Mike Eli, lead singer for the ascending Eli Young Band, has seen the quartet he helped start in Denton in 2000 go from playing some of the smallest stages in North Texas to being awarded country music's top trophies, including the recent ACM award for Song of the Year, for their single "Crazy Girl." The band made the victorious commercial jump into the mainstream, but unlike Pat Green or Jack Ingram, however, the Eli Young Band has become a hit-making machine, a fact cemented with their second number one single from this past July, the Will Hoge-penned "Even If It Breaks Your Heart."
Such an achievement isn't terribly surprising, given the band has always leaned towards the slicker side of the Texas country spectrum, therefore making them a stronger sonic contender for breakout success. It also helps that Eli and the rest of the band, before and after signing their major label deal, have been willing to perform tunes from other writers, and not insist upon only recording their own material.
"A great song is a great song," says Eli over the phone as he runs holiday errands with his daughter in Fort Worth. "We've never been opposed to recording songs we didn't write. I mean, there are some songs that you just can't pass up. As songwriters, I consider us smart enough to realize that when a song like "Even If it Breaks Your Heart" is put in front of you, then you need to record it. You hear a song like that, and you feel like someone wrote it for you."
Being known as the band who put other songs such as "Always the Love Songs" and their new, sure-to-be-a-hit single, "Say Goodnight," onto airwaves across the country is nice, but Eli isn't shy about admitting he would like to have one of his own tunes become a massive hit.
"There's definitely a little pressure to have a song we wrote or co-wrote get out and go to the top of the charts," he says. "We've written singles in the past, like 'Radio Waves' or 'Guinevere' that have come out, but that was at a time when we were in transition between our record labels, and those songs didn't have a chance to really shine. So, there is pressure, but it's not really a lot of pressure. We don't want to be naive or prideful to the point of keeping us from making a great album."
For years, especially as the Texas brand of country and Red Dirt music emerged in the late '90s, associating with the suits on Nashville's Music Row in any way, shape or form was tantamount to musical treason. To many, the pop styling of Top 40 radio was an evil to be avoided at all costs. Even revered acts such as Cross Canadian Ragweed have had to dodge the "sell-out" dart that gets tossed their way when they sign on a major label's dotted line. At this point in time, though, those regional and philosophical lines have blurred to the point of near non-existence. Eli feels as though people would be slower to term any artist a "sell-out" if they better understood what it now takes for a band to get their music to the masses.
"It's tough to explain to everyone, but it takes so much to break your songs," Eli says. "When we signed our major label deal, we started making less money at that point than we had before, because of all the obligations we had in terms of promoting the records or the singles. We also have sacrificed a great amount of time from home. We've had to take advantage of every opportunity that has come our way to break out. I think the term 'sell-out' is a bogus one. If anyone could really witness what it takes to break your songs, they would understand what a completely bogus idea that is in this day and age."
Besides the respectable manner in which the band has earned its rewards, there's something to be said for the fact each member still resides in Texas. Such Lone Star loyalty should count for something.
"Texas will always be our home. Three of us live just outside of Ft. Worth and Chris [Thompson], our drummer, lives in Austin. What we have now, as a band, has been built on the shoulders of our fans in Texas. We'll never leave."