Billy Eli plays country that rocks and rock that’s country, delivering songs that are vivid slices of real life lived to the fullest and chased down with a stiff shot of whiskey. With a style that’s rooted in his small town Southeast Texas origins that transcends the Lone Star State to achieve an international reach, the Austin, TX-based singer and songwriter has been compared by critics to such stellar American music artists as Tom Petty, Steve Earle, John Prine and John Mellencamp, to name a few. And like them, Eli’s music bears an indelible trademark that’s all his own, nimbly riding the fulcrum where rock and country converge, and singing with fervent heart and soul about the range of human experience from sin to salvation.
The Ithaca Journal in 2007 called Eli a “recent addition” to the blue ribbon roster of notable Texas singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and Willie Nelson. His talents as a entertainer and storyteller in song have been honed to razor sharpness over decades of gigs, first in the honky-tonks and barrooms of Southeast Texas, and then later in his Austin home base as well as clubs throughout the American West, Southeast and in and around the city of Ithaca in Upstate New York, which has become Eli’s second musical hometown.
As Americana-uk.com notes, “In a whiskey-soaked, honky-tonk drawl, Eli tells us tales of eating cheese enchiladas whilst doomsday beckons, gambling a life away on the slots of El Paso, how much whiskey mends a broken heart, and the simple idea that as long as you have a barmaid who is willing to sell you beer, what else matters?” Or as the San Antonio Express-News puts it more succinctly, Eli is “the real deal.”
Up until now, even for all the praise, Eli has been one of those “best-kept musical secrets” that Austin’s vibrant music scene is famous for. But with Hell Yeah!, his fourth album due out later in September 2010, that’s now all about to change. It was produced by Patrick Conway (whose credits include recording work with Chrissie Hynde, Chuck Prophet, Jerry Harrison, Jim Campilongo and I See Hawks In LA, among others, as well as being a talented musical artist in his own right), and recorded in Trumansburg, NY and then polished to a fine finish in Austin with some of the finest players from the heart of New York State and the capital of Texas.
Hell Yeah! opens with a muscular one-two punch: the populist anthem “People Like Us” that rocks out the country with nationwide appeal, and then the Lone Star State sounds of “Spook Lights of Marfa.” Eli proudly shows his Texas pride as he serves up a tasty plate of “Cheese Enchiladas,” and summons up the spirit of a rowdy and rocking night of big fun at your favorite bar on such fiery numbers as “Down on the Border,” “High Flyer,” “Tore Down in Texas” and “Spur That Pony.” He takes listeners for a ride on the road where he’s spent a good part of his years on “White Lines and Passing Lanes,” reminds of American music icon Johnny Cash with the Tex-Mex horns of “Try Looking At Me,” and gets down to the essence of love and heartache on “I Won’t Be Waiting” and “Way Up Lonesome.” All told, Hell Yeah! draws its strength from the best roots music traditions and then gives them a smart update to create country-rock that’s custom made for the 21st Century we live in.
Eli creates tales of such compelling true life resonance thanks in part to growing up in modest circumstances in the rural town of Livingston, Texas within the rolling hills and piney woods of East Texas some 55 miles north of Houston. It’s a small town where the options for work are laboring on oil and gas pipelines or at the local sawmill and feed store. His family may have been poor, but their home was rich in music. “We always had a record player and lots of records,” Eli recalls.
His father was a fan of such Sun Records pioneers as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, while his mother favored country crooners like Ray Price and Conway Twitty. Uncles and aunts close to his age hipped Eli to the rock, pop and soul sounds of the 1960s. He later was also drawn to the California country-rock of the early 1970s. “All I ever wanted to do was play in Poco or with [steel guitarist] Sneaky Pete in the Flying Burrito Brothers or with those musicians who were doing that old-time country style with a rock energy,” Eli says with a chuckle.
He got a drum kit when he was 12, but “banged on it and put a bunch of holes in it and never really got to where I could play it.” During the summer after his high school graduation, Eli was doing pipeline work in North Dakota when a guitar-playing friend at a party asked him to sing along. Impressed with what he heard from Eli, his friend insisted that they get Billy a guitar so he could teach him how to play.
On arriving back in Livingston, he started fronting “beer joint bands,” as he calls them. “When I found out I could get paid for this rather than work a real job, that was it,” Eli says. He soon began writing songs, and after getting enough experience under his belt and original material in his satchel, he moved to Austin, the capital of the state as well as the Texas music scene.
