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Sweethearts of the Radio

The Eli Young Band got to the top of the country music business the old-fashioned way: one program director at a time.

By January 2014Comments

Our goal has always been to take over the world.” 

That’s a bold and almost laughably naive thing for a musician to say out loud, especially in this day and age, when you can’t even count on Katy Perry or Lady Gaga to post blockbuster numbers. But Mike Eli just said it, with a straight face and full heart. Then again, 72 hours earlier, Eli was onstage in front of 18,000 fans at Rangers Ballpark, in Arlington. This wasn’t one of the seventeen stadium dates the Eli Young Band, the group he leads with James Young, had signed on for as one of Kenny Chesney’s opening acts in 2013. This was the band’s show, and its first-ever stadium show as the headliner. Thousands of people bought tickets and ponied up for parking and overpriced beer to sing along to “Drunk Last Night,” one of country radio’s biggest anthems of the year. And then they sang again, and again, as the band played its back-to-back Billboard country number ones, “Crazy Girl” and “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which together have been purchased for download more than 3.5 million times. In 2012, in fact, “Crazy Girl” beat out offerings from Chesney, Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, and Lady Antebellum to win the Academy of Country Music’s Song of the Year. Today the Eli Young Band is, hands down, Texas country music’s most successful export this side of Miranda Lambert. So who’s laughing now? 

In country music, loyalty is everything, and nothing is more important than dancing with the one who brung you. And in country music, only radio can turn stars into superstars and superstars into household names. So in Arlington, on the day of the show, Eli and his bandmates put aside hours of their day to thank not just the two Dallas–Fort Worth powerhouse stations that now play them in heavy rotation but also half a dozen smaller regional stations that were there for the Eli Young Band early in their career. It’s those relationships—and the band’s tireless efforts to build them—that brought the group to the top. Providing those stations with easy-to-sing-along-to anthems hasn’t hurt their cause either. And luck? Sure. But luck’s nothing if you haven’t been relentless. From almost day one, the Eli Young Band has acted like the politician who’s running for the statehouse but has his eye on the White House. Two-hundred-plus shows a year. Early-morning gigs in radio-station conference rooms. More meet and greets than a department-store Santa. Some nights the band would trade a big payday in College Station for an empty bar in Chicago, hoping that Chicago bar wouldn’t be empty the fourth or fifth time around. That’s why a band that once strived to be mentioned in the same conversation as Pat Green or Jack Ingram is now fighting for number ones with Keith Urban and Taylor Swift.

Three hit radio singles in a row have a way of making bands look like overnight suc-cesses, but here’s the part of the story Eli loves seeing the reaction to: the Eli Young Band has been at this for thirteen years. Eli and Young first met at their University of North Texas dorm and quickly picked up a regular gig as an acoustic duo at the R Bar, a Denton frat hangout that didn’t have a stage, just a corner for them to set up in. Bassist Jon Jones and drummer Chris Thompson, who had played with Young in another band, joined a few months later. And while they made decent money (for college students it was great money) on the weekends touring the Red Dirt circuit across Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, it wasn’t until a band meeting a few months before graduation that they decided to put their degrees and professional aspirations aside in pursuit of their dream of hitting it big outside their home turf.

“That meeting was the turning point,” Eli says. “That’s the meeting where we decided we were all in this, all completely committed to taking this as far as we possibly could.”

Initially, the main hurdle the band faced from the country music industry was one many Red Dirt musicians are familiar with: a resistance to artists from Texas. The cottage industry built by the scene’s biggest breadwinners has long been regarded by Nashville as a minor geographic phenomenon. Texans, the thinking goes, like songs about beer, trucks, and Texas, but how far outside Texas is that viable? Even the scene’s most charismatic and commercially ambitious artists—guys like Green and Ingram—have had a spotty track record on national radio. It doesn’t help that the skepticism runs in the other direction as well: the Texas country scene—built on the back of antiestablishment outlaws like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker—is famously dismissive of Nashville. 

