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ONCE HE DECIDED to open a country-music club, Bill Gentry flew around the United States and visited every major country-music venue in existence. He met the owners and learned from their successes and their mistakes. One thing he knew all along: He wanted his club to be big with a capital "B." "When I made the decision to open a club, I knew the only way we could do it was to be the biggest club in the U.S.," he says. "Because I knew if we were almost the biggest, I'd be disappointed down the road."
It was the same kind of drive his father had, an obsessive desire to succeed and to please everyone. "Our daddy was driven like crazy, never resting," Mimi told me. "He had a heart condition and he literally drove himself to death. Momma always worries about Bill doing the same thing."
For his nightclub, Bill found an abandoned Service Merchandise store by Gwinnett Place mall that had 72,000 square feet of space. He coaxed an investor to go in with him on the club, and began the arduous chore of turning a big-box store into a first-rate venue. It's a club whose very existence rested on his shoulders, because he planned to perform there himself three nights a week.
At first blush, it seemed like madness. But when Wild Bill's opened in May 2003, it caused a huge traffic jam all around the mall. "The opening night was surreal," Bill says. "About 5,500 people came through. It was the largest crowd that I had ever played in front of. The adrenaline rush was unbelievable. But, mostly, there was massive relief that people had shown up."
Here's something else you should know about my brother: When it comes to luck, he makes his own. Like the Great Peach Campaign. Or, like the time he flew to New York City to attend the 2005 Country Music Association awards show.
He ran into a friend from Atlanta who had flown up on his private jet. And after the show, he invited Bill to fly back to Atlanta on the jet. Sitting across from him on that flight was Don Perry, who happened to be the right-hand man to the most powerful music lawyer in the business. By the time they reached Atlanta, Perry was so taken with Bill that he offered to set up a meeting. And days later, he met Perry's boss – Joel Katz, who represents stars ranging from Willie Nelson to Christina Aguilera to Dallas Austin.
Perry says he was won over on the jet to Atlanta. "Bill's got a great personality and just exudes confidence," says Perry. "If that kind of person can translate his personality to the stage, then he's got something. And when I saw him perform, I saw that same exuberance in his stage show."
Katz was also taken in by his bravado. "Bill is smart, he's talented, a business success and a creative success," says Katz. "He has a real shot to dramatically show what he can do."
It was Katz and Perry who enlisted Charlie Brusco – whose list of clients includes Lynyrd Skynyrd, Styx, Peter Frampton and Bad Company – to manage Bill's career.
When I heard those names, I knew it was going to happen. People like Joel Katz and Don Perry and Charlie Brusco don't suffer fools.
It became obvious that my little brother might actually reach his dream of a Nashville record deal. But he was also learning an important lesson: The closer you get to the top, the harder the climb becomes.
IT TOOK HIM 10 years, but my brother finally invited me to sit in with his band last year. "I was afraid you'd say no," he confessed a couple of weeks ago.
Maybe he's right, but I'm glad I said yes.
Countless women screamed when he walked on stage with his band. The crowd sang along to songs they'd never heard even once on the radio. When my brother raised his hands and swayed them back and forth on a slow ballad, the audience mimicked him and there was a sea of swaying hands before us. He captivated the crowd, running across the huge stage he'd built and leaping off the drum riser like Springsteen and handing out T-shirts the way Elvis used to hand out scarves.
The surprise was the music. These songs were smart and fun and full of radio-friendly hooks. They were ... dare I say it? ... good. Southern rock with twang.
When he first put together the Gentrys, it seemed to be all about the thrill of trying to pull off the impossible. But as the years went by, he learned that part of the deal was having the music to pull it off. He made some smart moves. He surrounded himself with the best musicians he could find. He got his songs from Nashville songwriters, and showed a keen ability to pick ones that sounded as if he'd written them himself. He worked hard to improve his voice.
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