Now it's Brett's turn to put his own voice to his lyrics. He is currently on his first radio tour, taking his emotional debut single 'Raymond,' about a young nursing home worker who is mistaken for the deceased son of one of the residents, to radio stations across the country. The song is a very personal one for Brett, who wrote it with Brad Crisler, inspired by his own grandmother's fight with Alzheimer's disease.
A Paris, Ill.-native, Brett grew up loving music, the water and the Chicago Cubs. At age 18, he moved to Chicago to attend Elmhurst College. After a visit to see his cousin Terry Eldredge of the Grascals in Nashville, Brett transferred to Middle Tennessee State University, just outside of Music City. And as they say, the rest is history.
When did you start singing? And what was in your repertoire?
There's a video of me singing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' in the living room with a Chicago Cubs helmet on: we're huge Cubs fans. In it, you can see that I could actually carry a tune at the young age of four. My family started to have me sing the National Anthem at family parties. I'd get real nervous and then someone would give me a candy bar or five dollars and I'd sing. My body would shake. They'd call it the man voice, because I had this older voice coming out of a kid's body.
Who were your musical influences?
I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, riding in the car with my grandpa and I was just intrigued by it. My mom brought me home Bobby Darin CD and I just started singing that big band stuff at talent shows. That's when I really started to love the stage. I'd work the stage and sing like those old crooners. I was able to sound like an older guy at the age of 14. I got noticed for that and when I went to college in Chicago and got connected with the jazz band. I got in with the Bill Pollack Orchestra, where I sang Sinatra stuff and old rock stuff. It was a pretty big deal. I was singing underneath the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil at the Field Museum. I still sing Sinatra songs. I always have that on hand, whether it's a cappella or with my guitarist.
What turned you on to country music?
I always give a lot of credit to Ronnie Dunn for making me fall in love with country music. In high school, I was listening to Brooks & Dunn's 'The Greatest Hits Collection.' My buddy Chip and I would run around in the country with my family's old boat, which we put a car CD player in, and only listened to that CD all summer long for several summers. I just fell in love with country music.
When did you decided to pursue country music full-time?
I had lived in Chicago for a couple years, when I decided to check Nashville out. My cousin Terry Eldredge was playing at this bluegrass venue called Station Inn. At that time Terry was playing with the Sidemen. He was on stage and ask to me, "Brett, why don't you come up and sing a song." He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, "King George." He got all excited and said to the band, "He wants to do a George Jones song, boys." I was actually talking about George Strait [laughs]. That just shows you the difference in what we grew up listening to. I asked if they knew 'Amarillo By Morning' and some of them did, or at least they faked it really well. Once the intro started I got chills up my spine, it was a pinnacle moment. I was like wow, this is what I want to do. It was a crazy thing. Since then, I've become a big fan of George Jones.
Growing up you didn't play guitar, what made you want to learn? When did you start seriously pursuing that?
Terry was playing for Dolly Parton before he joined the Grascals, and she got all these extra guitars through endorsement deals and stuff. Terry had gotten a really nice one, and saw that I was really interested in coming to Nashville and doing this. He gave me the guitar and said, "This is yours to have and help you do your thing. We'll do something some day that will make up for it." I eventually moved to Nashville and my first summer there, I realized that all these people were up on stage, sitting around jamming, writing songs and accompany themselves. I thought I was really missing out on something, so I had to learn to play a lot better than I did; I knew like two chords. I locked myself in a room that whole summer and I taught myself how to write songs and play guitar. I was also learning old songs that would help me learn the guitar more and forcing myself to make it happen. I really started to love it.
Byron Gallimore, who's produced albums for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, worked on your album, how'd you get hooked up with him?
I got booked playing a show and some people that wrote for Byron's publishing company were there. They ended up taking me out to Bryon's house and I got introduced to his wife Missy, who does a lot of the A&R listening for Tim and Faith. I thought I was just meeting her, and then she said, "Byron's back in the studio, why don't we go out there?" I got all nervous. I was real green at the time and I didn't want Missy to hear my songs, let alone the biggest producer in the business. I figured this was my shot though, I might as well take it. I went back there with that same guitar that Terry gave me. I tuned it up and I played one of my six songs that I had at the time. I chose the one that showed off my voice the most and he said, "Wow, I love that. Will you play me another?" I played the first verse to one of my other songs and two of the strings busted right there. I was thinking 'Oh man, now I'm screwed.' My heart was beating like crazy, and I was about to pass out. To my surprise, he said, "I'd love to produce you." Then I signed with him for publishing and flew underground for two years working on songwriting. It started to work and I started to find who I was. We started honing in on songs that defined who I am and cutting them. Then I started doing showcases, and one thing led to another, and I eventually got to Atlantic Records.
'Raymond' is your debut single and is obviously special because you wrote it about your grandmother's battle with Alzheimer's. What else about this song makes it unique?
I wrote 'Raymond' early on in my career, about three years ago. It's the first song I wrote that I felt the magic from and saw how a story can really come from my heart and a real place. As early as it was, it's been one of the most special songs I've ever been a party of. And while I did write it for my dad's mother, you don't run across something that real often in your career, definitely not weekly.
What was it like starring in and making your first video for 'Raymond'?
Director Shaun Silva came with this certain video idea that was spot on. We wanted to deliver it in a way that felt so real. He picked out the perfect lady to 'Katherine,' who was so sweet. She actually looked like my mother's mother, which was wild because she died about six years ago. It was a healing process for my mother, who was there for the shoot. When you see me singing for the elderly people in video, I'm actually singing an hymn called 'Old Rugged Cross,' and they're actually singing along with me. That in itself was a cool experience. Shaun was great. He let us take our time and didn't rush us. At one point, he was telling the lead actress, "Start talking about something special in your childhood." She told me stories about when she was a kid, and she started crying on set. He brings life out of any situation and makes the scene so comfortable and so real. Making the video was definitely one of my favorite experiences in my career so far.
Did you have any experience acting before making the 'Raymond' video?
I did high school musicals. I was Curly in Oklahoma. I did some acting. I love the stage and the fact that with musicals you can bring a story and portray it with music. I want to someday act. I have my acting debut in the 'Raymond' video and I'll take baby steps into it, but I love doing that stuff.
What's another song from your album that you really enjoy singing live?
'One Mississippi' is one I wrote with Tom Douglas, who's one of my favorite songwriters in Nashville. He does this thing on piano that is awesome. He has a soulful vibe to what he does. Tom was definitely one of those guys who I always wanted to work with and I finally got the opportunity. We wrote this song, which is one of those good ole stories of watching someone leaving and there's nothing you can do about it. It's one of my favorite songs on the album.