Elmhurst College: Elmhurst Alum Climbing the Country Charts

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Elmhurst Alum Climbing the Country Charts

With upcoming performances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Today, Brett Eldredge is a country star on the rise.

This is not a basketball arena or a football stadium, and there are not 50,000 paying music fans just beyond the footlights clamoring to hear Brett Eldredge sing. This is Joe’s Pub, a New York City nightclub that seats precisely 190 people.

Sure, such an intimate space has its own charms. But for Eldredge, the emerging country-music sensation who has spent his summer headlining sprawling outdoor festival dates and opening for megastar Taylor Swift in airplane-hangar-sized venues filled with screaming teens, Joe’s Pub might not seem capacious enough for his burgeoning stardom.

But the first thing Eldredge does when he squeezes through the undersized entry to the stage at Joe’s Pub on this hot July night is make sure everyone in the place knows how happy he is to be there.

“This is my favorite kind of show,” the Elmhurst alum tells an audience seated at their miniature cocktail tables, sipping their miniature cocktails. “It reminds me of when I was starting out in Nashville.”

Then he launches into “Don’t Ya,” his sly new single about the wonders of women in cutoff jeans that is at that very moment climbing up the country music charts (it stands at number four as of this writing) and whose video has helped make Eldredge one of the most-tweeted about Internet hotties of the moment. And from the first chords, from the first words, the New York crowd is whooping it up, some singing along, some actually squealing with delight, just like the kids at the Taylor Swift arena shows.

Even at Joe’s Pub, it seems, Brett Eldredge is big.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Eldredge left Elmhurst to take what he calls “ the total gamble” of moving to Nashville to make his way as a country-music artist. Back then, Eldredge played some gigs where the number of musicians on stage was greater than the number of people in the crowd. He remembers playing some shows before a grand audience of two.

Things have changed.

Eldredge’s debut album, Bring You Back, is dropping on August 6, and Atlantic Records is backing it with a publicity push worthy of an artist on whom it is betting heavily. On the night the album comes out, Eldredge will be back in New York to headline at the much-roomier-than-Joe’s-Pub Highline Ballroom. The next night, August 7, he makes his late-night television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On August 9, it’s on to Today and Live with Michael and Kelly.

“It’s an incredible ride,” Eldredge said of his momentous summer. “This is the best  I’ve ever felt.”

His 19 stadium dates with Swift earlier this year gave him a taste of the kind of touring that might be in his future. “You always have this picture in your mind of singing in front of thousands of people. But it wasn’t until I walked out on stage at Ford Field [in Detroit], in front of 50,000 people, that I knew how awesome it could be. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done. I flashed back to when I would play in front of two people. I guess I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum.”

Eldredge has been singing in public since his preschool days, and his first role model as a performer was an unlikely one. A Chicago Cubs fan since he was a toddler, he grew up watching games on TV at home in Paris, Illinois, and hearing Harry Caray sing ‘Take Me Out to The Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch of each game. That song and another baseball standard, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” became staples of the young Eldredge’s repertoire. At family gatherings, he would sing those songs on demand for a fee of five dollars. It’s an experience that has since proved useful, now that he is routinely asked to sing the National Anthem before bigger crowds at sporting events and at other occasions. He recently sang the anthem in front of 60,000 at the Country Music Association’s Country Music Festival in Nashville. And unlike other singers who have been tripped up by the notoriously difficult song, Eldredge says, “I haven’t messed up the words yet.” 

Later, his influences grew more diverse. By the time he was 13, one of his grandfathers had introduced him to the music of Frank Sinatra. “He became my number one favorite singer of all time,” Eldredge says. “I thought, ‘How cool, he’s telling stories.’ And what I love is that with every line and every phrase, he’s selling it.”

Eldredge was already interested in the music industry when he applied to Elmhurst College, attracted by its strong music and music business programs and its location near Chicago, where his older brother Brice was living. From the start, he said, he felt at home on campus.

“It had a cool vibe and a good sense of community. It reminded me of my small town,” he said. “I felt comfortable there.”

At Elmhurst, Eldredge sang in the College’s vocal jazz groups, and credits Professor Susan Moninger with helping him become a more polished singer. “She taught me so many things,” Eldredge recalled. “She used to tell me to smile on certain notes so I wouldn’t go flat. And so to this day, I’ll be in the studio smiling like a dork because of what Susan taught me. But I don’t go flat! And I have Susan to thank for that.”

After two years studying at Elmhurst, Eldredge decided to it was time to take his shot in the music business. The plan was simple:  Go to the capital of country music—Nashville, Tennessee—and establish himself as a songwriter and performing artist. Eldredge was ready for the adventure of a lifetime, but soon realized he had no idea where to begin.

“I was like, ‘Here I am. What now?’” he recalls about his first days in Nashville. “Someone said I should start going to songwriter nights, which was good advice. You learn how to tell stories and how much those stories matter to people, even if it’s just a couple people in the audience.” Determined to master the craft, Eldredge spent a summer doing little else besides writing and rewriting song after song. “It was a crazy way to learn, but I learned a lot.”

By 2010, he’d landed a recording contract with Atlantic Records. One of his first efforts, an emotionally powerful tune called “Raymond” that had been inspired by his grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, won Eldredge sustained attention on the country music scene. The song reached number 23 on the country charts and helped establish the newcomer as a gifted performer with serious songwriting chops. After he sang the song onstage at Joe’s Pub in July, another songwriter, Bob DiPiero, leaned over to Eldredge and told him, “That’s a great song, man.” Eldredge couldn’t have appeared prouder to receive the compliment.

Still, Eldredge is now more likely to win notice for his husky, soulful vocal attack or his blue-eyed good looks, both of which are earning him fans beyond country music’s usual borders. “Your country gateway drug,” Glamour magazine recently called him. On his Facebook page, Eldredge’s people answered, “Don’t do drugs, but if you do, make sure it’s Brett Eldredge.”

By some measures, Eldredge, on the eve of his debut album release and with his first top-10 single still climbing the charts, is just getting started in his musical life. But only someone like Eldredge knows how many years and how much effort goes into what looks to others like overnight success. And the dues paid, he said, make the success he’s experiencing now even sweeter. Who knows where it all leads? 

“There’s so much I want to do,” Eldredge says, talking more and more rapidly as the conversation goes on, as if he really is excited about the life he is living and the possibilities it offers. “I’d love to sell out stadiums. I’d like to tour overseas. But most of all, I just want to stay inspired. Years down the road, I’d like to feel as energized as I do today.” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “I want to keep finding that fuel and never forget what it was like when I started.”

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