Love and Theft may be celebrating the release of their second studio album, but to the ACM-nominated country duo, the self-titled release might as well be their first.

And in a way, it is. Love and Theft is Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson's first album since joining RCA Nashville, the home to many of their musical inspirations. "We feel like people will be hearing us for the first time," says Eric. Stephen agrees and credits the label's storied history with helping to reenergize the band. "The history of RCA Records is incredible. Just knowing that we are on the same label as some of our biggest influences, like Elvis Presley, is an awesome feeling."

That excitement is palpable throughout the 11 songs that comprise the album, a fluid mix of country melodies and sing-along choruses, all driven by Eric's earthy voice and Stephen's high-altitude tenor. The guys share lead vocals, harmonize like a church choir, and bolster their songs with their own guitar playing. "We sound like brothers when we sing," says Eric. "Stephen and I have always been on the same page as far as the vision for the band, and we feel like we have made the record we've always wanted to make."

Produced by Josh Leo (Alabama, Nitty Gritty Dirty Band), Love and Theft is a nod to the duo's varied influences. "She's Amazing" evokes the brilliant harmonies of the Eagles. The seductive "Amen" channels all the yearning of Roy Orbison. And the rollicking first single "Angel Eyes"—which scored the twosome their first CMT Music Awards nomination for Duo Video of the Year—brings to mind Elvis Presley's "(You're the) Devil in Disguise."

Coincidentally, both Stephen and Eric—who didn't meet until they were in their early 20s—were practically raised in church. Stephen's father is a pastor and Eric's father is a worship pastor. Their respective fathers fed them a steady diet of gospel, oldies and country. "Our parents didn't want us listening to secular music that much. But they'd let us listen to Elvis, Roy, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was cool to grow up that way, and that's still my favorite kind of music," explains Eric, who says he and Stephen worked hard to capture a more organic, country sound for this album. "We're both from the South and we're very much in favor of embracing our country roots. I feel like we've done that here."

Stephen and Eric's experiences growing up in the Bible Belt help inform the new album, especially on the wild-child single "Angel Eyes," which Eric co-wrote with Eric Paslay and Jeff Coplan. "Preacher's kids seem to have the most rebellious side and get in trouble more," Eric admits with a laugh. "That was kind of the inspiration for that. We wrote it from a personal place."

"Town Drunk," written by Natalie Hemby and Daniel Tashian, is equally personal to the guys. The heart-wrenching ballad chronicles in stark detail the effects of a father's alcoholism on his daughter. "When they played it for us, I started crying about halfway through because it reminded me of my mom's dad, my grandfather," Stephen says. "He died an alcoholic and I never really had a relationship with him. It hit close to home for me."

"It was a no-brainer as soon as we heard it," Eric adds. "That song had to be on the album."

The pair is equally enthusiastic about "Runnin' Out of Air," a tune they describe as "Maroon 5 meets the Eagles," and "Thinking of You (and Me)," which explores the gray area in a guy-and-girl friendship. "Some of my first girlfriends started out as friends," Eric recalls. "You didn't want to cross that line and risk hurting someone's feelings. But if I didn't take that chance, I never would have fallen in love with them."

The album's sleeper hit, however, just might be "Girls Look Hot in Trucks." Stephen and Eric have been floored by the response the song has generated in concert. Co-written with The Warren Brothers, the lyrics are a laundry list of issues up for debate: Fords or Chevys, Earnhardt or Petty, hunting or fishing? "We may never agree on baseball teams or what NASCAR driver we like, but we all know that girls look great in a pickup," says Eric. "When we play it live and we get to the hook, the crowd just goes nuts."

Love and Theft certainly have a knack for crafting sharp hooks. Whether they're writing for themselves or for other artists, Stephen and Eric are well-versed in the ingredients necessary for a hit.

"We want to cut the best songs we can find, but we also love to write too. Sometimes, though, those songs don't fit our music and may be better suited for someone like Martina McBride," says Stephen, who co-wrote her hit "Wrong Baby Wrong."

Proud of their writing credits, and rightfully so, Stephen and Eric are also reinvigorated by the recording process they established with Josh Leo. Every track on Love and Theft was cut live in the studio, with a full band falling into a solid groove. "We love performing" Stephen says. "The way we are recording now is the way our influences made records: live with a band."

"You get the warmth and the emotion of the players vibing together in the room," says Eric of the back-to-basics approach. "There are some things you just can't do in a little room on a laptop."

And the release of Love and Theft is proof of that. With a renewed emphasis on organic sounds, the album has brought Love and Theft closer to what it set out to be: a band that writes, records and performs honest, soulful country music.

"This record represents the way we sound live," says Stephen, before—like the musical brothers they are—Eric completes the thought. "It shows a more mature, evolved Love and Theft but the core is still the same," he says. "Our sound will always be driven by harmonies."

