hate life.”

They emphasized that point of view in the chorus with a couple of twisted lines that work better with a tune than they do on paper: “I don’t wanna go today, but I don’t wanna live/ Down here in a place that thinks that that place doesn’t exist/ There will come a day when this land somewhere land won’t fit in/ Hell, I hope I’m in heaven by then.”

“Everybody sat there for a moment and made sure it made sense,” Mitchell recalls. “It’s tricky, twisted wordplay. But we kind of came to the conclusion, ‘Well, we’ve said ‘Heaven’ two or three times throughout the song by now.’ So we figured people knew what we were talking about.”

They developed more lyrical imagery than a three-minute song would allow and inserted a bridge that emphasized the singer’s acceptance of death in case the world changed too much around him. Meanwhile, the musical elements held up from the time they started on “Heaven,” helping them finish it in less than two hours.

“We all naturally went to the same chords when singing the melody,” notes Mitchell. “A lot of times when we’re writing, we’ll try three or four different chord progressions over a melody or something. I just remember the melody and the chords stayed the same from the second we started.”

Berryhill finished the demo with HARDY singing lead on March 4, then co-produced a tracking session with Gilbert at Nashville’s Sound Stage on March 23 using a six-piece studio band: guitarists Ilya Toshinskiy and Derek Wells, steel guitarist Jess Franklin , bassist Craig Young, drummer Miles McPherson and keyboard player Alex Wright. The overall sound was a bit more relaxed than Berryhill’s demo, and Wells created a signature falling lick that set the right tone for the cut.

“Derek has a few different electric layers on there, and Ilya doubled it with the Dobro,” says Berryhill. “It’s a stacked lot for sure.”

The team thought the range and subject matter would suit Shelton, and Gilbert considered it a bucket-list moment when he agreed to add his voice. In fact, Shelton was so strong that they gave him the lead voice on more lines than they originally planned. Gilbert drove back to Nashville from Georgia to tweak some harmonies around Shelton. And Gilbert and Berryhill decided that Gill would be an even better harmony singer. They asked, and Gill obliged, lining up artists from three different generations of country music for a song about change.

“It’s three completely different voices,” says Berryhill. “And together it sounds so cool because you literally hear all three of their voices independently.”

Valory released “Heaven by Then” to country radio via PlayMPE on Nov. 9, two days before the label released Gilbert’s album So help me God. “Heaven” is at No. 54 in its second week Billboard‘s Country Airplay diagram. The interplay between Gilbert, Shelton and Gill is just a little rough around the edges, fittingly reflecting the hangout setting behind the song’s origins and capturing the reluctance often used to change.

“This one definitely called for giving you that front-porch vibe,” says Gilbert. “[It’s] watching the world outside the front porch, plucking the six-string and watching it pass you by. And be okay with it.”

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