Notching a Number One single on the country charts doesn’t guarantee a superstar career. Just ask the guys in Love and Theft. After the sing-along “Angel Eyes” hit Number One, the duo had momentum and country radio on their side, and were looking ahead to the next single, a moody disco-infused song titled “Runnin’ Out of Air.”
It barely broke the Top 40.
Follow-up single “If You Ever Get Lonely” didn’t fare much better on the Billboard country songs chart. But Liles and singer-guitarist Eric Gunderson have refused to call it a day. Taking time to reassess, the pair retreated to the studio and cut last year’s “Night That You’ll Never Forget,” a new party song that was meant to generate buzz while they finished recording their next album for RCA Nashville, under the Sony Music Nashville umbrella.
The single had some initial success and its irreverent video gained traction on the country-music networks, but “Night” ultimately fell like its predecessors. The label dropped Love and Theft from its roster.
“That was in September, right when the song came off the chart,” Gunderson tells Rolling Stone Country. He and Liles are seated in an office at their management’s building on Nashville’s Music Row, ready to talk about their new album, Whiskey on My Breath, released today. But first, they want to explain how they went from a major-label CMA and ACM-nominated duo that toured with Tim McGraw and played LP Field at CMA Music Festival to an indie act that has been forced to get creative in how it delivers its music to fans.
“RCA’s goal has always been to be a Number One label and they’re trying to build their empire. I think we were victims of that in a way,” says Gunderson, pointing out the additions of country royalty Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to the label.
While both he and Liles are quick to praise the efforts of the RCA radio promotion staff in tirelessly campaigning to move “Night That You’ll Never Forget” up the charts, Gunderson says Love and Theft were ultimately at the bottom of the pecking order. “It was the most format-friendly song we’ve ever released. It touched on all the buzz words that people are wanting to hear these days, and it was written by two hit songwriters, in Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley,” he says. “But as soon as they met any resistance, and the song had a couple bad weeks, it was, ‘Sorry, have to work the Garth and Trisha singles now.’ Shortly after that, for whatever reason, they decided to cut ties with us.”
For Love and Theft, the news that their label home was showing them the door came in an e-mail from their current manager, Ken Levitan, who informed them that Gary Overton, Chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville, was ending the relationship.
“Ken sent us an e-mail in big capital letters — GARY IS DROPPING YOU — and that was it,” says Gunderson, candidly offering a glimpse at the machinations behind the major-label curtain. “We weren’t surprised, because we had always had a very strange relationship with Gary anyway. He was always really hard on us, and maybe he had a different idea of what we should have been and what we were. I’m not really sure what it was. But for some reason, we never connected with him.”
Still, throughout Love and Theft’s tenure at the label, they say Overton always gave it to them straight.
Liles recalls an exchange with their former boss, who reached out after the band heard the bad news. “He sent me a text, it was nice. He said, ‘The airwaves are oversaturated with bro country right now. We did our best, but we had a hard time,'” says Liles, emphasizing that Love and Theft’s music was never of the bro variety. “Pretty much, it was like, ‘If you were bro country, you probably would have gotten played.’ He was just being honest.”
The most painful sting for Gunderson and Liles though came when they learned that the new album they had recorded at the label was not going to be released. And they weren’t legally allowed to re-cut the tracks they had already laid down.
A Sony spokesperson declined to comment.
“They want 13 grand a song, and we can’t re-record the songs, even if we wrote them. We have to wait five years,” explains Liles. “So that music is on a hard drive in a basement.”
“We’ve spent so many hours, weeks, months on that [music],” Gunderson says. “You pour your heart and soul into it, and they don’t have any idea how much time or work [went into it]. . .they just shelve it.”
Unable to access their mothballed “new” album or re-record its tracks, Love and Theft recorded a fresh set of songs, all of them written or co-written by Liles and Gunderson with their songwriter buddies Davidson, Eric Paslay, Trent Tomlinson, Tyler Reeve and others. The centerpiece is “Whiskey on My Breath,” a bare-bones ballad about meeting Jesus, stinking of Jack Daniel’s. Decidedly stripped-down and organic when compared to their previous singles, “Whiskey on My Breath” returns Love and Theft to the harmony-rich sound that first turned heads when they started out. (Watch the duo perform the song live on the Grand Ole Opry below.)