Canaan Smith

Possessing a distinctive voice that combines a breezy cool vibe with heart-on-his-sleeve emotional honesty, Canaan Smith has emerged as one of country music's most compelling new artists. Behind his easy-going boy next door charm lies an accomplished storyteller equally gifted at romantic ballads, up tempo anthems and poignant slice of life songs that convey universal truths.
The young artist's ability to draw from such a vivid emotional canvas comes from a life well lived. Equal parts sensitive songwriter and fearless adventurer, Canaan was writing and performing around Music City when he was recruited to compete on the hit television reality show "The Amazing Race," traveling to such locales as Dubai, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia. However to him the most exciting adventure was seeing his reputation as a songwriter grow as he scored cuts by Jason Aldean, Billy Ray Cyrus/Amy Grant, Love and Theft and other acts and scored his first top ten hit as a songwriter.
"It's all about the stories," Canaan says when asked about his love of country music. "You can listen to a country song and it will raise the hair on your arms. I'm a people person and I love being able to connect with people. I've always admired the way my heroes made real connections with country fans; I want to follow in their footsteps."
Canaan learned an appreciation for all styles of music growing up in Williamsburg, Va. "I grew up listening to music in general and that included every genre, from the hardest rock to the twangiest country," he says. "I have video recordings of me singing George Strait songs to my mom and also fond memories of my dad and I head-banging in the car to Rage Against the Machine. I was a skateboarder, basketball player, horseback rider and I wanted to be a cowboy."
Canaan was the fourth of six kids in a boisterous, loving family that encouraged his music dreams, but his world was shattered when he was 11 and his older brother was killed. "He was 16 and died in a car accident. That just rocked our world," Canaan says quietly. "I can't think of anything worse that can happen to a family. That's really the point in my life when I had to decide the way the world works. Is it good or is it bad? I wrestled with my view on God and the world having meaning. I had to really start wrestling with these questions at a young age. I think God gave me strength to be able to see things in a positive light so that very much shaped who I am as an artist. That's why I sing about what I sing about. I know it's going to be okay because I've been to the darkest place."
Music became a refuge, a source of comfort and provided catharsis. "I formed a band with my two best friends when we were in sixth grade and we stayed together through senior year of high school," says Canaan. "We played music and wrote our own songs for six years. I really got a crash course at a young age in what it means to be in a band and to be a traveling act. Our parents would drive us around until we could drive and then we'd drive ourselves. I'm so thankful that I got to do that because you learn to hone your craft. It was great finding a sense of community that encourages you to do what you are passionate about and can do it with you; to have that at a young age was great. I also got to see what works in front of a crowd and what doesn't, what it means to be in the studio, the process of recording and the discipline of writing songs and rehearsing. Knowing how to do that is invaluable."
Not only did Canaan have the opportunity to polish his creative skills, he gained valuable business acumen and developed an impressive work ethic. Long before anyone had ever heard of a Kickstarter program, Canaan and his band raised money to record their first album by selling advance copies to their friends at school. "We walked around our high school and said, 'Hey, we're going to record an album and don't have the money. Would you pre-buy an album and we'll give it to you when we're done?' We raised a couple thousand dollars, went and made an album and gave people their albums," he says. "Looking back it was pretty bad ass. Our friends are the cool ones for trusting us with their money and I guess that was also indicative that they really believed in what we were doing."
The band recorded 11 original songs and became a regional sensation, but after high school, they parted ways. Canaan spent a year at James Madison University before heading to Florida's prestigious Full Sail University where he entered an accelerated program and received a recording/engineering degree. Afterward he moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University and began performing around Music City, landing a regular gig at the popular nightspot On the Rocks. He began writing with other tunesmiths, including Love and Theft's Stephen Barker Liles. Their collaboration "Runaway" became Love and Theft's first single and a top ten hit.
Canaan landed a publishing deal with Disney Music Publishing and caught the attention of Brett Beavers (Dierks Bentley) who not only wanted to co-write with the up and coming young writer, but also wanted to produce him as well. "We sat down over drinks and he said, 'I've been going around my office this week holding up this CD saying, "This is Canaan Smith! This is the next big thing,"" Canaan recalls. "I just couldn't stop smiling."
Working with Beavers and Luke Wooten, Canaan has crafted a memorable debut album that showcases his strong, supple vocals and his insightful, evocative songwriting. The lead single, "We Got Us," is a tender romantic ballad that anyone who has ever been in love and struggling against all odds will relate to instantly. "I Like It That Way" is an appealing up tempo come on. "All in My Head" is a vibrant track that oozes with personality while "Prettiest Girl in Town" demonstrates Canaan's depth as a songwriter as he entertains the listener with a breezy tune about a pretty girl then lands an emotional punch as you realize that pretty girl is a youngster battling cancer.
It's that ability to deliver songs that are both engaging and emotionally riveting that distinguishes Canaan Smith. As an opening act for Sugarland, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker and others, he's earned a loyal, enthusiastic fan base. His music is realistic and honest, yet with a deep undercurrent of hope that reflects the young artist's view on life. "My favorite part of this whole process is taking the music to the people, letting them hear and connect with my music," Canaan says. "The coolest part is that you know for three and a half minutes you are speaking the same language. If they relate to you on that one song, then you can be two totally different people from two different worlds, but you are speaking the same language. I really like that."

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Love and Theft with Canaan Smith

Thursday, September 5 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at Rams Head Live

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