Under the cover of the omnivorous, arena-friendly country sound that swept into the genre over the last few years, a quieter backlash took place in the genre’s mainstream. You can hear it in Eric Church’s “Like A Wrecking Ball,” Miranda Lambert’s “Holding On To You,” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”: blue-eyed soul. This sound has long been a staple of the top 40 (witness the anticipatory hysteria that greeted the news of an impending Adelealbum) and the success of these songs suggested that country listeners were also clamoring for some smooth R&B in their diet.
A prominent pair of country-soul pushers, Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge, strutted into New York City’s Terminal 5 Thursday night on CMT’s Suits And Boots tour. Their credentials in the nascent movement are impressive: Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna,” which is 1978 yacht-rock shiny, made it to No. 1, as did Eldredge’s “Beat Of The Music,” which codes as a savvy update of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.” The two singers’ connection was officially cemented earlier this year when the pair traded verses on “You Can’t Stop Me,” a Chic-indebted cut as sinuous as any of the myriad nu-disco songs pulsing through 2015.
At Terminal 5, as on recording, Rhett was the more restless of the two artists, with a throw-everything-at-the-wall mentality. “Tangled Up” nodded to Daft Punk; “Anthem” displayed an aggressive hip-hop beat and chainsaw guitars; “Crash And Burn” interpolated the backing vocals from Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” — though they were very hard to discern on the venue’s sound system. Even Rhett’s references run the gamut from Marvin Gaye (“Die A Happy Man”) to Guns N’ Roses (“T-Shirt”). This makes for a dizzying concert experience: the only common thread was the exuberance he brought to each song.
Part of his vigor stemmed from his arsenal of dance moves: heel-kicks, one-legged slides, hip undulations. Though he remains most comfortable behind the guitar, he announced his intention “to break it down,” and he frequently ditched the instrument to slither unencumbered around the middle of the wide stage. His choice of a cover — Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” — was telling: that track danced its way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 for several months.
Eldredge doesn’t share Rhett’s wide aesthetic range, but he has a more full-throated voice, a deeper strain of huskiness. (The sound in the venue improved somewhat during his set as well.) He also has a keen understanding of pop concision: on his new album, Illinois, no song is longer than four minutes, a remarkable show of restraint in the modern era.
Eldredge launched into “Beat Of The Music” immediately, capturing the crowd right away – by the time he got to “Mean To Me,” another No. 1 hit on the Country Airplay chart, he was washed away by the force of audience participation. His latest No. 1 is a departure from the breezy style he often favors: at Terminal 5, “Lose My Mind” displayed the same kind of caffeinated folk bounce as an old Mumford & Sons song. (It also contains a casual interpolation of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”) The track was here and gone in a blur — except on the charts, of course, where it has been a steady presence for 25 weeks.
Eldredge dances less, though he was aided by a cartoonishly expressive lead guitar player who functioned as the singer’s comedic sidekick. The axeman’s face seemingly exhibiting a wide-eyed version of just about every extreme human emotion, and he had moves too, locking into a synchronized, Motown-like hip-sway with the bassist during “Mean To Me.” Once again, groove triumphed.
Photography by David Becker/Getty Images