Brett Eldredge used to start his days posting videos of himself singing from bed just moments after he had woken up — a cutesy series he called “Bedhead Jams.” Now, the 34-year-old singer begins his mornings by meditating.
The meditation sessions can probe some heavy topics. One morning he found himself contemplating the idea of his last day alive. How would he live it? How would he want to feel?
“It got me thinking. If I just continue to chase the worries and the little things in life and get caught up in all the little things, you never actually live at all,” Eldredge says in a morning Zoom interview with Rolling Stone, a Chicago Cubs hat covering up any bedhead he may have. “What you start to look at then is the fact that all you get to leave behind are your stories and the people that you loved.”
These days, Eldredge is more concerned with leaving a lasting impact instead of forgettable social-media posts. Sure, the “Bedhead Jams” videos offer a certain quick validation, but it’s a fleeting shot of dopamine. On his new album Sunday Drive, released July 10th, Eldredge commits himself to the bigger picture. He pulls it off, too.
Produced by Ian Fitchuck and Daniel Tashian, the Grammy-winning duo behind Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, Sunday Drive is a collection of 12 songs recorded mostly in Eldredge’s beloved Chicago, about three hours from his hometown of Paris, Illinois. The final track on the album is a salute to his idyllic home, with imagery of airborne geese and a stately courthouse, and a coda of majestic horns.
It’s the title track, though, that is the most personal to Eldredge and, ironically, the only song on Sunday Drive he didn’t write. He first heard it more than 10 years ago, when he was working as an intern at Universal Music Publishing, tasked with the menial job of uploading songwriters’ demo CDs to a computer database. He listened to literally thousands of songs and happened upon one co-written by Barry Dean, Don Mescall, and Steve Robson that floored him. Titled “Sunday Drive,” it was a stages-of-life ballad about being driven around by your parents as a vulnerable tyke, but, in a hallmark of great country songwriting, it flips the script for a weeper of a final verse. All grown up, the narrator is now helping his aging mom and dad into the car’s back seat for their weekly ride.
“I heard that song and it just stopped me right there, in that little dungeon of a room in the bottom of that building,” Eldredge says. “I held onto it and had the MP3. I hoped and prayed no one would record it. I didn’t even have a recording contract or publishing deal yet.”
When Eldredge did land an artist deal with Warner Music Nashville, he kept “Sunday Drive” in his back pocket. But the poignant track never fit with the party love songs like “Beat of the Music” and “Drunk on Your Love” that he was recording at the time. His one stab at a serious song, the 2010 single “Raymond,” which addressed Alzheimer’s disease, stalled on the charts.
“I needed to grow into this song,” he says of “Sunday Drive.” “When I got on this self-reflective journey for this album, that song spoke to me in such a huge way. This is the moment. This is why you’ve held onto this for so long. And we recorded it.”
Twice actually. Eldredge and Fitchuck weren’t sold on the first take and, at the very end of the recording sessions, revisited it for one more try. With Fitchuck on baby grand piano, and Eldredge in a particularly exhausted emotional state, he broke down when he got to the final verse.
“I stepped away from the microphone, but Ian kept playing and playing all the way through. I could not believe how he kept playing,” Eldredge says. “I got myself together to sing that last verse, and that was the take. It was one of the most jarring feelings, one of the most powerful feelings, I ever had in the studio.”
Fitchuck played drums on Eldredge’s self-titled 2017 album and was impressed then by the passionate crooner’s voice. But he admits he was dubious when he and Tashian were approached by John Peets, Eldredge’s new manager, about producing an album for a mainstream country singer who was talking about making a drastic change.
“I was interested to see whether they were going to try to do the authentic, organic vibe, but still make sure they had their bases covered with pandering to corporate country,” Fitchuck says. “I was prepared for [Peets] to sit us down and say, ‘OK, here are the couple of songs we have to do, and then you guys can have fun with the rest.’ Quite honestly, I wasn’t interested in that.” Then Peets played him a demo of Eldredge singing “Sunday Drive.”
“That song shook me. I knew in that moment that we had to do it,” Fitchuck says. “The words ‘authentic’ and ‘organic’ get thrown around really liberally, and I just could tell that [Eldredge] really meant it. He was very serious about taking a closer look at what he wanted the rest of his career to look like.”
Still, there were some rules. Eldredge was barred from overusing words like “damn” and “girl” in his lyrics. Holdovers from the bro-country era (see: “Damn Girl”), they do turn up on Sunday Drive, but infrequently.
“I’ve used ‘girl.’ It’s an easy word to rhyme with. But I was wanting to mature, and I was growing out of that,” Eldredge says. “I want the message of these songs to carry weight and say something more than I’ve said before. If it’s a love song, I don’t want it to be perfect love … I’ve never been perfectly in love. I don’t know if anyone has. But I have had glimpses of it, and this album is a more realistic approach of what I can see myself finding.”
Still, Eldredge is restless, even with his new meditation habit. He’s anxious to perform these songs live — he tested out a few before the pandemic struck — and leave a mark. He wants “Gabrielle,” Sunday Drive‘s first single, to be a memory song for fans, the kind that sparks something inside them when they hear its opening piano chords. He admits some of his past songs didn’t quite do that.
“I’m very proud of everything I’ve done at this point, but I really felt like I left a lot on the table, and I haven’t shown the artist that I really am,” Eldredge says. “I don’t care if I’ve had six or seven Number Ones or whatever in a row. I want to remembered for something that hopefully helps inspire people for years.”
He circles back to that hypothetical final day alive.
“My biggest fear is to not go all the way, and to spend my last days on this earth wishing I did.”
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