Brett Eldredge grew up admiring smooth and soulful singing greats like Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
He was a teenager when he first heard former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn's soaring tenor coming through the radio and decided right then he wanted to be a country singer-songwriter.
“The first time I heard Brooks & Dunn was when I really knew I wanted to do country music because I was just such a fan of soulful singers. And I lived in Paris, Ill., a little country town, and all the lyrics that they were singing and the songs that he (Dunn) and Kix (Brooks) were writing felt like where I was from,” Eldredge said in a recent phone interview from Nashville, Tenn.
Dunn's voice, he added, “just grabbed a hold of me and just how big his voice was, I was like ‘That's something that I want to do. That right there is something that's my home.' And that's when I knew and I never really looked back.”
The country up-and-comer has opened for superstars like Tishomingo residents Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, as well as Brad Paisley. On Friday, he will warm the crowd for the Eli Young Band at Shawnee's Grand Casino.
“You can learn a lot from somebody's live show,” he said. “When Paisley was playing, I would go in the very top of these amphitheaters ... where Brad Paisley looks like an ant up on stage he's so far away. I love looking at what other fans are doing around me just watching the show because I remember being that kid.”
With his big, soulful voice, Eldredge, 26, was a popular performer at various functions in and around his hometown. He began attending Elmhurst College in Chicago but got back on course for a country music career when he visited Nashville, Tenn. He saw his cousin Terry Eldredge, a veteran of Dolly Parton's band and a member of the Grascals, play at the Station Inn, “which is one of the coolest places in the world, I think,” and decided to swap the Windy City for Music City.
He eventually met producer and publisher Byron Gallimore, who signed Eldredge to his publishing company and encouraged him to continue writing songs. The Illinois native later inked a deal with Atlantic Records, which is set to release his debut album sometime this year.
“If you're working on your first album, I guess I've been working on it since the day I was born. Whenever I decided to start making music, I was always playing for my first album. But I've been writing for this for, gosh, I mean, six years now,” said Eldredge, who was just coming out of the studio after recording some vocals.
“I'm ready to get it out there for people to hear. I can't wait.”
In 2010, he released his first single, the tearjerking story song “Raymond,” about a dementia patient in a care center who mistakes the janitor for her deceased son.
“I think the main thing for me is I just try to be real with whatever I put out there,” he said. “With ‘Raymond,' that was something that was really important to me and I got it out there. It was inspired by my grandmother and that was something heavy. I am a big family guy and I'm close to my family, so that hit hard for me. But I'm also a very light-hearted person and just like to have fun 75 percent of the time. I don't write all sad songs by any means, so I wanted everybody to be able to see another part of me, as well.”
His playful new single “Don't Ya,” for which he recently shot the music video, fits the bill nicely. While he wrote “Raymond” based on his grandmother's struggles with Alzheimer's disease, he based “Don't Ya” on a flirtatious fan at one of his shows.
“She kept acting like she didn't know what she was doing, but she knew what she was doing. She was like playing tricks on me. The whole band and everybody kept looking on her,” he said with a laugh. “It went from that inspiration to writing a fun song ... about how girls play tricks on your mind.”
In between, the singer-songwriter got the fun opportunity to watch Gwyneth Paltrow hum along to his rowdy come-on “Ain't Gotta Be Love” in the 2011 movie “Country Strong.” He also co-wrote the party anthem “Thirsty,” which Hank Williams Jr. recorded for the film.
“I've never stayed for the credits for a movie in my life, but I stayed there just to see my name scroll by,” he said with a laugh. “It was a little thing, but it was cool. ... I had a fun journey with that.”
As he sorts through the more than 200 songs he's written and 20 or more he's recorded to assemble his still-unnamed first album, Eldredge is still inspired by the singers he grew up with, from Norman native Vince Gill to Ol' Blue Eyes.
“You could just feel what they were singing when they were singing, with such big voices. I think with my new stuff, I'm really able to ... get my voice out there and get some of my soulful influence in,” he said.
“It's a lot of lyrics about life and partying and having a good time but a little heartbreak in there mixed in with it all, too.”