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For CMA New Artist of the Year Brett Eldredge, work began on his second album the day his first one went on sale.
"That was two years ago," remembers the tall, handsome Midwesterner, relaxing between takes in a Nashville studio. "That night, I took a long walk around New York City. I was thinking, 'This is great but I've got to start preparing for the next album.'"
He laughs a little self-consciously. "That sounds crazy, but I knew that things can sneak up on you fast."
Things like the sudden fame and acclaim that came his way when that debut album dropped in 2013. BRING YOU BACK spun off three No. 1 hits -- "Don’t Ya," "Mean to Me" and the Billboard No. 1 song on Country Airplay for 2014, "Beat of the Music." Taylor Swift picked the newcomer to open on 19 stops of her epic RED Tour and America welcomed him into their living rooms on his many national television performances. The momentum continued this year as he joined Darius Rucker's Southern Style Tour.
Eldredge has been living in the fast lane over these past two years. That's one reason why he took that solitary stroll in Manhattan, instead of whooping it up on what should have been an occasion to party.
"At a special time of night, you can find some very low-key areas in big cities," he reflects. "You might hear some cars in the background and feel the energy of the city, but you can also hear your thoughts very clearly. And I started trying to picture what was going to be my next step."
The answer was clear: "You've played all these stages. You've put out an album you can be proud of. But now you've got to release another album that's even better and bigger."
That very night, Eldredge went to work, sketching out ideas for songs that he would feature on his next album. As he worked, he realized that the new material was coming him from a wider field than before. Yet paradoxically, his inspiration narrowed over time to a tighter focus, taking him back to before his rocket ride began.
"I wanted to give this album an identity," he says. "I wanted it to be me even if you didn't read my name on the cover. I talk a lot about my home. So I needed the album to be Illinois because that is so much of who I am."
Scheduled for a release on the 11th of September on Atlantic Records/ Warner Music Nashville, Illinois is a starting point for several different journeys -- back to the small-town values that Eldredge cherishes, out toward further-flung vistas of expression and at the same time deep into the bedrock of country music.
We might begin with the title track, whose creation was so important to Eldredge that he took extraordinary steps to prepare his co-writer for their collaboration. "I'm on a bus, coming home from a trip, when I call Tom Douglas. 'We're gonna pass close to my hometown,' I tell him. 'This might sound crazy, but can you meet me in Paris, Illinois, tomorrow?' Twenty minutes later he calls me back and says, 'I'll be there.'
"So we meet in Paris the next morning and I show him around. He took pictures next to the tall cornfield. I took pictures at the town square and waved at the same people I waved to as a kid growing up. We went to the same restaurants I used to know, all to show him the heartland, where I come from. We didn't write at the time. But when we got together later with Brad Crisler, we wrote 'Illinois' and it describes to a T what it's like to grow up in the Midwest. I've traveled hundreds of thousands of miles since leaving Paris, but I'll never forget it. Family, hard work and values are part of who I am, and while some people find these things in Alabama or Maine or Washington or wherever they come from, for me it's Illinois."
You can almost see the breeze-blown crops in the rippling piano introduction to that track. But that's just one of many pictures painted on Illinois. Fans have already responded to the pumping groove and R&B-tinged vocals of "Lose My Mind," his fastest-rising single to date; his jump from midrange into an electrifying upper register recall the effortless intensity of a young Steve Winwood. Taste of Country took immediate notice, hailing it as "a brilliant mix of old and new," while USA Today named it the Song of the Week upon release.
The rest of Illinois offers more examples of Eldredge's multifaceted talent. After the seductive up-tempo opener "Fire," a funk guitar lick straight out of the James Brown bag kicks into a retro dance beat that doesn't let up. The fun continues with "You Can't Stop Me" and later with the frenzied, "Shadow" with its staccato jabs on piano, the stop-start beat, and wall of amped-up guitars.
Eldredge welcomes the opportunity to take chance with his music. "I've got to be me," he says, with a shrug. "I'm not afraid to push the boundaries. That's all you can do: be yourself and make your music."
Illinois also makes it clear where Eldredge's roots are planted. His romanticism, sweetened by steel on "Wanna Be That Song" and bathed in deep washes of regret on "Lose It All," conjure fresh approaches to arrangement and production but slip neatly into the emotional and lyrical envelope of modern country.
No matter where they fall on the stylistic grid, each song on Illinois provides a platform for Eldredge's singing to shine as never before. And that's no accident.
"That was the plan," he reveals, with a grin. "There's nothing I love more than to sing something that makes someone get a little excited or even a little uncomfortable, raising the hair on their skin. And on Illinois I wanted to use everything I've got as raw as I could, just go into the studio and belt it out. Whether I hit a high note that makes you want to party or just get goosebumps on your arm, that's my job in life. That's what I live for."
How, then, should country traditionalists, fans of edgy pop, lovers of retro soul and anyone else approach Illinois? What if it gives them something they didn't expect from Brett Eldredge?
"That's great," he answers. "I want you to be surprised. I don't want you to expect this will be something you've heard from me before. Listen to it as if you were taking a vacation. I know that when I can't get away, I'll put on some great music and go on vacation for an hour. So if you put on Illinois with no preconceived thought, you'll hear 100 percent who I am -- and we can go on vacation together!"