OH, MERCY! MEET DEVON GILFILLIAN
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Soul singer Devon Gilfillian hit the streets last year with thousands of his Nashville neighbors to protest police brutality after George Floyd's death was caught on video.
Gathering with the crowds at the hilltop Tennessee state capitol, “I saw people with instruments. I saw people with drums,” he said. “And I was like, I’m going bring my guitar next time.”
After that experience, he began to teach himself Marvin Gaye’s classic protest album from 1971, What’s Going On, a record that prompted a social and musical awakening among many soul artists of the day.
“He’s (also) saying what everyone needs to hear right now. Did no one listen to this record 50 years ago? What the fuck?” Gilfillian said. “As I was learning it, I just broke down crying.”
So Gilfillian made the audacious decision to re-record all of Gaye’s album and donate the proceeds to voting rights groups and other political causes.
Just how does one, even a talented singer and performer like Gilfillian, dare to cover the entirety of maybe the classic concept album of all time, just before its 50th anniversary?
With a little help from his friends.
Gilfillian's re-recording of Gaye's album became a project to “lift up the Black voices in Nashville." A flock of players and singers such as Jason Eskridge, the longtime host of Soul Sundays at East Nashville’s The 5 Spot club, joined him—along with singer-songwriters Ruby Amanfu, Joy Oladokun, Kyshona, and others.
The project is an artistic turning point for Gilfillian, who released his strong, major-label debut album Black Hole Rainbow in 2019.
“Especially after George Floyd was killed, as a Black artist, it changed,” Gilfillian said, “especially being a Black artist that has a very large white demographic.”
Outspoken but upbeat, Gilfillian spent those evenings at The 5 Spot and elsewhere building friendships and connections with many white Americana and even mainstream country artists in Nashville. He’s opened shows for progressive-leaning country act Brothers Osborne, the legendary Mavis Staples, Grace Potter and others.
“The community in Nashville here today, they want more than country music,” he said. “Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton and Margo Price and those cats who are kind of doing the alt-country thing, they’re wanting to pull into Americana the soul that’s happening, as well.”
“Nashville is hungry for diversity—and country music and soul music, they’re brothers and sisters,” he said.
Bluegrass and blues
It was at The 5 Spot where he met singer-songwriters Kyshona, Kelsey Waldon and “bands like Dynamo and other rock bands—like Liz Cooper and the Stampede—and my buddy Carl Anderson, who’s an amazing Americana songwriter,” he said.
“Also, I fell in love with country music. I fell in love with Willie and Waylon and Sturgill and Chris Stapleton, because they were singing real songs,” he said, “and The Steeldrivers and falling in love with bluegrass. Bluegrass and blues literally, (it) all comes from the same place.”
T.J. Osborne, one-half of the hit-making Brothers Osborne, approached Gilfillian about opening the duo’s shows. More recently, Osborne made news by becoming perhaps the most visible mainstream country artist to come out as gay.
“Honestly, T.J., he reached out to me when they were thinking about touring, because they were like, we want to bring in more diversity as well,” Gilfillian said.
The group is “bridging the gap between that country-country and real music and Americana, but also like rock ‘n roll in a lot of ways.”
“If you’re going to listen to my music, if you’re going to love this Black art, then you better understand the struggles Black people go through in this country,” he continued.
“The reason you get this music to listen to is because of all the struggles Black people have been going through for 300 years.”
A bigger purpose
While country-pop may be the big machine these days in Music City, there’s plenty more music, art and activism—and ways to make a decent living—that might matter more in the end, Gilfillian said.
Gilfillian grew up in a musical family in greater Philadelphia but majored in psychology at West Chester University near his hometown. Just after college in 2013, he landed in Nashville on assignment through AmeriCorps, which sends young adults into communities to work with children and provide other services.
“I applied to New Orleans and Austin and Nashville, knowing I wanted to go to a city that was musical,” he said. “It was fate that kind of pulled me down here.”
Eventually, his presence in Nashville led to discussions with famed producer Dave Cobb about a record deal, and then to work with singer Anderson East, who collaborates often with Cobb.
“I’m lucky that I kind of landed here when they were like, we want the brothers and sisters here,” he said with a laugh. “I’m gonna take advantage of the fact that you want my brown ass” involved.
“I want to bend the genres. I want to bring people together,” Gilfillian continued. “Yeah, I’m gonna kick this thing open. Why not?
Finally, a record deal came through with Capitol Records instead.
Before the protests and pandemic took hold, Gillfillian had released his major-label debut, Black Hole Rainbow. More recently, he put out Black Hole Rainbow Deluxe, with additional songs and some live versions of the originals from the album.
Black Hole Rainbow was nominated for a Grammy Award last year for Best Engineered Album in non-classical music, with albums by Beck and Nashville artists Katie Pruitt (the winner), Brittany Howard and Sierra Hull.
Looking for a rainbow
Listenable and funky, the songs on Black Hole Rainbow have a serious streak that gives the best tracks grounding and soul.
