First things first: There is no “Eli Young” in the Eli Young Band. The Denton, Texas, band has taken the last names of two of their members, singer/guitarist Mike Eli and guitarist James Young, and combined them, Fleetwood Mac-style.
By the time the band was nominated for the Best New Duo or Group Award by the Academy of Country Music in 2009, they’d already been together in one form or another for seven years. They’d already released three albums and landed two singles, “When It Rains” and “Always the Love Songs,” on the Billboard charts.
That first bit of attention, however, was nothing compared to where they were headed. Their 2014 album “10,000 Towns,” which freely mixed honky-tonk country with miles-wide pop hooks and a bit of rock muscle, went all the way to No. 1 on the Country Album Charts, and the band scored a Top 5 single with “Drunk Last Night.” After 14 years of ups and downs, the band had finally made it to the top.
There are a lot of bands on country radio right now doing what the Eli Young Band does: mixing genres. For every fiddle or pedal steel guitar, there’s an electronic beat or an Auto-tuned voice. But rather than seeing that stylistic range as a weakness, bassist John Jones sees it as positive growth.
“Someone asked me what I looked forward to five or ten years from now, and I think I’m looking forward to seeing where country music is,” he says. “I think it’s in a great place now. It’s been going through a transition, but through our lifetime, country music has never stood too still. I think now, with all the genres kind of running into each other, it’s moving faster in all directions.”
In fact, the band has gotten caught up repeatedly in that transition, which they’ve developed a sense of humor about. “As a band I feel like we’ve always made our brand of music,” Jones says. “But when we started off, we were told that we weren’t country enough for country radio, and there was a point not too long ago that we were told that some of our songs were too country for country radio. And I feel like those songs were really on par with each other; they were just a decade apart.”
Their new single, “Saltwater Gospel,” fits just as snugly into the middle ground between rock and country as their other songs, musically: It blends a shuffling beat, layers of blurred watery guitars and a catchy-as-hell vocal hook. But lyrically, it takes on a bigger theme than the band has attempted before. “‘Saltwater Gospel’ is about the sentiment and spirituality of what the ocean means,” Jones says. “About how feeling small standing next to the ocean can be that spiritual moment for somebody.”
And to the band, that’s where the heart of country music is. “That’s what brings it back to country music,” Jones says. “It’s based on a true feeling or a real sentiment. Having a No. 1 song on the radio is great, but we’ve always just wanted songs that were impactful.”
Event: The Eli Young Band
Venue: Blind Horse Saloon, 1035 Lowndes Hill Road, Greenville
Date: Saturday, Oct. 8, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $17 advance/$20 door