"Just to get that love from the crowd and realize that we all had each other again — I'll never forget that," the country star tells PEOPLE

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Moments after the cathartic lovefest that occurred before his eyes during his set at the Windy City Smokeout music festival earlier this summer, Brett Eldredge ran off stage and retreated to his tour bus.

And there he would sit, in complete and utter silence.

"I sat there for 20 minutes because I literally couldn't feel anything," remembers Eldredge, 35, in a revealing interview with PEOPLE.  "It's something I have had to learn through the years — how to deal with that major rush and then step away from it. I hadn't experienced that for a couple of years. When I walked off the stage after probably playing my favorite show I've ever played, I'm pretty sure I was in shock. It wasn't till the next day that I started to realize what happened that night. It was surreal."

These days, while Eldredge spends his summer playing assorted dates around the country, the Illinois native still finds himself reliving that moment in the Windy City through a video his team put together, documenting forever the feelings that ran through that famous parking lot on that beautiful Thursday night in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

"The plan was for me to walk out and start singing right away," remembers Eldredge. "But I ended up walking directly out of the front stage and I just teared up, because it was so real and it was so just authentic. Just to get that love from the crowd and realize that we all had each other again — I'll never forget that."

Indeed, this particular show served as one of his first since the pandemic began. Eldredge continues to prep for his very own Good Day Tour, set to kick off in Ohio on Sept. 16 with opener Morgan Evans.

"I know the joy and happiness that live music can bring to a lot of people, including myself and the band and everybody out there in the crowd," explains Eldredge. "We need each other. When the music begins, nothing else matters. And that's what music does. And that's what we do for each other when we're there to connect with one another through music. It's a beautiful thing."

And while Eldredge's mega-hits such as "Don't Ya" and "Beat of the Music" and "Mean to Me" continue to elicit huge responses from adoring crowds, there are other, more introspective songs off his current album Sunday Drive that have certainly touched listeners.

"'Sunday Drive' is about the whole ride of life and how fragile time is," says Eldredge quietly of the title track of his fifth studio album, which was produced by Grammy-winning producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk and debuted as the top-selling country album week of release and marked his fifth Top 5 on the top country albums chart. "We called an audible in Chicago and decided to play it, and you could have heard a pin drop. It was a very special moment. I shed some tears, for sure."

Brett Eldredge
Brett Eldredge
| Credit: Edgar Evan Moore

It's this transparency that has never been more important to Eldredge, who has long been open about his own struggles with anxiety and mental health.

"You got to show up and just do it," says Eldredge, who has taken up journaling to combat some of his internal struggles. "The vulnerability of it and the possibility of you falling apart while you're singing it is beautiful in itself. The fact that a song has that much power gives you even more reason to go out there and put yourself out there."

The musician has found that putting himself out there continues to help him heal.

"It's beautiful to be able to look at yourself and look at the things that really mean something to you and your life and completely put your focus on those things," says Eldredge. "And the things that don't serve your soul, the things that don't give you any meaning and purpose — you move on from those things."

windy city smokeout
Brett Eldredge
| Credit: Katie Kauss

It's something he reminds himself before each and every show.

"We put our hands in before the show, and we say, 'Grab everything you love and never let it go,'" says Eldredge, who continues to cross his fingers that he will still be able to travel overseas in spring 2022 for shows in the U.K. and Europe. "Get the things that you love in your life in line and live by those with all your heart.' And if you do that, you will never lose your way."

And no, Eldredge will never lose his way again, if he can help it.

"I'm going to pass on certain things," he says. "I can't make every person happy. I got to be out there for myself so I can be there for everybody else. I'm in a really good spot with all that. I still have ups and downs all the time, but I think just knowing that there are so many people going through those kinds of things helps me. It's changed me."