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.”