Former child country star Billy Gilman staged an emotional return to the spotlight on Tuesday night's (Sept. 20) episode of The Voice. Performing a moving cover of Adele's "When We Were Young," the singer who made history in 2000 when, at 11, he became the youngest artist to score a Top 40 hit with his first single, the gold-certified "One Voice," set off a bidding war between coaches Adam Levine and Miley Cyrus.
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And he might have just taken the first step to climb back from a career spiral that he never saw coming.
"Within the quiet moments, I found who I was as a person," Gilman, 28, told Voice host Carson Daly backstage during the show about the period when Nashville turned its back on him after a successful early run that included a double-platinum debut and two gold albums that followed. After his voice changed during puberty and he took five years off, Gilman came back in 2014 with the indie single "Say You Will."
A lot had changed in that turbulent period, including Gilman's decision to come out two years ago in an emotional video in which he said that fellow country singer Ty Herndon's decision to come out had inspired him, even as Gilman speculated that years of gossip about his sexuality may have helped derail his career. "Being a gay male country artist is not the best things," he said in the video of the sometimes conservative nature of Nashville that he tied to his inability to land a recording deal with a major after selling 5 million records.
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But, he told Daly, the struggle made him stronger. "I had to come to grips with being gay… I took a long time to rebuild vocally, but it was coming back, and then coming to grips with who I was personally, I also came to grips with who I was as a singer," said Gilman, who was discovered in 1997 when he was just 9 and signed to a major label deal three years later. "You know, I love my country music roots, but deep down, I really always wanted to be a pop singer."
Realizing that he needed to do it on his won, Gilman said The Voice was his "one shot" to reinvent himself.
Levine was the first to turn around, with Cyrus immediately punching in as Gilman hit his first towering falsetto note and Alicia Keys and Blake Shelton finally turning around as Gilman brought things to a dramatic close. "What's your name, man?" Shelton asked. "I know Billy," the country star responded when Gilman introduced himself and described how exciting it was to finally stand on a stage and sing the way he's always wanted to. Shelton said he'd always wondered what happened to Gilman -- whose "One Voice" was a hit when Blake was making his first album -- praising the singer for finally finding his true sound.
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Cyrus also had a moment of clarity, recalling Gilman's music video and how Billy opened for her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, back in the day. "I know who the hell you are! Let me take care of you," Cyrus said, adding later, "I'd love to help you now become The New Billy, 'cause I had to make that decision [to change genres], and I know how I want people to see me, and I'm very clear about that. So I would love to help you be clear to people about who you are."
In the end, though, Billy went with the coach who stood up first, and remained standing, Levine. "That intangible quality that you possess is exactly what embodies the person that wins this show," said the Maroon 5 singer. "You really could be the guy. I am blown away!"