Makin' Tracks: Eli Young Band's Heartland Sound Wears Well in 'Break It In'

Cal Quinn
Eli Young Band

Flash and bling are likely to get a lot of attention in the short run, but over time, it’s often the sturdy stuff that quietly earns the most appreciation.

The new Eli Young Band single, “Break It In,” will likely work that way for a large chunk of fans. On first listen, its linear verses and understated arrangement yield a middling shrug. But on second exposure, the classic Americana images -- a baseball glove, an old-school pickup truck and working-class boots -- ring of familiarity. By the third listen, the song’s rhythmic nuances, its mature viewpoint and lead vocalist Mike Eli’s conviction elevate it from OK to great. It’s fully appreciated once you break it in.

That’s how it worked with EYB, too. When the band considered new material for a Greatest Hits project, “Break It In” was one of a handful of songs that got final consideration. “Love Ain’t” ultimately won out, and became the group’s first No. 1 single in more than five years on Billboard's Country Airplay listing, on the chart dated May 25, 2019. In the meantime, “Break It In” grew in stature.

“It kind of kept getting stuck in my head,” says Eli.

As it should, since it unintentionally parallels one of EYB’s signature songs. The “Break It In” title and its celebration of a strong heart in the bridge are similar to the hook in the group's 2012 crossover hit “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.” Both pieces focus on guitars in their lyrics, and both rely on a sinewy, heartland-rock chassis.

“It feels like a pure definition of who we are and where we are right now in our career,” surmises Eli. “‘Breaks Your Heart,’ at the time, it felt like that. And I think that this is kind of like part two of that -- for better, for worse, all these years that we’ve been out here and making music, we feel like we’re just getting that next gear and ready to hit that next chapter.”

Appropriately, “Break It In” had a long, slow evolution before it found its final footing. Michael Whitworth, Daniel Ross, Benjy Davis and Brandon Day wrote it on Nov. 3, 2016, at Ross’ studio a few blocks from Music Row. Ross allegedly brought up the title first, and when Whitworth saw the same phrase listed in his hook book, it clinched the direction for the day.

After first trying to write it as an uptempo party track, they fashioned it as a story song with a slice-of-life observation, and though they didn’t know initially how the chorus would play out, they had a general idea of how to make the hook work. “We knew we were going to kind of do a classic move where you tag the bridge, tag the verses, you tag every part of the song,” recalls Day. “Every part of the song needs to lead into ‘Then you break it in.’”

They came up with an informal list of things that improve with repeated use, and the first one surrounded a Gibson guitar, an item that all four writers could appreciate. It became the song’s second example, though, once they got enamored with a familiar Little League experience of breaking in a baseball glove. The verses are structured to emphasize the offbeats in a conversational tone. That phrasing contrasts with on-the-beat rhythms in the chorus, and that variation helps “Break It In” grow with repeated exposure.

“Our idea for it was to try to create a kind of stumbly rhythm to the verse, to where you feel like have to resolve [it],” observes Whitworth. “You build this tension throughout it, so you’re not distracted by the melody, if you will. It’s more like pulling a rope, and you’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get to the end of this.’”

Since the story focused on inanimate objects, the writers needed to -- in Nashville songwriter parlance -- put a girl in it. But in a judicious way. “For the story’s sake, we couldn’t throw her around everywhere,” says Davis. “We kind of had to make her a part of the character’s journey, not a focal point.”

They saved her, and the relationship she symbolized, for the bridge, though they hinted at her role in the singer’s account of the pickup truck, casually mentioning that “she loved that thing on all those old back roads.” Davis, whose upper register sounds much like Eli’s tone, came back the next day to record the demo’s vocal. “When we wrote it, Michael Whitworth was like, ‘This would be a perfect song for Eli Young,’” recalls Davis. “I think we kind of had them in mind when we were writing it.”

None of the writers actually knew EYB, so they pitched it elsewhere first. Plenty of other artists heard it and liked it. But none cut it. Fortuitously, Ross signed a publishing deal with Tree Vibez and Big Machine Music, a sister company to Valory, which markets Eli Young Band. Ross brought 290 songs into the catalog, and “Break It In” stood out for EYB.

The band was interested, though Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta asked for a rewrite to make it more personal. During the song’s fourth writing session, the authors figured out how to accomplish that. The original bridge celebrated how the woman had broken through a wall around the singer’s heart, looking at the singer from her perspective. The revision kept it all in his point of view.

“They just wanted other pieces of it to kind of tie it together,” remembers Ross. “I remember saying, ‘I think this might sound stupid, guys, but what if we go back through the whole song and just say, like, ‘Trucks break down, first loves end’?” adds Day. “As soon as we said that, that bridge came out in probably 10 seconds.”

The change was small, but the impact was huge. “It’s just a thousand times better,” says Ross. “It just feels like one screw needed to be turned more to just tighten it up.”

Producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Brantley Gilbert) oversaw the tracking session at Blackbird, and it proved to be a challenge. The demo had a laid-back feel with swimming guitars and a programmed clap track. Huff sped the tempo up a hair for the final performance and had EYB guitarist James Young provide more muscular guitar layers. “We cut two songs that day, and I remember them saying that they were a little nervous ’cause they didn’t sound like typical Eli Young songs,” says Huff. “That was the job: to make them feel like they were Eli Young songs.”

Appropriate for a song that grows on the listener, Huff wasn’t entirely satisfied with the initial results. He gave it additional attention at his home studio, toughening it up without stomping on the story, which Eli delivered with authority. “He really found his voice on that song,” notes Huff.

“Mike Eli’s voice really brings a crisp purity and energy,” agrees Whitworth. “No one sounds like him.”

EYB’s team easily made it a single, and Valory sent it to country radio via PlayMPE on July 26. In the meantime, the band added “Break It In” to its live set on June 28 at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant, Mich. The audience responded as if it were a familiar part of the EYB canon, likely because it connects so solidly with the group’s original sound.

And maybe because fans can sense the song has value, even if it takes a few listens to completely absorb its underlying message -- that some of the best things in life improve with repetition. As Eli Young Band turns 20 in the next calendar year, it’s a notion the group fully embraces.

“We feel like we’ve gotten better at what we do,” says Eli. “And that was one of the biggest reasons why we feel the song is so appropriate.”

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.