Now more than a decade old, the Eli Young Band is the rare Texas country act whose lyrics are not dominated by their home state and its musical heroes. Their music is largely fiddle-free, rather cut from the same cloth as pop-rockers like Tom Petty, Matchbox 20 and the Wallflowers, and if someone in the band is going to wear a hat, it will likely be a fedora rather than something of the cowboy or ballcap variety.
So not by coincidence, since the release of 2008 album Jet Black and Jealous, the Denton-formed EYB has become the most successful Texas act within country music at large, spinning off the huge hits "Crazy Girl," "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" and now "Say Goodnight" from Life at Best, whose weekly sales continue to grow despite its August 2011 release. "Crazy Girl" also picked up some hardware for the band by winning Song of the Year at the 2012 Academy of Country Music Awards.
One thing that definitely marks EYB as a Texas act, though, is its road-dog schedule. Last year the quartet went out with Rascal Flatts and Dierks Bentley (separately), and this year will do the opening honors on Kenny Chesney's summer fling.
"We like to stay busy," admits EYB's Jon Jones. Rocks Off caught up with the bassist and brand-new father as he was "starting to figure out what day of the week it is again" a few days before tomorrow and Friday's shows at House of Blues, which are almost guaranteed to be packed.
Rocks Off: What was the first venue/club/bar that really embraced the band?
Jon Jones: I would say the R Bar in Denton. That's the first place we ever played, and I think that's why we loved it. There wasn't even a stage there; we had to kind of set up in a corner. It was all of our friends, and if they don't like you, then you should really give up.
College Station, I don't think the bar is there anymore -- Hurricane Harry's is the place that we play now. But that was the first town we ever sold out a show. It was only a couple of hundred people back then, but I remember showing up for the show. We had done sound check and gone back to the motel and came back in our van trailer, and there was a line out the door all the way down the building.
We had never seen that before, and it was just this moment of, "Wow! That's what that looks like. That's really for us." So College Station is really the first market outside our friends and family that kind of caught onto our music.
RO: How long were you there at R Bar?
JJ: All the way through college, until we graduated. So four years.
RO: What were some of the places down here in Houston you broke into?
JJ: Firehouse Saloon was the big place. It was always, "Go play the Firehouse, wait six months and go play the Firehouse again." We did that for a good five years, probably.
RO: When you were getting your name out there, playing a lot of radio-promotional-type shows, does one or two stand out as being especially awkward?
JJ: I'm sure you interview artists from all genres, but country music definitely does the most radio stuff. We've got a great relationship with country radio. It kind of sets the genre apart. But sometimes they're trying a new restaurant to play at; sometimes we'd play at a hibachi/sushi place during the lunch hour.
There was a place called Quaker Steak and Lube. I guess it's a chain, I don't know how big it is. It's a [pun] on Quaker State, but it's like a Philly steak place. I want to say we've actually played there twice for whatever radio station. I remember going to see the pinup schedule and thinking, "Oh, we're going back to Quaker Steak and Lube."
RO: How far has the band traveled at this point?
JJ: Oh, goodness. In what way?
RO: Have you been overseas?
JJ: Yeah, I was gonna say. We went to Australia for our first time to get out of the borders, and we went to Canada. We were in Australia for almost a month last year.
RO: What about in the more philosophical way?
JJ: Yeah (chuckles). I feel like in a lot of ways we've traveled millions of miles, and in a lot of ways haven't grown up too much, and I think that's part of why we're still together. We've kind of picked our battles of where to grow up in our personal lives, but we're still making the same jokes to each other that we were 13 years ago.
Hopefully that means our friendship has grown a little bit, but not that we've just become numb to each other.
RO: You're one of the relatively few artists from the Texas scene that has crossed over into more mainstream country. Why do you think that is?
JJ: I think some artists' music doesn't translate to the national scene. If you just sing songs about Texas, you can have one or two of those songs pop over as a nichey kind of thing. Songs like "Goin' Through the Big D," "Amarillo [By Morning]," are great, but none of those are really from Texas country artists, unless you consider George Strait one. Most people wouldn't.
That's part of it. Some people really prefer to stay in Texas, because you can make such a good living, and you don't have to play at a Quaker Steak and Lube. You give up a lot. We gave up quite a bit to leave Texas.
It is comfortable down here. The touring doesn't take the same kind of toll on you, because you're not traveling the same distances, and it's a lot less to keep up with and a lot less of a playable game, but I'm sure it is in its own way down here still.
But that's what we always wanted to do. I think that was always our goal, and I don't know if that's everybody's goal.
RO: Where is the band based now?
JJ: Three of us are in the Fort Worth area, and Chris [Thompson] our drummer is down in Austin.
RO: From what you can tell, what is the prevailing opinion of the Texas scene within the country-music establishment these days?
JJ: Man, it depends on who you talk to. It's weird that there's a way that the bigger country scene looks in Texas, and a way that the small segment of the Texas scene looks at the Nashville or bigger scene. For the most part, we work with a ton of people that are from Texas but just kind of live up in Nashville, and they totally get it and love the artists.
I think part of [why] the artists down here that have this disdain for Nashville or the larger country genre, [what] kind of puts a bad taste in some people's mouths [is the perception] that they aren't bigger because they don't have the talent, which I really don't think is true.
But generally speaking, I think people love the fact that we're from there, because it gives us a different story than "we formed on Facebook" or met in the recording studio or something like that.
RO: Life at Best seems like it's still picking up momentum some 18 months after it came out. What did the band get right?
JJ: Connecting with people. Finding songs that people could connect with, which doesn't always happen immediately. I think that's a big part of our story, how long our road has been to get to this point. Last week we were on The Bachelor, and that doesn't hurt.
RO: Do you feel famous?
JJ: No (laughs). It was pretty surreal. We didn't have to, but we submitted a picture to people.com of our newborn, Hudson, and they had a post up there about how the birth went and all that. It was really surreal, just seeing people comment on it. It felt awkward, and didn't make me feel famous.
Little moments like that, I guess, is part of what fame is, but there's so much more to it that we don't really embrace. We totally get to fall off the radar when we want to.
Eli Young Band performs Thursday and Friday at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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