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.”
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That’s more true in 2022 than it’s likely ever been. New technologies, new vocabulary and new cultural trends dart in and out of life faster than at any time in history. The upheaval is stressful, especially when it means letting go of people or lifestyles before we’re prepared.
“I’m good with the things I like, the things I love,” says Brantley Gilbert, acknowledging his antipathy toward change. “If they’re not a part of life anymore, and something happens to me and I go to heaven, I’m in a better place anyways.”
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 the 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 outing. It was a little past midnight on Feb. 22 at a ranch in coastal Matagorda, Texas. Brantley was hanging out on a back patio 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 by then.” As the words came out of his mouth, Phillips recognized the line actually worked even better as a title. HARDY (“wait in the truck,” “God’s Country”) recognized it, too.
“HARDY looked at me and was like, ‘What did you just say?’ ” Phillips recalls. “I was trying to play it off like I didn’t say nothing. And then I was like, ‘Boys, 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 very fastly written.”
So fast that Jake Mitchell (“One Beer,” “Some Girls”) was able to send everyone a work tape at 2:03 a.m. “It was just like a pack of dogs on a three-legged cat,” quips Gilbert. “We were all so excited to get it done.”
As they searched for an opening line, HARDY served up a few examples of change that a Southern country boy would find unacceptable. Brock Berryhill (“What Happens in a Small Town,” “Homesick”) rhymed one of those examples with “When No. 3 is just a number.”
“Yes,” HARDY said — they had the first line.
The 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 those races every Sunday,” says Phillips, who has a No. 3 tattoo on his wrist. “When Earnhardt passed away, it was like the last of a dying breed. I mean, it definitely changed racing.”
That No. 3 represents change in other ways, too. During the 20th century, die-hard baseball fans associated it with Babe Ruth. The current hip-hop generation connects the number with Chance the Rapper’s ball cap.
Along 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”) — seven writers in all — they fashioned a series of images that would demonstrate the dissolution of a Southern country life: when the dirt roads are all paved, deer hunting is outlawed and “John Deeres are dinosaurs.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever beat that line,” Phillips says. “When the country boy life goes extinct, that’s really what it is. For me, when we can’t be country anymore, there’s no point in me living. I would just hate life.”
They emphasized that point of view in the chorus with a few twisted lines that work better with a melody than they do on paper: “I don’t wanna go today, but I don’t wanna live/ Down here at a place that thinks that that place don’t exist/ There comes a day this country’s somewhere country don’t fit in/ Hell, I hope I’m in heaven by then.”
“Everyone was sitting there for a second, making sure it made sense,” recalls Mitchell. “It’s tricky, twisty wordplay. But we kind of came to the conclusion, ‘Well, we’ve said “Heaven” two or three times through the song by now.’ So we figured that people knew what we were talking about.”
They developed more lyrical images than a three-minute song would allow and inserted a bridge that underscored the singer’s acceptance of death in the event that the world changed too much around him. Meanwhile, the musical elements held up from the time they started on “Heaven,” which helped them wrap it in less than two hours.
“We all went to the same chords naturally when we were singing the melody,” Mitchell notes. “A lot of times when we write, 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 keyboardist Alex Wright. The overall sound was a little more relaxed than Berryhill’s demo, and Wells created a descending signature lick that set the right tone for the cut.
“Derek has a couple of different electrics layered on there, and Ilya doubled that with the Dobro,” says Berryhill. “It’s a stacked part, for sure.”
The team thought the range and topic would fit 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 had originally planned. Gilbert drove back to Nashville from Georgia to adjust 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 on a song about change.
“It’s three completely different voices,” Berryhill says. “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 issued Gilbert’s album So Help Me God. “Heaven” exists at No. 54 in its second week on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. The interplay among Gilbert, Shelton and Gill is just a tad rough around the edges, appropriately reflecting the late-night hangout setting behind the song’s origin and capturing the reluctance often applied to change.
“This one definitely called for giving you that front-porch vibe,” Gilbert says. “[It’s] looking at the world off the front porch, picking the six-string and watching it pass you by. And being OK with it.”