He put together a band, Lost in America, and hit the road to carve out a circuit in ski and resort towns across the Rockies and Southwest. When their many fans kept asking for an album to buy, Eli struck a deal to make one with Music Lane Studios, one of Austin’s top recording facilities. Lost in America broke up as the album got underway, but studio owner Wayne Gathright offered to finish it as an Eli solo project and release it on his Music Lane label.
Eli’s 1994 debut with Something’s Going On earned him rapturous critical praise. “The compact disc said Billy Eli. The music, however, screamed Steve Earle and The Dukes,” wrote longtime San Antonio Express-News critic Jim Beal Jr. Similarly, the Austin Chronicle praised its “tight, lean songs played with an inviting groove” and invoked such talents as Petty, J.J. Cale and The BoDeans to convey Eli’s sound and potential. “An eclectic mixture of country and rock deftly executed,” raved Austin Arena of the album, which was also released in Europe by the Italian Club de Musique label.
But Eli had to set aside capitalizing on such career-launching reviews and growing attention in the Austin and Texas music scenes when his wife gave birth to twins, one of them diagnosed with autism. He took a hiatus from music to concentrate on his family while continuing to write songs and play occasional gigs to keep his chops up.
A few years later, a friend sent some Swedish music business visitors to one of Eli’s Austin shows, and they invited him to contribute a track to a compilation album for their label, Dusty Records. That led to them asking Eli for a full album of his own, Trailer Park Angel, which was released by Dusty in Scandinavia and America in 2001, was hailed by Roots Revival as “full of positive energy and spirit [and] beautiful, strong songs.” Eli continued to ease back into action, developing a close working and songwriting relationship with his longtime guitarist Jim Hemphill. He also landed a gig in Upstate New York through friends that introduced him to a pool of talented musicians in and around Ithaca, where he now plays on a regular basis. He has also devoted his musical talents to raising both awareness of and funds for the worthy cause of autistic children, something that is obviously very near and dear to his heart.
When his core of devoted fans started clamoring for more music, Eli and Hemphill recorded a stripped-down, acoustic album, Amped Out, which he put it out in 2006 on his own Errant Records. Again, reviewers weighed in with the superlatives. “Like that other great new Austin songwriter, Hayes Carll, Eli has a way with words that somehow manages to portray a life so clearly Texan without anything getting lost in the translation,” noted Americana-uk.com. The Ithaca Journal praised its “11 songs that sound like a roughhewn Steve Earle or John Prine.”
Now with Hell Yeah!, Eli takes his music to the next level and expands his vision into new sonic and stylistic realms. “I really like what we got,” he says. “It’s radically different from my earlier stuff, but in a better way.” On it, producer Conway brings a distinct contemporary edge to the country and Texas musical traditions. And its songs sound like a million bucks thanks to the musicians involved: Hemphill and veteran Eli compadre Phil Achee on drums (who has worked with Eli since Lost In America); stellar Ithaca talents like bassist Doug Robinson, fiddler (and noted string instrument maker) Eric Aceto, banjo player Richard Stearns (who also works with rising star and Austinite Carrie Rodriguez), organist Bruce James, accordionist Chad Lieberman, horn player Michael Cerza (who recently relocated to Austin) and vocal trio Five2; also featured are Austin notables like pianist Earl Poole Ball (famed for his work with Johnny Cash and other legends), pedal steel guitar wizard James Shelton and Mary Cutrufello on guest background vocals.
“I’ve always found it hard to listen to my own records because by the time they get done, you’ve heard it so much,” Eli confesses. “On this one, I had a running bet with Patrick, my producer: When we got to the mastering stage, if I could still listen to it, I’d give him $100. He won that bet hands down.”
When others get a taste of Billy Eli’s music, they definitely want to listen again and again as well as hear more from the man who strikes a dynamic balance between the soulful populism of country and the crackling energy of rock. As the roots music bible Blue Suede News says of him, “If there really is a ‘next Gram Parsons’ sweepstakes, he could certainly be a front runner.”
But for Eli, neither fame nor legendary stature is the goal. Instead, it’s all about singing his tales for, as he says in song, “People Like Us” — everyday folks who have lived, loved, lost, struggled, suffered and triumphed. “You’ve got your superstars, your rock stars, your country stars, all that stuff. I like being a honky-tonk star,” asserts Eli. “The career I have right now is exactly what I want to be doing, and all I want is to do more of it. My job is to make it easier for people to drink and have fun. I like running up and down the road and playing for people. I’d rather do that than eat.”