Billy Gilman

Music Through Heartsongs: Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek

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Although much was made of Billy Gilman's age when he hit the country charts just after his 12th birthday in 2000, his appeal to listeners was a combination of his youth and his first hit, "One Voice," a child's lament about school violence couched in religious terms. Gilman returned to such unabashedly sentimental material with "Elisabeth" on his second regular album in 2001, and after a two-year break, possibly to let his voice change (it has settled into a slightly lower tenor), the about-to-be-15-year-old expands on the theme of that song, which was about a seriously ill girl, by commissioning musical settings for some of the poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek, another young teenager suffering from muscular dystrophy whose series of life-affirming "heartsongs" books (Heartsongs, Journey Through Heartsongs, etc.) have made him a best-selling author. Stepanek's poems were not intended to be song lyrics, and the various composers, all Nashville pros, have been forced to write around the words, which nevertheless suffer stretching and enjambment here and there. Gilman offers up his "One Voice" innocent take on the simple-minded, repetitious sentiments ("We must celebrate the gift of life," "The gift of color is so beautiful," "Memories are a great gift"), adding depth with songs that turn maudlin ("It Happened Anyway," about the death of one of Stepanek's brothers) and plaintive ("I Could...if They Would," about Stepanek's hopes for a cure). Of course, the overhanging threat of death is what it takes to give this material substance; otherwise, it is revealed for what it really is, the vague musings of a not-particularly talented child. You can see why Gilman was attracted to the project, but he might be better off taking on lighter subject matter next time, lest he be typed as the voice of the unbearably earnest.

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