Of course, that was a long time ago, when the Carrollton-raised singer/songwriter and impresario was just a little boy, trying to win a talent show.
“As a child, you don’t understand lyrics,” he recently and sheepishly explained.
While that episode may have been one of pushing the envelope too far, Gentry is still interested in exceeding expectations. After years of performing around Georgia, after building the nation’s largest dance club and concert hall (Wild Bill’s) to showcase his band and other artists, Gentry has been spending the past few months launching a national career, all with a new album that’s been a year in the making.
Gentry will be the featured artist in a free concert at The Amp that will coincide with the annual Taste of Carrollton event, to be held between 5:30 and 8 p.m. His concert is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., and it will be the first time he has played to his hometown in about two years.
Gentry is a true product of whatever it is that makes west Georgia a nurturing spot for musical talent. But he believes he knows why this area has produced so many musicians, songwriters and performers.
“As we grew up, West Georgia College — now the University of West Georgia — (had) a lot to do with it. Here, you take a bunch of country people, and I mean that in a good way, I’m proud to be country, and interject some higher education and some art.”
He says living in a college town has meant that Carrollton has played host to many musical acts that would never play other small towns.
“This is kind of the theme of my music,” he said. “My theme is that we’re in a spot in West Georgia where a lot of musical influences collide.”
But there have been other influences on his life, including an amazing family. An older brother sang on Broadway; his sister starred in musicals, his step-father is a decorated World War II hero; but his mother, Tommie Freeman, a talented quilter and expert on quilting, may have had the most profound impact on his musical interests.
“At home, mama was always playing music,” said Gentry.
Back then, of course, the music was on vinyl records, 45s and LPs, and the music itself was a diverse range of Soul, R&B, Rock and other genres.
“My music is very back beat driven, and I think osmosis had a lot to do with it — the influence of what (Freeman) was listening to and … older brothers and sister that put me onto classic rock.” Thus, Gentry developed an eclectic taste for music outside of what might be expected of a country performer.
“There’s nothing better for me than to listen to Ray Charles sing. Of all the current, modern people on the planet who sing, his voice does it for me and his soul does it for me. And I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of people my age who would say that.”
It was Gentry’s time in Carrollton that ultimately shaped his musical choices. There was his guitar teacher, for one, and others he met while working at Ballew’s Music.
“A lot of these people really did influence what I was playing and listening to; this circle of people that I was growing up with, including my family. And don’t leave out church choir. That was regular.”
He also credits time spent in the 4-H program with motivating him for seeking a career in music.
“Without the Georgia 4-H, I wouldn’t have learned to be a leader, which has allowed me to do a lot of things in life. And I definitely wouldn’t be in front of audiences performing songs, which also allows me to do what I am now doing.”
What he has been doing are some mighty big things. After years “working the Georgia region hard” with his road band, Gentry realized he could play bigger rooms than those in which he was then appearing. So, he built “Wild Bill’s” in Duluth, which claims to be the largest dance club and concert venue in the country.
In addition to being a venue for his own band, Wild Bill’s has been the “launching point” for many other groups, something he never anticipated when he started the club.
“It makes me proud; it makes me as equally proud as to stand on that stage and sing,” he said.
“It’s been a blessing in so many ways. It’s been hard, though, to keep running an entertainment venue — and thank goodness I have a wonderful staff that really keeps it in the road for me, because (that) allows me to go out and be on the road singing.”
For much of the past year, Gentry was composing and searching for songs for an album that will debut his national career. “Baptized in Temptation,” is a 10-track disc that, in the words of his promoter, “captures both the rowdy party boy and the thoughtful mate; the country stylist and the blues-rocker.”
The songs on the album are clean and sharp, thanks to the high production values of Grammy-winner Chad Carlson, who has also worked with Taylor Swift, Trisha Yearwood, Chris Isaak, Sugarland and others. Along with two tracks by Gentry, there are also several songs which were written by composers with “dozens of Number One hits” to their credit.
To promote the album, Gentry is now in the middle of a national tour which includes stops in Maryland, South Carolina, Indiana and Florida, as well as other gigs. But he is clearly looking forward to playing to a hometown crowd.
“I miss Carrollton. I miss home. I miss living there all the time, and I miss playing (there) more,” he said.