Billy the Kid

updated 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 01:00AM

He had the hit album, the cowboy hats, the boots. But one ingredient of Nashville stardom was missing, so Billy Gilman did what all genuine country singers do: He took up golf. Very, very briefly. "All of a sudden a golf ball hit me in my mouth," he says, recalling his painful initiation into the sport on July 4. "I opened my mouth, and it was a waterfall of blood. It was so gross, and out comes my right front tooth, root and all. It hurt." Before his orthodontist fit him with braces to secure the reattached tooth, "I was bawling," he admits.

Country likes a man who can admit his pain, and it sure likes Gilman. Only 12, he has already scored a No. 1 country single, the title track from his gold album, One Voice. "It's really uncanny—he performs like an adult," says singer Pam Tillis, who has known Gilman since he was a preschooler.

Raised along with brother Colin, 8, in Hope Valley, R.I., by Fran, 42, a former secretary, and Bill, 37, a technician at an oil-and gas-delivery business, Billy was 5 when he began to hone his talent on a karaoke machine he had received for his birthday. By first grade he was wowing classmates at show-and-tell; at 9 he turned pro, opening for Jo Dee Messina at a county fair. Signed by Sony last fall, he now counts stars like Dolly Parton, whom he met at the Academy of Country Music Awards in May, as fans. "She goes—in that Tennessee accent—'Hope you know what you're doing, Billy, 'cause this is what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life.' I just thought, 'Yippee!' "

Billy, who completed his sixth-grade studies with tutoring, got a grown-up lesson when he broke up with his fifth-grade girlfriend. "I was gone a long time; she was seeing another boy, and I was seeing another girl," he says. "We finally said, 'Listen, obviously nothing's working out.' " Perhaps there's a song in there somewhere. At least, he says, he can now relate to "the sadder songs" he sings. "I've I had a taste of what it's like."

Cue the steel guitar. And fade.

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