Country artists love to talk about getting out of their comfort zone. But for many who have had a taste of mainstream success, especially on don’t-rock-the-boat country radio, it usually means nothing more revolutionary than changing their shirt.
Beginning back in 2012 with “Don’t Ya,” Brett Eldredge amassed a string of radio hits. Some were solid (“Wanna Be That Song”), others less than (“Lose My Mind,” “Drunk on Your Love”), but they kept him near the top of the charts, on the road with stars like Keith Urban, and profitable.
But something was missing. While his annual Christmas concerts, in which he moonlighted as a Sinatra crooner, bristled with a warm, natural energy, Eldredge sounded like he was playing a part in his day job. The songs were hits, but they didn’t get to the core of who Eldredge was. To the 1.4 million followers he cultivated on Instagram, he may as well have been an influencer model — singing Train covers to his dog or striking a pose in pajamas — than a serious singer.
“I had been on social media sharing every single thing from the moment I got up in the morning until I went to bed. It took a lot of my creative energy,” Eldredge says now.
On New Year’s Day 2019, he finally flipped the script. With a new manager — Eric Church mastermind John Peets — encouraging him, Eldredge took a dramatic step away from the selfie lens. He traded his smartphone for an old-school flip phone, bought a Polaroid, and hightailed it out of Nashville on a solitary vision quest. He traveled to London, Dublin, Australia, and rented a house on the beach in California. On the rare occasion when he’d post to social media, he did so by snail-mailing his instant photos, with hand-written captions, back to Peets to upload. Eldredge had gone analog.
“It changed me in a profound way,” he says. “I needed it for myself, but it really affected my music in a way that I was getting all these ideas of things that I wanted to say.”
The proof is in “Gabrielle,” the first new song released by the Paris, Illinois, native in nearly three years. A breath of fresh air in his catalog, it’s built around piano, acoustic guitar, and Eldredge’s supple voice asking what went wrong. It is the sound of an adult putting away childish things.
The track is also the first release from the 34-year-old’s upcoming album, Sunday Drive, recorded mostly in Chicago with Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning Golden Hour producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. The first song the trio wrote and cut live together, “Gabrielle” has its roots in real life.
“Daniel said it’s so personal that it needs to be the actual person’s name, or a name that can be tied to this memory. I had the name ‘Gabrielle’ and it fit perfect,” Eldredge says. “It’s all about that feeling of being in a relationship where you look back and wonder why it didn’t work out. It’s so unique and nostalgic, and it was something we felt was important to be the lead single. It says a lot about what this record is going to be.”
Along with “Gabrielle,” Eldredge has released two more table-setters, the sparse piano ballad “Crowd My Mind” and the lush “Where the Heart Is.” The latter is about reclaiming the magic of creativity that Eldredge says was diminished after becoming a cog in the Music Row machine. “I have been very open about being a worrier,” he says, “and I overworked myself to where I was not focusing on the music.”
Eldredge and Warner Music Nashville, his label home since his 2013 debut Bring You Back, have announced a July 10th date for Sunday Drive, but the singer isn’t even looking that far ahead. Instead, he’s focused on being present. Yes, he has since returned to a smartphone, but like his old radio hits (which he says he’ll still sing “for a long time), it’s more a relic of the past than where Eldredge is headed.
“I want to disrupt everything I’ve ever done,” he says.