Some life-changing moments are only apparent in retrospect. Brett Eldredge recognized his as it was happening.
The Paris, IL, native was visiting Nashville for the first time early in his sophomore year at Chicago's Elmhurst College. He was at the Station Inn, an historic bluegrass/country venue where many of the greats of both worlds have played. His cousin Terry, a veteran of Dolly Parton's band and now a member of the Grascals, was playing with a band called the Sidemen, and a mesmerized Brett was in the crowd.
"There was something so real and truthful about the songs they were playing," he says. “What happened next came as a shock.”
"He asked me to come up on stage and told me to pick a song to play with the band," says Brett. I said, 'Amarillo By Morning,' and when I heard that fiddle intro, chills shot up my spine. I sang it for the crowd there and it was a magical experience. That was the point where I thought, 'This is it. This is something I've got to do.'"
By the start of the next school year, he had transferred to Middle Tennessee State University and begun the round of writers' nights and writing appointments that led him eventually to a record deal.
The talent that let him turn that dream into reality—the depth of his writing and the sheer power of his smoky and expressive baritone—are both apparent in his first single. "Raymond" is the poignant tale of a nursing home employee mistaken by a patient with Alzheimer's for her deceased son, who was killed at war. It is a song whose inspiring reaffirmation of their mutual humanity is affecting listeners deeply. The single rings true for Eldredge as his Grandmother currently struggles through the disease.
"There are a lot of things I'll play live where people will say, 'I like that,' or 'That's a really cool song,'" Brett says, "but when I do this one, I get the chance to tell people how special a thing it's been in my life, and it always touches someone. A lot of people know someone with Alzheimer's and people react in a really emotional way to it."
Brett has earned a reputation as much for the strength of his writing as for his world-class voice. He and co-writer Pat McLaughlin landed a song called "I Think I've Had Enough" on Gary Allan's latest album, Get Off On The Pain, and one of his frequent collaborators is Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry stalwart Bill Anderson.
"He's one of my favorite people to write with," says Brett. "I love the fact that he believes in country music so much, because it's something I really believe in. My dream, as I find my place in country music, is one day to be an Opry member."
Brett heard all kinds of music growing up, and became a particular fan of the classic pop singers he heard in his grandfather's car.
"I heard a lot of Frank Sinatra, who is still a favorite of mine, and Ray Charles and Bobby Darin," he says. "When my mother convinced me to sing 'Mack The Knife' at a talent show, I got hooked on singing in public."
That was in Paris, a town of 9,000 with "cornfields and factories and lake right in the middle." Brett, his older brother and his parents—a traveling grain salesman and a nurse—lived on the lake and, says Brett, "We were on the water every day, from the time I was so little they could pull me on water skis in a paddle boat until I left for college at 18." Sports were a big part of his life, and he played basketball, baseball and football in high school.
He also sang everywhere he could, often the Big Band music of Sinatra, earning spending money and learning to work a stage. His appreciation for country music became a passion when he turned 16 and he and a friend rode around listening to a Brooks & Dunn greatest hits album.
"There was something about it that just struck me," he says. "I couldn't get enough of it. Ronnie Dunn is one of my favorite singers of all time—I love the soul in his voice—and one of the main reasons I got into this in the first place."
Brett spent two years in Chicago, where his older brother lived, performing with a school jazz band and with a Big Band around the region.
"One of the coolest gigs," he says, "was at the Field Museum, I was singing in front of a 12-piece band under this huge Tyrannosaurus Rex statue near some mammoths. It was quite the experience."
Then came that fateful visit to Nashville and his transfer to MTSU. He studied classic country stylists like Ray Price and George Jones, and later Vince Gill, absorbing everything he could.
"I was driving back and forth Nashville every day from Murfreesboro, which is thirty miles away," he says. "I had a guitar Terry had given me, which was originally a gift from Dolly, and I'd pretty much lock myself in my room and make myself learn songs. I would play writers' nights all around Nashville. There might be two people, there might be 40 or 50. I'd go play my songs and see what people liked and what they didn't. I'd screw up royally in front of them, but I learned."
He earned a degree, which, he says, "made Mom and Dad happy, and then I moved on to what I really wanted to do.
A staff writer for hit producer/publisher Byron Gallimore heard him at a writers' night and introduced him to Byron, who signed him.
"I wrote for about two years, developing my craft and writing with everyone I could. In the beginning, Byron just let me kind of find myself, because that takes a while. As you write more you starting homing in on what you sound good on. Eventually, Byron said, 'You've got something here' and we went in and started cutting songs. We did a showcase, and Carole Ann Mobley from Warner Music Nashville said, 'We've gotta sign this kid'. Mobley and Craig Kallman then signed Brett to Atlantic Records, making him the first official signing for the new imprint.
As he worked with his band tightening his show, he was offered a particularly gratifying gig.
"I opened for Blake Shelton at The Ryman and it was the coolest experience. I flew back from this house gig and all of a sudden I'm thrown into playing the Mother Church of Country Music, something I always dreamed of doing. I was operating on almost no sleep, but stepping out on that stage where everybody who's anybody in country music has been meant the world to me."
He remains active in sports, playing basketball and volleyball and playing on an intramural softball team in Nashville, and rooting for the Cubs and Bears. Meanwhile, he is dedicated to improving his craft.
"As a songwriter," he says, "my aim is to portray a little bit of me and my life along with the stories of other people and turn them into something that can really touch somebody's heart and soul. We sit down on Music Row every day and write songs and every once in a while a song like ‘Raymond’ comes from such a real place. I hope it's that real to other people and that I can make them feel the way I felt when I wrote it and when I sing it."
Judging from audience reaction, that’s exactly what he’s doing.