If you're looking for the most successful act to come out of Texas this decade, you might point your eyes toward Denton. With minimal drama or much attention outside their own rabid fan base, the Eli Young Band has modestly racked up enough record sales and music-biz karma that they're now one of country music's biggest groups, with a clutch of No. 1 singles including the recent "Drunk Last Night."
The four good-looking guys in their early thirties have ridden down-to-earth charm, ringing guitars and an unerring ear for melodies from East Texas college bars to NFL stadiums like Reliant, where tonight EYB will make their third RodeoHouston appearance. Realistic takes on romance and slice-of-life sincerity are the twin threads running from early singles like "Always the Love Songs," "When It Rains" and "Jet Black and Jealous" through the blockbusters "Crazy Girl" -- Billboard's No. 1 country song of 2011 -- and its Grammy-nominated, almost-as-successful follow-up "Even If It Breaks Your Heart."
In other words, EYB is the antithesis of the chest-thumping, outlaw-posturing, patience-trying strain of country music now known as "bro-country." And as diplomatically as he can possibly put it, drummer Chris Thompson admits as much.
"I think there's an interesting trend in country music on the radio right now, and I'm happy that my band in particular has never been a band to follow trends," he says. "We can stand on our own two feet musically, and be proud of every song we've ever recorded in our entire catalog. [We] know our direction without having to chase a trend."
But, Thompson says, EYB is not averse to writing about something like a pickup truck so long as it suits the song; that just doesn't happen very often. Asked to choose a pickup-truck song from the EYB catalog, Thompson had to reach all the way back to "Small Town Kid," from one of their independent albums, 2005's Level. Since then, "we try to never write the same song twice," Thompson says.
But that's not to say they wouldn't mention pickups again under the right circumstance, he adds.
"I think there's always a lot of songs about pickup trucks in country music," offers Thompson. "Country music is about real life, the stories and all that that we all experience. Pickup trucks happen to be a part of that. I think you could write songs all day about pickup trucks, but as long as you write a good one, I want to hear it on the radio."
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Though it ain't about pickups, one such song released last September, "Drunk Last Night," has now been certified Gold, meaning sales in excess of 600,000. Hardly the stereotypical beer-hoisting anthem so common on country radio these days, it's instead a hungover apology to either an ex or (at the very least) an estranged lover, full of sheepish lyrics like "Brought it all up/ Got it all out/ What is it worth/ Both of us now."
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"My Kinda Party" it ain't, but it is a prime example of what EYB does so successfully. Since their days on the college circuit -- singer-guitarists Mike Eli and James Young formed the group in the early 2000s at the University of North Texas; Thompson and bassist Jon Jones hopped on board shortly thereafter -- EYB's songs allow the audience to act as surrogate, and instantly relate to the situation. Signature anthemic choruses such as on "Drunk" don't hurt, either.
"We've all been there," Thompson says of their latest smash. "We've all had those nights where you've probably had one too many and you try to reach out to that person that you probably shouldn't reach out to, and then regret it in the morning. Everyone, or everyone that I know at least, has had one of those nights."
That we've-all-been-there feeling also permeates the title song on EYB's second major-label album, 10,000 Towns, which was released Tuesday.
"At its core the song is really about how whatever's going on in the town that you live in, however you're having fun or any of that kind of stuff, is going on in all of these other towns too at the same time," Thompson says.
And this band would know more than most. The drummer -- who was calling from Erie, Pa. last week while EYB was on tour opening for Darius Rucker; they were special guests on Kenny Chesney's "Life On a Rock" stadium jaunt last year -- admits the album has an easy double meaning. If EYB hasn't played for quite that many crowds at this point, they're pretty damn close.
"We've been a touring band for so long, in a lot of ways it feels like we have been to 10,000 towns," Thompson says. "Granted, if you do the math, it doesn't really add up, but in an exaggerated kind of way it definitely feels like it."
Eli Young Band plays the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo tonight at Reliant Stadium, 1 Reliant Park. Music starts a little before 9 p.m., right after the mutton bustin'.
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