Brett Eldredge: Favorite son

Brett Eldredge: Favorite son

It was not hard picking up country music star Brett Eldredge's trail in his hometown of Paris. Everyone in the Edgar County seat 60 miles southeast of Champaign seems to know him — and love him. Here, staff writer Melissa Merli tells of her trip Wednesday to the friendly town, where no one refused to talk to her about the pride of Paris.

My first stop is Paris High School. Much to my surprise, I see a sign for the school on the north edge of town. I didn't know Eldredge's alma mater had moved to a new building. It just opened in August.

I'm disappointed I won't be visiting the majestic old building on the southern edge of downtown where Eldredge went to school and graduated in 2004.

But I'm not disappointed by the people I meet at the new high school, a cooperative.

In musicals

One of the first is Tanner Laughlin, a 2006 Paris alum who now works at the school and was a couple of years behind Eldredge. Laughlin was in a couple of school musicals with the Nashville star.

"We were in 'Oklahoma' and 'Copacabana,'" Laughlin says. "He was the lead male in both. He was talented. He was just a fun guy. You loved to be around him.

"He was a jokester. He made rehearsals sort of fun. He hasn't changed at all. He's still the same fun-loving Brett everybody knew."

As we speak, Laughlin and driver's ed teacher Mary McFatridge are preparing T-shirts for the school powder puff games that night. I've come at the right time — classes were dismissed at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday for homecoming class games that afternoon. Everyone seems relaxed.

McFatridge tells me she lives a block from the old high school, and on Fridays, when Eldredge was a senior, he and his buddy Chip Keys would come to her house to eat.

"I'd fix them ribeyes and cheesy potatoes," she says. "He would come whenever he had free time between activities and kind of sleep on my couch. When I go through pictures of my daughter, Meredith, he's in a lot of them."

She shows me one of Meredith and her other daughter, Molly, with Eldredge at his senior prom. She allows me to take her phone to email myself the picture.

"He was so nice to everybody," the teacher continues. "I never saw him without a smile. I never heard an unkind word out of his mouth. He was very social and would roam the halls."

She mentions Eldredge's upcoming concert Oct. 8 at Indiana State University's Hulman Center, 22 miles east of Paris.

"I'm sure it will be full of Paris people because it's so close," she says. "I'm sure everywhere he goes, he'll have at least one Paris person seeing him."

McFatridge wasn't into country music until she started listening to Eldredge. Now she's a fan and even went to Las Vegas to hear him.

"It was funny. I was walking down the casino and I looked up and there he was — he and his band."

As I would hear often on Wednesday in Paris, McFatridge says Eldredge was always a good singer and entertainer when he was growing up.

"I'm not surprised his talent and his personality have taken him where he is," she says. "And his looks. Around here, we call that the total package."

Now that he's a huge star, he can't go anywhere without being swamped by home-towners, particularly if they've had a few drinks, McFatridge says. He returned to be in a friend's wedding in 2013 and often returns to visit relatives, who live along Twin Lakes on the north side of town.

That's where he grew up, too, but McFatridge won't give me the address of his childhood home.

"He's very much into fishing and eats the fish," she says. "When he comes in, you usually don't know it. He'll call and maybe get together with his high school buddies. His old babysitter's husband takes him fishing."

The Eldredge family also are "big boaters," she says.

I ask whether there are any photographs of the star in the hallways of the new school. McFatridge says no but that quite a few classrooms have his poster on their walls.

"He was up for an American Country Music Award a while back," she says. "We were having the kids go in and vote for him. We see a lot of Brett Eldredge T-shirts come through this school."

She doesn't know whether Eldredge has visited the new school yet but recalls when he came to town for his grandfather's funeral in early 2013. Then, he visited the old building and "went into every classroom to see every teacher."

"He's very committed to the school and the community," she says.

She mentions Eldredge's older brother, Brice, who with their parents, Chris and Robin, have moved to Nashville to help Brett with his career.

"Brice is good-looking and sweet, just like Brett," she says.

Master Meister

After thanking McFatridge, I meet up with Principal Dave Meister, who, after I inquire, says he doesn't think he's related to the Meister family in Urbana.

He was principal at the old high school from 2001 to 2009 and has been director of the Paris High cooperative from 2009 to now. So he knows my subject.

"Brett was always a very outgoing person," Meister says. "He always had a smile on his face. He was always looking for a way to have fun. The way you see him on TV or on videos now — he's the same. He hasn't changed a bit. As far as academics, I think he gave it his best. He was an outstanding kid in our drama program."

I tell Meister I'd like to see a 2004 Paris High yearbook, but the librarian told me the school library doesn't have any. He leads me to his assistant's office and his him pull the yearbook off the shelf behind his desk.

Meister opens the book and finds the pages on which Eldredge appears. I use my iPhone to take photos of them. I thank him and leave.

As I walk down a hallway, McFatridge stops me to show me the Brett Eldredge poster she keeps in her classroom. "He's done some modeling for Macy's," she says. She tells me the poster is from 2013, when Eldredge was nominated for the coveted Country Music Awards New Artist of the Year honor. He lost that year but won the title the following year, she says.

She and I agree Eldredge, as a contemporary country star, is "glammed" up. But like others, she notes he hasn't forgotten his hometown.

"Paris is all over one of his videos," she says.