Liles wrote the song during a trip to his family’s cabin with a small army of friends and fellow songwriters. “It’s an alcoholic’s struggle. He’s comfortable with where he is, and it doesn’t matter about the rest of his life, but he doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of Jesus,” says Liles. “His mindset is he knows he’s going to die one day, but even though he lost everything on this Earth, he’s not going to give up liquor. It’s that inner battle that an alcoholic faces. And it never resolves. It shows the darkness of being alone.”
Love and Theft released “Whiskey on My Breath” through iTunes, but today the song, as the title track, plays a large role in launching their new album. The project is being released via Red Distribution — ironically a division of Sony Music Entertainment. Not technically a label, Red provides all the services of a label, from distribution to marketing. However, it does not have a country music arm for radio promotion.
“It’s not really a deal, but there is paperwork involved,” says Gunderson of the band’s arrangement with Red. “They basically give you an album advance, turn it in to them and they provide all the services any other label would, minus the radio promotion.” Red works with Nashville independent labels Broken Bow Records and Black River Entertainment to distribute albums by their artists, and formed the label Red Bow Records with Broken Bow in 2012.
Liles and Gunderson welcome their newfound control of their career, especially when it comes to songwriting. While they gladly subscribed to the rigid Nashville model of co-writing sessions in offices up and down Music Row and cut a majority of outside songs for their last two albums — the shelved project included — the duo has refocused on their own writing.
“We wanted to play the game, we want to be a part of the team,” says Liles, “and we want to cut our friend’s songs. We want to do that.
“But with a big label,” Gunderson continues, “I don’t know if they’re pulling favors or doing favors, but you can have an amazing sounding hit song and if an outside song is as close to as good or sounds similar, they’ll usually have you pick the outside person’s song. Because ‘they’re a songwriter in this town for a reason. They’ve had this many hits, and you need to cut that, not your own.'”
Produced by Liles, Gunderson and Josh Leo, who produced their album at RCA, Whiskey on My Breath employs only acoustic guitars. The guys swore off electrics to capture a more natural vibe. Originally, the plan was to record an entirely acoustic record, with just two guitars and their vocals. But once the deal with Red provided them with some money to record, Love and Theft sat down with Leo to make a more full-bodied — but less slick — studio album.
“The goal was to sound more organic and showcase the harmonies and vocals. We took a different approach, and it ended up sounding more fresh than the other stuff we’ve done,” says Gunderson. He admits that 2012’s Love and Theft album had a certain amount of polish so that it could compete with what’s being played on country radio, as well as with fellow Sony artists.
“Their A&R guys are pretty specific about what they want their stuff to sound like. And if it doesn’t sound like they want it, you go and work with a new producer until they get the sound they want,” Gunderson says. “We had the creative freedom to do whatever we wanted on [Whiskey on My Breath], and for a long time we had an idea of what we should sound like as a duo. And what we sound like live is pretty different than what we sounded like on the recordings we were turning in.”
With an album recorded and released on their own terms — Liles and Gunderson own the masters — Love and Theft have country music’s two most important industries in their sights: touring and radio. The latter is especially vital if the duo is to reclaim the chart-topping success of “Angel Eyes” or even 2009’s “Runaway,” a Top 10 hit they released when recording as a trio.
“We’ve worked really hard to build those relationships at radio. We’re not going to just bail on it,” says Liles, who developed such strong friendships with radio staffers that he invited some to his wedding.
In the end, the singers are grateful for the push they received from RCA and the exposure Sony afforded them in a crowded industry. “It was awesome and it really catapulted us onto the country music scene with a Number One hit,” says Gunderson.
Adds Liles, “It definitely put us on a new level.”
Now, however, they’re embracing their status as an indie act, and are ready to live and die on the strength of their talent, their songs and, especially, their voices. It’s those harmonies that Liles and Gunderson believe set Love and Theft apart from the pack. It’s what got them to Nashville and, they attest, has kept them here.
“It shows that we can actually fucking sing,” says Liles. “I’m not bragging, it’s just the truth. That’s why we’re still around. That’s how we got a deal. We sang in people’s offices with our harmonies and came in with acoustic demos. With this album, we wanted to say, ‘Hey, these are our voices. This is why we’re still here.'”