"If it weren't for him," Brantley Gilbert says of Keith Urban, "I'd probably be dead."
Those chilling words underscore an emotional interview Gilbert recently gave The Tennessean. The country star detailed his dovetail from star on the rise to unwitting rehab patron.
Gilbert started drinking in high school. And the parties, in particular, provided good opportunities to imbibe. "I think I remember liking it more than the other guys," Gilbert says. "I remember drinking it off in the morning."
A two-sport star in high school, Gilbert also received pain pills for sports injuries. He and his friends started abusing them around the time he drank more heavily. Plus, Gilbert possess a bit of a self-confessed "small guy" syndrome, which enamored him with tough guy attitudes.
The whole combination almost proved deadly, when he rolled his truck at age 19. Gilbert punched a friend at a high school party and then took off after him in his truck before hitting a ditch and flipping five or six times.
For most folks, that would've been the wakeup call. Especially considering the court-ordered group therapy and 12-step programs. But Gilbert managed to follow his bad habits all the way to Nashville. There, he actually landed a songwriting deal.
While co-writing, Gilbert said his laptop bag was packed with lyrics, two bottles of whiskey and a gun. Seriously.
And yet, in 2011, he achieved two back-to-back No. 1 hits as an artist. He already had success as a writer with songs like Jason Aldean's "Dirt Road Anthem." But now he had big value as a performer, too.
That is, until pain pills and booze led his pancreas to nearly explode. An emergency trip to the hospital ended in surgery and eventually Cumberland Heights. At the time, news of a Brantley Gilbert rehab stint made its way around town.
Gilbert absolutely hated it. Then, Keith Urban showed up. The Aussie country superstar famously suffered addiction to drugs and alcohol. He overcame after multiple stints in rehab, attributing his perseverance to wife Nicole Kidman.
Urban managed to speak to Gilbert in a way very few others could: as a country star who has been there.
"It's a drinking environment," Gilbert said of the industry. He worried that he couldn't perform sober. He actually was terrified of it. Urban said that, at one point, he feared the same thing.
But ultimately Urban discovered everything about his career improved. He became a better writer, singer and performer. And, most importantly, he had more fun.
"My whole world flipped," Gilbert said. "At that point, I was like, 'Alright.'"
Gilbert detoxed and left rehab a week later before heading out on Eric Church's tour. It's been more than five years since Gilbert drank or took pain pills, and his career exploded even further.
"As a man, I feel like I'm leaps and bounds ahead of where I was," Gilbert says. "I'm concerned about things that matter."
He now joins a growing list of sober stars, including Urban and Brad Paisley. Gilbert's new album The Devil Don't Sleep comes out Friday.