Spirit week

From there, I head to the gymnasium, where the homecoming spirit coming from the students is nearly deafening. McFatridge introduces me to teacher Sheila Keys. Eldredge was a groomsman in her son, Chip's, wedding in August 2013.

"He's a great guy, always very talented," Keys tells me over the student din. "I'm really not surprised he's been so successful. He was always driven. He always knew he could do it. He just kept with it. He focused on his dream."

She tells me she remembers hearing him sing at Grace Lutheran Church in Paris and at the Edgar County Fair. Meister recalls hearing him and his mother at a Red Cross fundraiser. Like others I've met, Keys plans to catch Eldredge's concert next month at the Hulman Center.

She notes Eldredge often visits when he's in the area.

"He's the type of guy who doesn't seem to know a stranger. He has a good rapport with everybody."

Student fan

I ask to talk to a student. Senior Madison Hutchings is pulled from the bleachers.

"I'm very much a fan," she says of Eldredge. "It's just really cool he's from a small town like Paris and has accomplished so much and is up on the charts." (Indeed, Eldredge's "Illinois" debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Charts, selling 43,000 copies within less than a week after its release earlier this month.)

Hutchings tells me she will be among the Paris contingent at Hulman Center. She mentions the star's parents are good friends with her grandparents.

"He goes fishing a lot with my great-grandfather, John Sims."

The Cherry Tree

I walk out of Paris High feeling good and head to Monical's; McFatridge had told me there was a large, flashing sign of Eldridge in its parking lot. There I take photographs but don't get great results. High and backlit in early afternoon, the large sign shows Eldredge and invites people to share their story on Twitter at #IAmILLINOIS.

As I head west, I notice antique items in front of an old garage. I turn around to check out The Cherry Tree and chat there with owner Hilary Walker, who in April opened the store in the former '50s-style electrician's shop.

She admits to feeling a little guilty she hasn't run out to buy "Illinois" yet, but she's heard a lot of it on the radio. She knows Eldredge: He and her younger brother played basketball together in a city league. Eldredge's father was a coach.

"Brett came over a lot to our house," Walker says. "He was a sweet, polite, cute little kid.

"It's still surreal to hear him when you turn the radio on and he's on TV, doing the pageants," she continues. (Eldredge was one of the judges at the Miss America pageant Sept. 13.) "He's all over the place. I think it's great. I think it's really cool."

She talks about his fame and how everyone wants a piece of him now.

"I'm sure that's hard. He seems extroverted and like he deals with it well."

We chat about her vintage and newer products. Walker mentions how she would like to add more items with local tie ins — she shows me her Paris-related T-shirts. She's talked with her T-shirt maker about whether they would need a license to make Brett Eldredge T-shirts or other merchandise.

"You can't go anywhere in town to buy Brett Eldredge merchandise," she says.

She says a lot of Parisians are having T-shirts made to wear to Eldredge's concert in Terre Haute. She's heard some will be emblazoned with the message "Brett Pack." Parisians also will wear orange T-shirts — burnt orange and navy blue are the high school colors — so Eldredge will be able to pick them out of the crowd.

I'm hungry and ask Walker to recommend a restaurant. She mentions a new barbecue restaurant on Illinois 1 south of town, near the factories. I miss it at first, turn around and then see Smoke Trail on the east side of the highway.

I enter and am the only one there — it's nearly 2 p.m. I order pulled pork, baked beans and spicy cole slaw and ask store employee Nichole Comstock about Eldredge. At first she says she doesn't really know him but his parents had come in around the time their son played at the Sandwich Fair in northern Illinois on Sept. 11.

After I sit down to my plate, I glance over my left shoulder and spot an autographed Brett Eldredge poster on the wall.

"To Smoke Trail," he wrote. "I've been loving Joe's barbecue my whole life. Now it's a restaurant. Thank heaven."

Owner Joe Biemick opened Smoke Trail in April. Comstock offers to call him and have him come over so I can interview him. I said she doesn't have to do that. By now, I've been hearing pretty much the same things about Eldredge.

It turns out the modest Comstock was in Eldredge's class at Paris High and sang in the chorus with him. She didn't hang with him or know him that well but says he was always nice to her.

I'm not surprised.

Main Street

I head north to look for the coffee shop on the east side of the town square, where the gothic Edgar County Courthouse, one of my favorites, stands. The coffee shop is gone so I stop in the Main Street Emporium, one of four or five resale shops on the square.

I chat briefly with employee Christy Buchanan, telling her everywhere I go everyone has told me how nice Brett Eldredge is.

"The whole family is nice," says Buchanan, who graduated from Paris High in 1992 with one of the star's uncles. "We just know that, growing up in Paris. It's not that big of a town." (Population: 8,800)

I look around and enter The Golden Leaf, the shop next door. There, employee Sharon Aitken tells me she knows Eldredge's grandparents. She's another fan of Eldredge, the person.

"He's just a good, down-to-earth country boy. Paris means a lot to him," she says.

"What does he mean to Paris?" I ask.

"Everything," she replies. "We are all so proud of his accomplishments because he's worked to do this for so many years.

"It's just wonderful the things he's done for Paris and what Paris has done for him. I just wish him all the success. He's always been musically inclined. I think he's had this goal all the time. It's not a spur-of-the moment venture. It's deep in his heart."

I leave Paris, taking Illinois 1 north and enjoying the beautiful autumn day and feeling good about Brett Eldredge and his hometown.

Topics (2):Music, People