The album opens with “Unchained,” an upbeat, fuzz-guitar laden spiritual. The lyrics may be about Gilfillian’s brother Ryan, who now uses a wheelchair after injuries in a car accident and stars in the music video, making his way around the brothers’ old neighborhood:
Unchained and my heart is free
I’m still the man I was born to be
Nothing’s gonna hold me back
Nothing’s ever gonna hold me back
“I wanted to take soul music and neo-soul and the psychedelic rock n’ roll that I love and mix it all together,” he said. It’s “definitely an album about getting through the depression, getting to the other side and finding the light.”
Gilfillian’s also a soulful crooner on songs of love and heartbreak. He wails on the breakup ballad “Thank Me Later” and the mystical tune “The Stranger,” about surviving a car crash thanks in part to an unknown rescuer.
And you might have heard the intense, inspirational “Get Out and Get It” or his midtempo, alt-pop hit “The Good Life” in a restaurant or coffee shop.
The deluxe edition of Black Hole includes new live and remix versions of songs from the original album, plus several new cuts. “Troublemaker” is more straight-up blues-rock, with a slide guitar piercing into the alternative soul-and-gospel mix.
“Why” is a dose of smoother soul, laced with electric guitar. Then there’s a powerful, quieter version of “Unchained”: “I hear whispers all around me, but they can’t drown me out,” he sings.
“I’m such a melting pot of different music,” Gilfillian said. “I grew up listening to hip-hop … (and) loving Ferrell and Kanye and Timbaland.
“And also soul—Marvin and Otis, and really to me it’s so important to look at what Marvin was doing, to look at what Jimi was doing. He was breaking down the barriers, he was expanding the genres. Jimi changed psychedelic rock ‘n roll. He changed rock ‘n roll—the way everybody was playing the guitar,” he said.
Gilfillian’s version of the What’s Going On album is filled with straightforward performances of Gaye’s classics that give Gilfillian the space to sound like himself. Proceeds from the album go to the Equity Alliance.
“It just felt like the bigger purpose was to heal the country—and brother—to get Donald f-ing Trump out of the White House,” Gilfillian said of his album. “That was it for me.”
On the opening title track, he duets with Jasmine Cephas Jones, best known for her roles as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the original production of Hamilton. Kyshona, one of his friends from the 5 Spot, joins him on the pure-gospel “Jesus Is Love.”
It’s all a tribute to Marvin Gaye’s artistry and how socially conscious music can reach beyond genre’, beyond the listener’s racial background or location, Gilfillian said.
“Marvin changed soul music,” he said. “He made it popular for people to give a shit about what’s going on in the world.
“To be honest, Kendrick Lamar can do it better than I can,” he added. “I want my country fans to be able to look at Kendrick Lamar and to be like, okay, he’s singing the blues. He’s singing the blues that Black people are singing today, and I want them to see that connection.
“Ain’t that the blues? Really, the blues is hip-hop in so many ways. I want people to be able to see that, too.”
Gilfillian’s vision is likely one reason bluegrass-influenced Kelsey Waldon asked him to sing on her jubilant version of the jazz-soul classic “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free,” as covered by the great Nina Simone.
The track is from They’ll Never Keep Us Down, Waldon’s excellent album of protest songs by Simone, Hazel Dickens, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, and one of her mentors, John Prine. (See our earlier feature on Kelsey Waldon.)
Drummer Nate Felty often plays with both Gilfillian and Waldon.
“I didn’t know Nina ‘til, I want to say like five years ago,” Gilfillian said. “As hip as my dad is… I guess he wasn’t on the Nina Simone train so much.”
Then he saw the documentary about Ms. Simone’s life and career, and of course was awestruck.
“I was like, give me everything. All of it. She’s not a human, she really isn’t. She’s from another planet,” he said. “Fierce, fierce, so fierce.”
Gilfillian also is influenced by the unheralded impact of Black music in Nashville and its influences on country and rock ‘n roll. “Jimi Hendrix played in town. Jimi played on Broadway and on Jefferson Street,” he said.
“There is diversity in Nashville. It’s just pushed out of the business,” he said. “My whole neighborhood’s Latinx. … North Nashville’s all Black. South Nashville’s the biggest Kurdish population in the United States.
“So, at the end of the day, it’s not that Nashville’s a white city. The industry has to make space, and I’m grateful than I got to at least squeeze in.”
Gilfillian’s recent projects also include singing with the Virginia-based band Illiterate Light on the hit, “Freedom,” complete with a sci-fi-themed music video starring the group and Gilfillian himself.
Let me take down my walls
So I can hear you
Can’t you hear me, too
let’s just talk it through
The world has stopped for a reason
Now it’s you and me
There’s nothing in between us
Could it be, we’ve been sleeping?
Caught up in the dream
Wake up and we’ll sing
Cracks are in the ceiling…
Tomorrow is today.
This summer, Gilfillian plans to get back on the road—as always, choosing some unlikely places to appear, including a gig in South Carolina and Floydfest in Virginia and South Carolina.
He’s been writing for his second full studio album of original songs, which he hopes will be focused more intently on freedom.
“This next record’s going to be the one where I get out to the other side. We’re in the light … the love and diversity of the world that we strive for,” he said. “I want to figure out how to speak to the world.”