RedEye

Interview: Brett Eldredge's path from Paris cornfields to Nashville star

The small town of Paris, Ill., is the birthplace of Carl Switzer, the late actor who played the iconic Alfalfa in the “Little Rascals” series, and Brett Eldredge, the country music singer whose singles “Don’t Ya” and “Beat of the Music” reached No. 1 on the country airplay chart. Only one of the two, however, has his name plastered on signs welcoming visitors to Paris, about 180 miles south of Chicago and home to about 9,000 residents.

Eldredge.

The wording on the Paris city limits signs reads “Home of Nashville Recording Artist Brett Eldredge.” While that may seem odd to some considering Alfalfa’s place in pop culture and the fact that Eldredge released his first and only studio album in August (“Bring You Back”), Switzer reportedly moved away from Paris well before he was a teenager and had a checkered past. Eldredge lived in Paris until he graduated high school.

“Alfalfa was definitely the most famous person from Paris, but I never saw any (‘Home of Alfalfa’) signs,” Eldredge said Thursday by phone from his tour bus. “It’s cool that Alfalfa came from (Paris). The show was before my time, but it’s a classic show.”

Eldredge will perform Friday at the second annual Windy City Smokeout festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday at Grand Avenue and the Chicago River. The barbecue and country music fest will also include performances by Randy Rogers Band and Josh Abbott Band on Saturday and Eli Young Band and Chase Rice on Sunday.

The 28-year-old Eldredge believes Paris will be well-represented not only onstage for his performance, but also in the crowd. He guesses there will be about 100 people there with Paris roots, almost half of whom will make the drive from Paris to Chicago.

“I have a lot of friends who will be there for life,” Eldredge said. “I know a lot of people who love the town enough that they never have a reason to leave. There are cornfields and cow pastures and a lake right in the middle. It never changes. And that’s what I love about it. I love going back. It gives me a sense of normalcy in the crazy world I live in, where I’m traveling so much.”

Before he was on tour, opening for Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley, Eldredge was a student at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst. “I grew up three and a half 3 1/2 hours outside of Chicago, but people would call me a ‘hick’ or ‘country boy,’ ” Eldredge said. “Maybe it’s because I talked with more of a country accent.”

He remembers how surprised he was when he discovered that there was a country station in the Chicago area, WUSN-FM 99.5, and he would listen to the station in his car while waiting for his college classes to start.

“Chicago is definitely more of a country place now,” Eldredge said.

“The friends who I thought never in a million years would like country now are huge fans. I love that.”

Eldredge’s time at Elmhurst College didn’t last long. He had his sights set on a career in country music and decided to transfer to Middle Tennessee State University to be closer to Nashville. He admits to being naive when he arrived, but he believes it was ultimately the key to his success.

Unlike other aspiring country artists, he didn’t really think about the fact that the odds were against him and that there were tens of thousands of other people in town pursuing the same dream. Eldredge knocked on songwriters’ doors asking if he could write a song with them and performed at songwriter nights, eventually landing a publishing deal and then a record deal with Atlantic Records in 2009.

Did Eldredge’s career take off from there?

Not exactly. He released his first song, “Raymond,” in 2010 but said it wasn’t the huge hit he had expected it to be.

“I think when you sign a recording deal, you think, ‘I’m going to put out a song and have a hit right away. I’ll be a giant superstar. I can take over the world now,’ ” Eldredge said. “But I put out a song, and it did OK. It wasn’t like leaps and bounds. I told myself, ‘I’ve got to earn this. I’ve got to keep fighting and have the same fight in me that I had when I first moved to town.’ I had something to prove and went in the studio and started writing. I got into fitness and style and learned the whole craft. That was when I wrote everything on the album. I put out ‘Don’t Ya,’ and it took off. And now I have my second No. 1. Everything is really just growing now.”

Paris honored Eldredge in December with a ceremony in his old high school’s gym. The mayor of Paris presented him with a key to the city and announced on behalf of Gov. Pat Quinn that Dec. 22 would be known as Brett Eldredge day in Paris and Illinois.

“I grew up in Paris and knew everyone there, so to go back to the gymnasium where I used to sing and play basketball and have the high school’s cheerleaders and band bring me out ...” Eldredge said. “It was a special day.”

Windy City Smokeout

When: 3-10 p.m. Friday, 12-10 p.m. Saturday, 12-9 p.m. Sunday
Where: Grand Avenue and the Chicago River
Tickets: $28 for Friday, $35 for Saturday or Sunday, $75 for three-day pass; windycitysmokeout.com

lgomez@tribune.com | Twitter @TribLuis | Facebook @TribLuis | Instagram @TribLuis

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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