In the 21st century the musical boundaries of country music are more about values than style. While the making of a country hit still has a lot to do with drinking, old pick-up trucks and love gone wrong, the purists have been left in the back draft. Videos with complex story lines and high production values and an amped-up energy, heavily electrified sound are augmented by a constant stream of award shows on the major networks, and a Country Music Television network to pump up the volume and embrace the genre's new leathery look.
You don't have to be a cowboy poet with a guitar to be a country music star. You just need determination and, of course, a lot of luck.
If you are at say, year nine in your country music career sojourn, you just might want to double down, practice your early morning phone interview technique, because you'll have to do thousands of those, and make sure you have no problem getting to your 3 a.m. sound checks for another decade.
The Eli Young Band is a band fully arrived. As in famous, a world-class act. A little over a week ago, they played on "Late Night with David Letterman." As of this writing, the band's single "Dust" is number 23 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, slowly moving up after being on the chart 24 weeks, and earlier this year "Drunk Last Night" went No. 1, the second time the band has done this, after "Crazy Girl" in 2011.
If you are curious about how long it may take a band -- the name is a composite of singer Mike Eli and guitarist James Young -- to arrive, in this case it took more than a dozen years to join the bright "New Faces" in country, as it was declared two years ago by country radio programmers at the 2012 Country Radio Seminar.
But as it stands right now the Eli Young Band has done all that dues paying, and now it's paying off. Everything is working with machine-like precision, a construction project that began more than 12 years ago in Denton, Texas, where the members met while attending the University of North Texas.
The most recent album, "10,000 Towns," released earlier this year, has it videos humming, CDs selling, MP3s streaming and publicity people percolating from here to Canada, Australia and beyond. After years of accumulating country music award show nominations, 23 so far, they have won two, song of the year from the American Academy of Country Music Awards, and "Breakthrough Artist" from the Music Row Awards.
Singer Mike Eli says it's hard to keep track of the nominations, but easy to remember the winners. Caught in a phone interview somewhere in Indiana after the previous show in Canada, Eli is clearly living large, quite thankful for all of the good things coming in his band's direction. He bought a Porsche this year to celebrate the band's emergence from opening for the likes of Kenny Chesney to become the main act.
"We have been very lucky," he says. "It has been such a great run for us."
In the decades since Garth Brooks first starting wearing a wireless microphone like Madonna's, thus hijacking the on-stage pyrotechnics of pop culture, screaming down the dusty radio roads of rural America with a twang on steroids, the term country music has been transformed into a mainstream music superpower.
Amid this crossover landscape, the boundaries are almost invisible. For example, the Eli Young Band contributed a cover of Mötley Crüe's "Don't Go Away Mad," which will be included on a tribute for the hard rock band's August 19 release of country versions of its songs, "Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute To Mötley Crüe." Nikki Sixx and Vince Neil of the band complimented the Eli Young Band for having a "bite" in the cover of their song, enough kick to remind them of the Rolling Stones and the Small Faces, thus bringing '70s era rock, country and the blues "full circle."
And you get the feeling that, during an Eli Young Band show, it might get loud. On "10,000 Towns" guitarist Young soars with a riffiness that isn't that far from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (which isn't that far from being countrified from Florida, anyhow, full-circle-wise), drummer Chris Thompson attacks the skins like a rocker, and bald bassist Jon Jones looks like he should be a member of Midnight Oil, taking a fashion tip from U2's The Edge when he wears a black beanie. Nope, Eli doesn't where a cowboy hat, black or white, but he says he certainly comes from the small town roots of a country boy from Texas.
"I grew up in the country, and I can't really take it out of me," he says. "Even though Denton was on the outskirts of Dallas, I'm really not a Dallas city sort of person."
He claims, as his key influences in country music, Garth Brooks and Don Williams, and another, Paul Simon, which might indicate a few reasons why Eli has shown a knack for hit-making. The songs on the new album show a gift for concrete details and memorable lines and plenty of punch. He says the song, "10,000 Towns," which hasn't yet been released as a single, is a real indicator for what the band's roots are: The tune's lyrics includes the term "redneck hip hop."
"It's kind of a statement song," he says. "It's what we are after traveling around as a country band for years and years. We went out there selling CDs in the back of the truck and we hit the road running. But at the end of the day, we all want to have a beer sometimes."
The hit song, "Drunk Last Night," isn't so much a celebration of moonshine as an apology track.
"I don't know if it's the perfect country song, or if it's a good piece of art, but the way that song is written, the title is one thing, but the song is about something completely different."
On doing a cover of a Mötley Crüe song, Eli was diplomatic to the taste police.
"The record label came to us and asked us if we wanted to do a song with other country people (Brantley Gilbert did 'Girls, Girls, Girls' and Leann Rimes did 'Smokin' In the Boys Room'), and it was a lot of fun," he says. "But it's dangerous when you want to cut a Mötley Crüe song. People might get mad that country guys are doing that. We just say, at the end of the day, 'Hey, they asked us to do it.' "