For all their reverence for their forebears, the Eli Young Band didn’t sign on to that ethos. “We never said, ‘Screw Nashville,’ ” says Eli, who grew up outside Houston and as a teenager played the opry circuit. “Not because we had a master plan but because artists that are loved and cherished here in Texas made records in Nashville—guys like Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. Maybe it was naive, but we looked at that and said, ‘Why can’t we do it too?’ ”

Just a few years out of college, on the heels of two independently released records, the Eli Young Band had entered the Red Dirt upper echelon, where, between shows, album sales, and merchandising, top acts can earn $1 million a year in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana alone. But while you’d think the next step—a leap to a major label—might mean more money, the band actually had to cut back their earnings for a while. When Universal South released 2008’s Jet Black & Jealous, the band got their first taste of a “radio tour,” a grueling and often demoralizing process of playing conference rooms at any radio station that would have them, all for the sake of building relationships. Three or four station visits a day—where each time you’re expected to enthusiastically perform your new song five feet from a radio programmer’s face—isn’t unusual. And if the hectic schedule leaves any time for dinner, you can bet on terrible Mexican food—radio programmers across the country think it’s kitschy and fun to take Texas bands to their local Mexican joint. You make little or no money on radio tours and leave money on the table back at home. It’s an investment. And a risk that most Texas country acts size up and respond to with a firm “Thanks, but no thanks.” 

“The real music guy down in my soul hopes it comes down to the music at the end of the day, but you have to go out there and meet everyone you can,” Eli says. “And sometimes that came with hard decisions. Do we want to go on a fifth radio tour, another round of flying around the country and being away from home for three months, and not make any money doing it? And one of the stories of this band is that every time we’ve had to make those decisions, we’ve said yes.”

That eagerness paid off. “When It Rains,” the first single off Jet Black, spent 38 weeks on the country charts and peaked at number 34. The follow-up, “Always the Love Songs,” reached number 11. But there was still work to do: in 2011, while “Crazy Girl,” the first single off the band’s second major-label album, Life at Best, took a 37-week path to number one, they stayed absurdly busy. They played gigs nearly every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and met with or played special acoustic sets for two or three radio stations a day nearly every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. There are 128 country radio stations that report their playlists to the charts every week and thus control a song’s destiny. Each of those stations has a program director, a music director, and perhaps an influential morning host or two. And that year, the members of the Eli Young Band met almost every one of them. Perhaps as a result, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” the second song off Life at Best, climbed to number one in a slightly briefer 31 weeks. “Drunk Last Night,” the lead single from their forthcoming album, started its climb up Billboard’s country chart all the way back in July; at press time it was number 7. And how did it get there? More meet and greets with radio programmers. Lots more.

Like nearly every hit, “Drunk Last Night” also benefited from timing. In the past year, mainstream country has gravitated toward what New York magazine critic Jody Rosen has dubbed “bro country”: “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” And while the Eli Young Band isn’t quite as blatantly bro country as, say, Jason Aldean or Florida Georgia Line, that’s the point: they’re a friendlier, less trendy, less offensive bunch of guys who can relate to bro-friendly topics like girls and drinking without cheapening themselves with hip-hop breakdowns (yes, country music now incorporates subpar rapping).

“Drunk Last Night” is also timely in its sound: it opens with ringing guitars and a chorus you can pump your fist to. Right now rock aesthetics are encroaching on country in a big way; Eric Church played Lollapa-looza this summer, and Luke Bryan’s current tour finds him covering Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Still, the success of “Drunk Last Night” is ironic given that early on, one of the knocks the band would hear from radio programmers is that they were too rock for country. Now country radio has caught up. “The driving guitar at the front of ‘Drunk Last Night’ wouldn’t have worked five or six years ago,” says Jones. Eli agrees. “We’re almost too country for country now,” he says.

It would be hard to tell at one of their shows, though. “Everything you work for comes down to the moment when you can stop singing and the audience sings the song to you, or they’re singing it so loud you can’t hear yourself singing,” says Eli. “When ‘Crazy Girl’ cracked the top ten, we had to completely rework the beginning so that we could start the song correctly. We couldn’t hear each other over the crowd. That’s a pretty great problem to have.”

And the band knows why they’re lucky enough to have that problem. In November the four men took the stage at the Country Music Association Awards to present the awards for best radio stations. “We know firsthand how country radio can change your life,” Eli said. The words were read from a teleprompter and doubtless written by somebody else. But they were delivered with a full heart.

Andy Langer is the music columnist for Esquire and the afternoon DJ on KGSR, in Austin.

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