The first thing you need to know about my little brother is that he never does anything on a small scale.
Take the Great Peach Campaign, for example, which really started the whole phenomenon of Bill Gentry: the biggest country-music star you've never heard of.
In 2001, Bill was still honing his chops as a performer and gigging in little country-music juke joints. But he was also hustling enough to get himself a showcase in Nashville. Now, any aspiring country singer can book a "showcase" in Nashville. The trouble is, if no one knows who you are, no one is going to show up to see your show.
For Bill Gentry, a Nashville showcase in front of an empty house was not an option. Hence the Great Peach Campaign.
It began one morning when every single person who arrived to work on Music Row saw the same thing plastered on almost every bus-stop bench they passed: a sign that read, "Do You Know Bill Gentry?"
A few weeks later, a second sign mysteriously appeared on almost every bus-stop bench around Music Row, this time with: "Have You Heard Bill Gentry?"
This is where the peaches come in.
The logic was simple. He is from Georgia. Georgia means peaches. So he buys 3,000 pounds of peaches. He buys 10 big wooden crates. He puts 300 pounds of peaches into each crate, along with a supply of baskets. Then he gets a couple of fake delivery company uniforms and enlists his old college roommate to help him. And then Bill Gentry delivers a crate of peaches – courtesy of Bill Gentry – to every major record label on Music Row. Individual peach baskets included.
My kid brother had materialized in Nashville out of thin air and created an almost unheard-of buzz. Almost 1,000 people turned out at his showcase, including representatives from three record labels. One of them, the president of Virgin Records' country division, called Bill's publicist the very next morning to request a meeting. And even though the label closed its country division a couple months later, Bill Gentry had put himself on the Music City map.
When Bill first announced his intention 10 years ago to become the Next Big Thing in country music, I watched with detached bemusement. I was a musician. I played blues music, the real stuff. To me, he seemed determined to market and self-promote his way to stardom. He struck me as a poor man's Garth Brooks.
I didn't think he stood a chance.
This was before he built a mammoth fan base in North Georgia; before he opened Wild Bill's, the largest country-music club in America; before I saw him repel down from the roof to the stage to open a concert in front of 5,000 adoring fans; and long before the most powerful attorney in the music business decided he was going to get Bill Gentry a major-label deal.
This month, he returns to Nashville to work with a big-name producer. He'll record songs that will soon be on the desks of the top music executives in Nashville. And they will be pushed very hard by some very important people to sign him to a record deal. After all this time, my little brother is actually on the brink of becoming a country-music star. So, OK. Maybe I was a little wrong. But I'd thought he was merely chasing a dream.
I had no idea he was actually trying to chase down a ghost.
THE GREAT CAKE CAPER is truly the stuff of family lore. The cake in question was baked on a Saturday for a Sunday get-together. Bill and his older sister, Mimi, begged for a slice, but the cake had to remain pristine and uncut. Which brings up the second thing you need to know about my brother: Once he sets his mind to something, he's not going to stop until he gets it. He's the kind of person who thinks sheer force of his nature can transcend logic.
After everyone went to bed, Mimi and Bill sneaked downstairs. They took a knife, cut all the way through the cake about a quarter inch from the bottom. Then they carefully lifted the cake from its bottom layer and placed it onto a new plate, and gleefully gulped down their bounty, thinking no one would be the wiser. Of course, they got busted. Bill always got busted. That was part of his charm.
Bill and Mimi are actually my step-siblings. My father married their mother in 1979, 10 years after their father had died from heart problems. Bill's father was Lee Gentry, a Presbyterian minister from Mississippi. Mimi and Bill were born in Mississippi but raised on a 250-acre cattle farm outside Carrollton, about 45 miles west of Atlanta. Their three oldest siblings were from their mother's first marriage, to a former football star who also died unexpectedly.
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