The Blue Note Presents
Love and Theft
17 N 9th St
Columbia, MO, 65201-4845
Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:30 PM
Love and Theft
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.”
It's a wonder that the five members of Blackjack Billy even managed to find each other, much less that they were able to build a band. And not just any band!
Noll Billings, vocalist, is from Missouri. Rob Blackledge, vocals/guitar is from Mississippi. Jeff Coplan, lead guitar, is from Montreal then New York City. Patrick Cornell, bass guitar, is from Ohio then Los Angeles. Brad Cummings, drums, is one of the few musicians born and raised in Nashville. In the short time that Blackjack Billy have been together, they've established themselves as a must-see live act, playing over 100 shows their first year out. Their frenetic energy, ability to engage the crowd and the chemistry between them may be the reason why.
Or maybe it's their unique brand of country music. With influences of great harmony bands like The Beatles, Doobie Brothers, Eagles and Alabama, a very generous helping of Garth Brooks and James Taylor, and a touch of the Stones, AC/DC and Aerosmith, they developed the sound that they call “Redneck Rock.” “It’s just a thing we came up with,” says Rob. “At the end of the day we love country music and that’s what we set out to do,” adds Noll. “But the only difference is you have country-as-hell sitting here, from Jackson Mississippi and the Boot Heel of Missouri, but we’ve also got New York rock guitar, L.A. bass guitar and a Nashville drummer. Mix it all up and you got Blackjack Billy.”
Each of the members of Blackjack Billy also legitimately contributes to the songwriting process. In fact, it's songwriting that brought each of them to Nashville. “That’s why we each moved here —to write songs,” explains Rob. “The love of lyrics and the love of melodies, if it wasn’t for that, none of us would be here.” Jeff adds, “It all starts with a song and we try to write the best country songs we can and just rock the shit out of them.” And they do! When asked what fans can expect to hear on their debut album, Patrick laughs and jokingly says, “Awesomeness!”
Sitting at a table with this merry band of brothers, you would expect that the flow of conversation, laughs and good-natured ribbing is the reason for the chemistry among band members and, to a large degree, it is. But before that could naturally evolve, the music was the magnet that drew them together. Jeff, who produced Love & Theft’s first album and wrote their #1 hit Angel Eyes explains, “Rob and I met first through Love & Theft. Rob was buddies with Stephen (Barker Liles) and they co-wrote Love & Theft’s first Top 10 single 'Runaway.' I met Noll because we were both songwriters at EMI. I thought the three of us should get together to write and we hit it off. They’re both great singers on their own but the first time I heard them singing together I thought, ‘Wow, this is killer.’”
The trio decided to showcase their original tunes at local Nashville hotspot “The Basement” with hired sidemen on bass and drums. The unknowns packed it out, and while it left the boys wondering what would happen next, they knew they were on to something and they wanted to do it more...a lot more.
Rob met Patrick at a pool party and discovered that, after spending years in L.A. as a successful bass player, he had moved to Nashville to take a break from music and complete his degree in web design. “He is amazing with computers,” says Noll. “He does all of our web design and stuff. So he moved here and started a small company, but we drug him back into the music world.” It didn’t take much persuasion. “I liked every single song they played. So I started telling people I was the bass player for Blackjack Billy before they ever needed me,” laughs Patrick. Noll remembers, “I got off the stage at our second or third show, and Patrick came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m Patrick Cornell. I’m going to be your bass player.’And I’m like, ‘OK man. I like your attitude, but we’ve got a bass player.’And he said, ‘No, no. I’m your guy. Let me know if you want to drink a beer.” Not long after, the position became available and Patrick’s tenacity paid off. Rob laughs and says, “I called Patrick at 10 at night and said, ‘Your wildest dreams have just come true. We need a bass player for next weekend.’”
In a town where you can shake a tree and a great musician will fall out, Brad came highly recommended by one of Patrick’s L.A. musician friends. He showed up to the audition and the band’s reaction was immediate. Rob recalls, “The first time all five of us were in Jeff’s studio together at the rehearsal, we started into a song, and Coplan, who is the hardest musical critic you’ll ever have, looked at me as soon as Brad and Patrick started in and just smiled like,‘This is it. This is the crew.’ It was immediate magic.” The band went to Key West the next day for seven shows, four-hours each and Brad didn’t know the first song that they had in their set list. But he learned them—all of them—on the drive to Florida.
And, as the saying goes, there has been no looking back. Last year, Blackjack Billy played 40 to 45 weekends out of the year. This year, they’re set to again play over 100 free-standing shows, not counting radio appearances. And, admirably, they’re doing it all on their own. From writing their own songs, producing their own record, playing their own instruments in the studio, even driving their own bus, the band is self-sufficient.
Even the success of their first single was accomplished without the help of a major record label. “We wanted to put something out independently and we had this song called ‘The Booze Cruise,’ which is just a fun, summer song,” says Jeff. “We were playing in Panama City for Spring Break. We knew it was going to be epic and we were like, ‘We should shoot a video. So we funded it ourselves and had a friend who is an up-and-coming film guy, Aaron Thomas, come down and film the shows.” It was so spontaneous that Rob says they put the idea together on the drive to P.C.B. The video stars Earl Bud Lee, famous for writing “Friends in Low Places.” Jeff goes on, “So, we had the video and we put the song out on i-Tunes. Our expectation was if we could sell 40,000 downloads by the end of summer, it would be a huge success. Sirius XM-The Highway started playing it and immediately sales took off. It sold 10,000 copies that first week. Three months later, we sold over 200,000 copies.” Coincidentally, the video is quickly approaching 1,000,000 views.
But even better, the boys got the attention of Bigger Picture Group, who not only appreciated their proven success, but also believed in the vision of Blackjack Billy and signed the band to a record deal.
Impressive, yes. But more impressive is their dedication to not being pigeon-holed as a party band. Their upcoming album shows the expanse of their influences—something the band is thrilled with. “What I’m most looking forward to is showing the diversity.” says Rob. “There is a continuity with the vocals. We definitely have a unique sound and Jeff has an amazing production style that supports that. But because of the range of expression that all five members bring to the band, we’re able to go from a very classic country, acoustically driven song to a very rock driven feel. We want to give the listener some goose bump moments.” “There will be some depth on the album that, hopefully, will surprise some people,” adds Jeff. And for Brad, that equates to longevity, “It’s all about the songs and as long as this band keeps writings great songs, this band is going to be around.”
But until the album comes out, you’ll find Blackjack Billy doing what they most love to do— hitting the road and playing for their rapidly growing congregation of fans. So, go to a show, but if you do, strap yourself in. The energy is at a nuclear level and the stage is but a launching pad.
Tickets Available at the Door
MINORS: $2 cash surcharge at the door for anyone under the age of 21.
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