At the height of Brett Eldredge’s stardom, he disappeared.
Granted, using the verb “disappeared” may be a tad dramatic. The Illinois native with the retro-sounding voice and the movie star looks was obviously very much still around and making an impact via his music in recent years, enjoying successes such as his seventh No. 1 single (“Love Someone”), filling arenas on his first-ever sold-out The Long Way headlining tour and bringing his Glow LIVE holiday tour to major cities across the country. Heck, even his 2017 self-titled fourth studio album was a chart-topping success that went on to earn a bevy of Gold and Platinum certifications.
Yet, despite all of this, Eldredge began stepping back a bit.
And for all who truly knew and loved the kid from Paris, Illinois, who went and made himself a country superstar, something was different. Something wasn’t right. Something was wrong. Eldredge was wrestling internally with something he could no longer put a fancy filter on. And in more ways than one, he had disappeared … in an effort to find himself.
He disappeared to find out who he was and how he wanted to live and love. And in terms of his music, he disappeared so he could get the chance to hear his heart beat again.
And yes, his heart beats louder than ever before on his new album, Sunday Drive.
A naturally introverted person who can often find it difficult to put his feelings into words within the context of a normal conversation, Eldredge does it better than ever before on his new album, showcasing a raw and painfully personal example of exquisite songwriting that many fans haven’t seen since his 2010 debut single, “Raymond.”
Remember that song?
His first single off his debut album Bring You Back, “Raymond” told the story of a maintenance worker at a nursing home who would sit with a patient with Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, the woman believes that Raymond is actually her son, who was killed in Vietnam in 1971.
“She calls me Raymond, she thinks I’m her son /
She tells me ‘Get washed up for supper before your daddy gets home’ /
She goes on about the weather, how she can’t believe it’s pourin’ in 1943/
She calls me Raymond, and that’s alright by me.”
Written by Eldredge, alongside fellow songwriter Brad Crisler, the song was actually about his own grandmother who had also battled the disease. And yes, it was somewhat of a risk to put “Raymond” out as the first single of his country music career, but Eldredge had always had much confidence in leading with his heart.
“It’s the first song I wrote that I felt the magic from,” Eldredge said in an interview back in 2010. “I saw how a story can really come from my heart and a real place.”
And it worked.
From there, Eldredge climbed onto the roller-coaster that is country music stardom and held on tight. There were blockbusters like “Don’t Ya” and “Beat of the Music” and “Drunk on Your Love,” and Eldredge was well on his way of following the path that so many before him had taken … the safe path.
But then, he took a left turn … and created Sunday Drive.
Conjuring up the past works of legendary musical storytellers such as Carole King and James Taylor, Eldredge lets honesty pave the way on Sunday Drive, giving fans a complete body of work they can fall into during these most precarious of times.
But getting there wasn’t easy.
It was a true journey that ultimately took three years.
“I learned that getting the best things meant going through some of those things that scared me the most,” Eldredge tells American Songwriter in a recent interview. “I had to find out what I was capable of, even though I was a little scared to find it. I had to basically scare the hell out of myself to find something profound.”
But yes, he did find something profound. From the streets of his hometown to the streets of Chicago, Eldredge walked. And with every mile, he found a little more of himself. He worked with new people, specifically producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, the Grammy-winning duo behind Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, who pushed him out of his comfort zone and into a place where he could trust his gut again when it came to his music.
“I have such huge respect for Brett’s talents, not only as a singer, but also as a communicator,” Tashian says of Eldredge. “His ability to connect with his audiences through songs is right up there with the greats.”
“Being on this journey with Brett has been profound for me on many levels,” adds Fitchuk. “I’m so proud of Brett and his ability to take a moment to self-reflect and search for what matters most and fully lean into where the heart is.”
Of course, with seven No. 1 hits under his belt, many could say that his gut had never steered him wrong before.
But he was still missing something.
“I wanted to write based on my heart,” he says of the album featuring the piano-driven lead single, “Gabrielle.” “I wanted to write honestly and sing honestly and not leave anything on the table. I wanted to make something that meant something. I wanted to make something really powerful.”
He began that process with a song called “Crowd My Mind.”
“I was at this beach cottage in California by myself,” recalls Eldredge about the jazz-tinted ballad that speaks of the heartache of missing a loved one. “I mean, I didn’t have anything. I had my flip phone and a pen and some paper and a guitar. I had my own thoughts to deal with. I had to sit with life a little bit. And doing that brought up a lot of emotions. When I got back to Nashville, I sat down with (co-writer) Ross (Copperman) and wrote what I was feeling. And then, when we recorded it, I could feel my heart and I knew we were on the right track.”
Granted, dialing up his heart and those Midwestern roots was often downright exhausting.
“It wasn’t exhausting in a bad way, but when you go and sit with that stuff, it can be a lot,” says Eldredge, who recorded the entirety of the album at Chicago’s intimate Shirk Studios. “It’s heavy, but you will get to the other side. It’s important to go through those range of emotions to get the right music out.”
And this is the right music at the right time. “Where the Heart Is” is Eldredge at his best, singing about how one can go about finding magic in the world again. “Good Day” speaks of Eldredge’s mental health journey to find not only happiness, but who a person is at the core. And “Fall for Me” touches on allowing yourself to be open to love, no matter the ramifications.
And while all of these songs prove that Eldredge was indeed leading with his heart during the creation of this album, he also allowed himself to follow his gut when it came to songs such as the title cut, “Sunday Drive,” the only song on the album that Eldredge did not have a hand in writing.
“I was an intern in the basement at Universal Publishing when I found that song many years ago,” Eldredge chuckles at the recollection of the heart-wrenching song actually written by Barry Dean. “I just remember thinking, ‘This song is incredible, but I’m not grown up enough to sing this song yet.’ But I always believed that I was meant to record that song someday. I kept that song a secret for a long time. I was praying no one would record it because in every way, it told my story.”
Indeed, the story of Eldredge is, in many ways, just beginning.
Because despite having a professional career spanning 10 years, one could say that he has never been as downright truthful with his fans as he is right now. In recent months, Eldredge has opened up about going to therapy and the importance of self-reflection and meditation, and it still remains to be seen if he will ever return wholeheartedly to social media.
But we do know this.
This album changed him.
And it’s going to change many people.
“The depth we went to to come out with this album …” he says, his voice trailing off in the distance. “This is the album that will always give me the confidence in days that I don’t feel confident. This is the album that proved to me that you can take a long walk in the woods and when you come back, you can do something really important. This is the album that I will lean on in the tough times to remind me that you can push through so much and still come out OK.”
Or you can come out better than OK.
You can come out better than ever before.