A little more than a year ago, in December of 2008, a then-smoldering Texas group called Eli Young Band happened through town with a relatively new record deal and a CD on the Universal Records South label in hand. At the time, it seemed a natural fit for the act to be playing Cain's Ballroom, a venue known for its storied past and history of hosting a music encyclopedia's worth of country, Texas and Red Dirt acts.
Although the show wasn't sold out, it was a good sign of things to come--a large and appreciative audience, an energetic stage show and an enthusiastically receptive response to material that was reasonably new to most ears in the crowd. A quick look around made it obvious where Eli Young Band was making its biggest impact--primarily, the college and post-college 20-something crowd that reacts so fondly to Red Dirt rockers like Cross Canadian and No Justice as well as the contemporary pop-country market.
As I openly confessed at that time, I normally abhor acts like this. Most scream of pre-packaging and marketing ploys, but the band's latest disc stood out as something different. Yes, the album fit sonically with contemporary country but instead of sounding forced or formulaic, the songs felt natural and organic.
With songwriters Mike Eli and James Young keeping a hand in eight of the album's dozen cuts, the band's personality shined through without getting washed away in Nashvillian production.
Drummer Chris Thompson said last week that before signing with Universal South, the band was already touring and playing roughly 200 shows a year, and he didn't honestly expect the band could get much busier. Surprisingly to the band, but not many others, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The group's debut single, "When It Rains," had already launched the band into the national spotlight, and it landed the band comfortably in the Top 40 country charts. The follow-up, "Always the Love Songs," had already eased its way into the Top 40 when the band landed in the Ballroom but eventually went on to settle in as the band's first Top 10 single. As could be expected, the band's schedule only got busier, landing the group on CMT, various other network TV appearances and resulting in even more tour stops.
Although the mainstream push for Jet Black and Jealous has eased up as the band prepares for its next release, the group hasn't let go of the reins just yet. With a new video shot and released just a few short weeks ago for "Guinevere," Eli Young Band is closing out of the Jet Black cycle on a high note. The video immediately landed in heavy rotation and was even added as a bonus to CMT's Top 25 video countdown. According to Thompson, however, the band never intended to make "Guinevere" a single.
"The fans response was just so great and so many people connected with it, we really just shot the video for our fans," he said. As should be expected, the song is now beginning to find radio airplay as well. Still, Thompson contends that "stations that have always played our music, primarily in Texas and a few other places are playing it, but we're not actively pushing anything."
Even so, audience demand for the band not only has the new video cruising up the charts but also keeps the band on the road, even as it prepares for its sophomore release on Universal South.
Evidence of the band's booming popularity is evident with the band's return to Cain's Ballroom for a two-night stand this weekend. Even so, Thompson still seems a little incredulous when considering the following his group has developed--especially in Tulsa.
"The first time we played Tulsa, it was at Dirty's Tavern, and we played to maybe 40 people," he said. "The next time we came back, we played Bob's two years later and it sold out.
That's kind of weird for a group that hadn't done any respectable numbers previously."
Even so, it was enough to call for Eli Young Band to headline the main stage in the Ballroom in late 2008 and return for even more this weekend. "This is the first time we've done two nights anywhere," Thompson said. "We've entertained the idea of maybe doing it on our home turf in the Dallas/Fort Worth area but never have."
The shows at Cain's promise to be something special as the band shakes up its set list as it launches into the New Year, adding some of the older material that long-time fans have been requesting and stepping up the production. Although the band does have a couple of smaller club shows leading into the Cain's stand, Thompson explained, "This will be our first big production show of the year, so we'll be doing some things we've never done before."
When asked about the band's popularity and acceptance, Thompson said that the challenge for the band has always been to find its home or niche, something that he's always enjoyed about the band because the members each have diverse backgrounds and all have a say in the creative process.
"The Red Dirt/Texas music scene has really embraced us, though," he said. "The artists in those genres just go out and play. They aren't about genres or picking a certain style and sticking to it. That's the mentality of the whole scene and even if people say 'Yes, you are' or 'No, you aren't' (a part of that scene), that's where we came from."
Looking forward to what 2010 has in store, Thompson said that the band has already started recording its follow-up album and cut five or six songs at a studio in Franklin, Tenn., with Mike Eli and James Young returning to finish overdubs the second week of January. With tentative plans to return to the studio in a couple of weeks to finish up a new disc, Thompson said that the band would like to have a new single out by late February and hoped to have a new record out by summer.
Regardless of when the new disc gets finished, 2010 promises to be an even bigger and busier year for Eli Young Band than the past two have been. The band has already signed on for the "Country Throwdown Tour," a touring country music festival designed by the people who run the Vans Warped Tour, alongside Montgomery Gentry, Jamey Johnson, Little Big Town, Jack Ingram and Eric Church amongst others. Discussions have also begun to possibly land the group opening slots on a couple of major tours during the summer, even as the band tries to wrap up its sophomore release for Universal South.
At the moment, however, Thompson and the rest of the band are looking forward to returning to Tulsa for shows at Cain's Ballroom Friday and Saturday night, Jan. 29 and 30 with Sean McConnell opening each night. Country rockers Reckless Kelly will also be sharing the stage on Saturday night, adding to the evening's value. Tickets are still available for $23 in advance or $26 at the door with an option to purchase tickets for both shows for only $41.
With a two-night stand in the card for this year's Tulsa stop, now is the time to check out Eli Young Band in an appropriately intimate venue. With a new album in the wings and even more opportunities arising, the next time group returns to town, it just might be for a show at BOK Center. It might sound like a stretch for the band that started out playing for 40 people at Dirty's, but if the group continues to write and play from the heart, it only seems like the logical progression.
Share this article: