The Eli Young Band and the Evolution of an “Overnight Success”

The whirlwind success of the Eli Young Band bridges a gap between two powerful music forces – Texas and Tennessee.

In 2011 the song “Crazy Girl” climbed to the top of the country music charts. Nationally, many had never heard of the band behind the song – the Eli Young Band. When the band followed up “Crazy Girl” with the smash hit “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” the Eli Young Band was stamped an overnight success story and is now a continued fixture on the Top 40. Good story, right? No doubt, but the band’s history is way more interesting than that.

To examine the Eli Young Band, I think you need to understand the divide in country music between Tennessee and Texas. Austin may be the live music capital of the world, but its country music is all but ignored in the Music City – Nashville. The country music scene in Austin exploded in the early 1970’s. While Nashville was admiring Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” a revolution was occurring in Texas. Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, among others, would help create a sound that would change country and rock. It would influence a new generation of incredible young singer-songwriters such as Robert Earl Keen, Roger Creager, Lyle Lovett, Jason Boland, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Wade Bowen and others.  There is a great article in the Texas Monthly about the time that you can read here.

Despite the revolution, few who toiled long in the red dirt would find lasting success on Music Row. George Strait is the real exception. He began as a young singer in San Marcos, Texas and grew to become one of the most famous men in country music history. Miranda Lambert is from Texas. Lyle Lovett wrote “The Front Porch Song” with Robert Earl Keen as a college student in College Station, Texas before picking up some Grammys and unthinkably scoring Julia Roberts. Pat Green rode a “Wave on Wave” but he couldn’t “Carry On” a Top 40 career. Ryan Bingham’s vocal cameo in “Crazy Heart” introduced the world to a talented and throaty troubadour from Texas. Cross Canadian Ragweed taught the world that boys from Oklahoma do indeed have trouble rolling good doobies. Others like Casey Donahew, Randy Rogers, Josh Abbott, and Kevin Fowler have produced blips on the Nashville radar, but they have yet to sustain a national radio presence. Some argue to find your name on the Top 40 you have to “sell out” or that you have to pander to the Nashville record executives. Others would argue that you just have to produce good music. Is Jason Aldean better than Josh Abbott? Is Luke Bryan more talented than Casey Donahew? That’s for critics and fans to debate, and not me (at least not in this column.) In the middle of this divide stands the Eli Young Band, who seems to have bridged a gap that few ever do – maintaining lasting success in Nashville, after riding a long red dirt road.

Eli Young is not one man, but two. Mike Eli and James Young, along with Jon Jones and Chris Thompson make up the Eli Young Band. The group came together late last century at the University of North Texas in Denton. In 2002 the band released its self-titled debut album. Three years later the band released Level and the freight train began picking up steam. Meanwhile the band toured exhaustively in Texas. It’s hard to find a young female in a Texas country bar who won’t tell you her favorite band is Eli Young (that’s information I pay attention to). The band’s touring in Texas and nationally played a big part in all of this. 2008’s Jet Black & Jealous provided the band with its first taste of the Top 40 steak thanks to “When It Rains.” The band followed that up with “Always the Love Songs” which peaked at #11. “Radio Waves” and “Guinevere” also spent some time on the charts.

With its release of Life at Best in 2011, the Eli Young Band got gold, or more correctly platinum. #1 “Crazy Girl” was followed up by the chart-topping “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.” “Say Goodnight” continued the meteoric rise of the band. “Drunk Last Night” has cemented the band’s forthcoming release as a country music must-have.

Eli Young seems to possess a sound that’s unique and yet mainstream enough for today’s Nashville Top 40 audience. Mike Eli has an incredibly appealing voice. He has a great range and his edgy vocals mesh well with the three talented musicians behind him. Together they produce music that can cross genres. There’s the boot-stomping anthems “When It Rains,” “Small Town Kid” and “Oklahoma Girl.” Yet the band can tug at the heart strings with songs like “Everything is You,” “Guinevere,” and “Highways and Broken Hearts.” It provides emotional ballads that exude growing pains and the hazards of the road.

