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Eli Young Band enjoying the ride

| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 7:49 p.m.
Jeremy Cowart
Eli Young Band

The Eli Young Band has climbed the concert ladder, starting in clubs, moving to small halls and theaters and doing some shows in arenas. Now the Texas band is experiencing concerts as big as they come — playing NFL stadiums, such as Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on June 22, opening for Kenny Chesney.

“You're looking at 60,000 people and trying to make a connection,” says bassist Jon Jones. “The enormity is so much different than the intimacy of a small theater or a club show. Playing those shows are fun. But the small theaters that are intimate where you can see people, they can see you, and they came to see you are the best.”

The smaller venues also are where the Eli Young Band headlines.

“We get to play 90 minutes there and do our whole set,” Jones says. “With Chesney, we've got a half hour. You've got to get on, hit it hard, and then it's over. It goes so fast, and we have to leave out so much.”

That said, Jones says he, singer Mike Eli, guitarist James Young and drummer Chris Thompson have a great time every time they hit the stage .

A native of Omaha, Jones moved to Texas after high school to attend North Texas State in Denton.

“I went to Texas because I wanted to pursue music,” Jones says. “I didn't know if I was going to be a high-school band director or teach guitar lessons or what it was going to be. I wanted to be a performer, to be in a band. But you never know.”

Like most groups that form in college, the Eli Young Band came together by happenstance, a collision of meetings that began on Jones' first trip to Denton to check out the acclaimed music school when he was still going to high school in Omaha.

“The very first visit I made to Texas in 1998, I met Chris and James.” Jones says. “I roomed with Chris second semester. The year after that, we started the band.”

Eli and Young had previously performed together. But the quartet took on a rocking country sound and set to work on playing as many clubs and showcases as it could. They weren't the only future country stars that were playing the honky tonks.

“Miranda Lambert — we knew her back in the Texas days when she was playing the same little showcases,” Jones says. “Then she got on ‘Nashville Star.' That catapulted her. We took the more traditional, slow path, I guess. It was the old rock-and-roll path, without a record deal, just playing shows. The whole tenacity-pays-off thing.”

The Eli Young Band released its self-titled debut in 2002 and “Level” in 2006, and toured hard — opening for Lambert, Jack Ingram and Pat Green — before making the major label jump to Universal South Records and putting out “Jet Black and Jealous” in 2008.

Then came the 2011 album “Life at Best” (Universal Republic Records) and the single “Crazy Girl.” The ballad went to the top of the charts, going platinum in sales and earning the band three Academy of Country Music nominations and the award for song of the year.

“Having a No. 1 song that people can't get enough of, you can't put a price on it,” Jones says. “It makes such a huge difference. It takes you from being grassroots, winning one fan at a time, to being a household name.”

Then the follow-up single, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” went to No. 1 on the country charts, went platinum, got a Grammy nomination and ACM nomination and earned the band nods for vocal group of the year at both the Country Music Association and ACM awards.

The Eli Young Band is midway through recording a new album, with eight songs done and five or six to go. The quartet will go into studios during breaks in the summer tours, aiming to finish recording by fall.

Jones knows this means a lot of busy days over the next few months. It's not the best time for such a packed schedule: He married his college sweetheart, Sarah, two years ago, and they now have a 6-month-old son.

“The hardest part is telling my wife I'm not going to be around when we're not on the road because we're recording,” Jones says. “And it's also going to be (hard) missing the little guy — just like I am now.”

L. Kent Wolgamott is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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