Country has had a fascination with the water in recent years, evident in such major titles as Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach,” Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” and Jake Owen’s “Beachin’.” Eli Young Band’s new “Saltwater Gospel” fits into that sand-filled movement while simultaneously sticking out.
“It’s a beachy, summer-themed song,” says EYB bassist Jon Jones. “Well, it is, but it isn’t.”
True enough. “Saltwater Gospel” has the carefree feel of Zac Brown Band’s “ass in the sand” vacation song “Toes,” but the lyrics to “Saltwater” adhere more to the meaning in Lee Ann Womack’s spiritual single “I Hope You Dance.” In that song — inspired by songwriter Tia Sillers’ visits to the Florida Panhandle and the Rocky Mountains — the breadth of the universe is summed up in a single line: “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.”
“You do feel kind of small and humbled when you’re looking out onto the vast openness of the water,” says EYB guitarist James Young.
Many of the tourists who visit the coasts every summer use the beach as a getaway, so it’s appropriate that “Saltwater Gospel” had a similar function for songwriters Ashley Gorley (“Mind Reader,” “T-Shirt”), Nicolle Galyon (“Automatic,” “God Made Girls”) and Ross Copperman (“Noise,” “American Country Love Song”) in the summer of 2015. They had been working on another song for several hours and hit a wall when they decided to change direction.
“We needed a vacation from the song we were trying to write, and so that’s how we ended up with ‘Saltwater,’ ” says Galyon.
“Saltwater Gospel” has some connection to that same Gulf Coast sand that birthed “I Hope You Dance.” Gorley and Galyon both credit the “Saltwater” title to Copperman, who insists it just came up in the room that day. But Copperman definitely was channeling the Florida experience.
“Every time I’m on the ocean, it always makes me feel so small and I kind of ponder life,” says Copperman. “It really is the closest I always feel like I get to God, standing on the ocean.”
Once the title emerged, the song formed around it fairly quickly. Copperman started building a musical track, while Galyon and Gorley focused on the lyrics and melody. The verses employed a languid cadence, setting up the purpose for the trip to the sea, while the chorus used short phrases — “I go down… and sink… my feet in the water…” — mirroring the choppiness of the waves.
“We went back and forth between the verse melodies and the chorus melody,” says Gorley, “but when that chorus popped up, we stayed on that for awhile because it’s a whole rhythmic thing that we had to tackle.”
They concluded the chorus by pointing to the spiritual power of the ocean — “That’s as close to God as I can get” — though they were careful not to diminish the importance of more formal worship.
“The beach, the sun, the ocean is not a replacement for God,” says Gorley. “It’s not like, ‘This is where I get my spirituality from.’ This is the place where you find God more easily. We had to go make sure some lines didn’t sound like ‘I don’t need to go to church.’ It’s not like that. The three of us think you need all you can get. Go to church, your Bible study, take a trip to the beach and a trip to the mountains — everything to remember who made it all.”
They finished with a bridge that surrounds the word “Amen,” phrased similarly to the gospel song “Amen” that had its commercial high point when The Impressions notched a No. 1 R&B single in 1964. The bridge hints at the phrasing of that track while using a different melody.
“We wanted it to sound like a hymn right there for a minute,” says Gorley. “He’s kind of breathing in the ocean air, and it’s affecting him.”
Gorley sang the lead part, and all three writers did gang vocals on the chorus as Copperman built the demo around them. Kenny Chesney and Owen seemed like obvious targets for the song — so obvious, in fact, that the writers figured they would pass. So the demo essentially went to all the key A&R executives on Music Row as they cast a wide net.
Big Machine Label Group senior vp A&R Allison Jones took an interest and passed it along to EYB, whose members thought it was just different enough to work.
“We’ve been pitched a million beach songs,” says lead singer Mike Eli. “This felt like it covered territory that was new and didn’t feel like the same old, same old.”
As soon as they put it on hold, other artists started nibbling. EYB took a stand, insisting the group would cut it. And the band didn’t wait long. With Copperman and Jeremy Stover (Justin Moore, Drake White) co-producing, EYB recorded “Saltwater” at Nashville’s Ocean Way Studio on Oct. 8, 2015. Copperman, who understandably was psyched that his song ended up back under his direction, had EYB perform on top of the existing demo, stripping away some pieces — including the vocals, bass and drums — and having the band interpret its parts in its own way.
“They operate better when they’re just playing from the ground up, but for this one I had to keep those tracks,” says Copperman. “So we got the drums right and made sure they fit with the track, and then we got the bass right, and we kind of just built on it like that, like a rock record versus a country record.”
Approaching each instrument-individually allowed for extra experimentation.
“I remember thinking, ‘This sounds like it could be three different drummers doing different things,” says drummer Chris Thompson, “so I was trying to do like five different things, and it just wasn’t coming together. So we were like, ‘Let’s break it all down,’ and that was the best way to do the song.”
Young played a tremolo guitar that Copperman blended with several other sounds, including Hammond B-3 organ, to create what sounds like the shimmer of the sun against the ocean’s waves. And Young threw several other guitar parts into the mix as well.
“The beginning kind of channeled my inner Beach Boy, and it kind of felt like ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ there,” says Young. “There’s also a lot of percussive notes and guitar parts. It’s cool to actually use a guitar as a percussive instrument.”
Cale Richardson, who plays in EYB’s road band, played acoustic guitar, and session guitarist Derek Wells contributed additional elements.
Eli approached the lead vocal as a conversation, and the entire band gathered in a semi-circle around a mic and sang the gang vocals on the chorus focused on attitude, rather than on perfection.
“It’s almost like it’s put together in a sloppy, uniform kind of way,” says Eli. “When you hear it, everyone’s going to want to sing that. And they can.”
“Saltwater Gospel” outlasted everything else EYB recorded to become the first single from the band’s next album, released to radio through Play MPE on June 10. It is No. 50 in its third week on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, showing signs that the combination of spirit and sea is making a connection. At a time of great social upheaval, that search for inner peace and meaning is as important as ever, whether you discover it in a pew or on a pier.
“If you can find it somewhere,” says Eli, “just find it.”