Film and music must be the two hardest and most frustrating callings. How do you make a platinum record? How do you make a Titanic and not a Waterworld? How do you win a Grammy? How do you win an Oscar? Why is the Zac Brown Band world-famous and few casual music fans have ever heard of Reckless Kelly? It’s just all so superficial. In music, it of course helps to be signed with a record company who can get your music out to every radio station in the country, and then coax DJ’s to play it.

The road to success in music is changing. I don’t want to say it has gotten easier. For every Justin Bieber there are a thousand other young boys hoping to do exactly like the Biebs did. For every Carrie Underwood there is a Ruben Stoddard. But reality television shows and YouTube have more regularly made nobodys into national sensations “overnight”. Behind that “overnight” success there of course are the endless hours training vocal chords and strumming guitars. That’s what the screaming girls and jealous boys don’t see. The stages have changed, the work of course hasn’t. The band’s website compares Eli Young’s rise to that of Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, Nirvana and Bob Seger in that only relentless touring cemented success. It wasn’t a YouTube post or a national broadcasting sing-off that made Eli Young, it was a combination of talent, hard-work, luck, dedication and the tenacity to cultivate a loyal fan base in rich soil and watch it grow. It may be a fading path, but for Eli Young it was the one driven to overnight success.

Eli Young Band Essential Playlist

“The Fight” (Life at Best, 2011) – You have to fail a thousand times before you see it through/ You’ve got to spend your last dime before you ever make a million. You’ve gotta know what you brought you here/and you’ve got to lose to persevere. But it’s the way the sun will rise through the darkest night./Yeah, it’s always been worth the fight.  How about a song that could describe four friends who started a band and more than a decade later find themselves the toast of country music.

“When It Rains” (Jet Black & Jealous, 2008)  – This song has an old theme. The Temptations did “Wish It Would Rain” in 1968. But I dare you not to hear this song and start toe-tapping.

“Guenivere” (Jet Black & Jealous) – From the opening melody this song just sounds different. It kind of reminds me of Matchbox Twenty’s “3AM” because it describes a specific woman very abstractly. It has some lyrics in it that are jaw-dropping. She carries memories around like souvenirs down in her pockets/She should have let some go by now but can’t seem to drop it/Says forgiveness ain’t nothing but a lifeless tire on the shoulder of her soul – it never rolls. Eli Young Band – out

“Small Town Kid” (Level, 2005) – This song’s for the mamas. The opening song to Level, it describes a kid who finds himself in the bustling big city, but he ain’t gonna forget where he came from. Also, this song has a head-banging beat.

“Oklahoma Girl” (Level)A Texas boy just might find something in an Oklahoma girl. Pretty much sums up the song, but when you hear it you are going to want to find your nearest dance floor.

“Even if It Breaks Your Heart” (Life at Best) – This song is probably Eli Young’s most famous. Listen to this when you feel like your dreams are nothing more than sleeping aberrations, it is a good pick-me-up.

“Famous” (Jet Black & Jealous) – A guy wants a girl. He thinks if he was famous he would get her. How many musicians have been pushed by this emotion? Okay, not just musicians – pretty much everybody.

“So Close Now” (Level) – It’s time to leave home because the world and dreams are calling. But leaving is never as easy as you think it’s going to be.

“Everything is You” (Level) – Heartbreak at its finest. It’s beautiful, but not pandering. In Mike Eli’s voice we can feel the pain.

“Crazy Girl” (Life at Best) – Boyfriends in the doghouse – you might want to have a listen.

“Say Goodnight” (Life at Best) – A great example of Mike Eli’s range. It’s a simple melody, but Eli brings it forward.

“Always the Love Songs” (Jet Black & Jealous) – This was Eli Young’s first big hit. Nashville must have noticed because a good portion of the songs now released in Nashville has this theme – young people around a bonfire just living and loving life.

“Drunk Last Night” (unreleased album) – Let’s finish strong. This song also makes me believe Eli Young’s star won’t fade but continue to shine. 


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