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Eric Church, Zac Brown & the Increasingly Blurred Lines Between Rock & Country

In country music, the guitar sound is becoming louder and tougher to ignore.
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(Christopher Polk/Mike Lawrie/Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

(Christopher Polk/Mike Lawrie/Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

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By Kevin Rutherford

“The Outsiders” begins slowly but ominously, with a guitar melody that creeps along while the singer quietly speaks of “the other ones” and being cut from “a different kind of cloth.” Soon comes a burst of sound as a roaring guitar crunch fills the speakers. The singer, too, moves from a low voice to a higher register, this time belting out the song’s outlaw-glorifying, bad-boy lyrics at high volume (“We’re the junkyard dogs, we’re the alley cats/Keep the wind at our front, and the hell at our back”).

From that description, you might expect a review of a rock song from *insert band name here*. It may be surprising, then, to learn that the artist behind this hard-hitting song is Eric Church, one of the biggest stars in contemporary country.

Last month Church unveiled “The Outsiders” as his brand-new radio single and the first song from his upcoming album. And the song definitely feels like rock: guitar solos, a bass solo, a outro worthy of a prog-rock act. Sure, Church’s vocals betray him, still settling snugly into a country sensibility. But when it comes to country as many have known it for the past few decades, certain portions of this song feel entirely foreign.

But Church isn’t the only country artist looking to further break down the barriers between country and rock. Last week Zac Brown Band, purveyors of a jam-oriented country sound, tossed up a new song called “Day for the Dead.” They’d already unveiled the song to fans during live shows, but for this new version (which was just released on iTunes) they pack an added weapon: rock music’s awesome uncle, Dave Grohl. “Day for the Dead” is already a fast-paced country-rock thrill ride infused with squealing guitars, fiddle and organ. With Grohl behind the drumkit, though, the song takes on a new persona, becoming a cacophonous stoner-rock stomp led by Grohl’s rapid-fire drumming, which gets downright frantic at times.

Curiously, just as that Brown-Grohl ‘stoner-rock stomp’ was released to the public, the latest Billboard rock charts were playing a different tune. On the Hot Rock Songs top 10? A mixture of alternative-to-the-alternative, acoustic and folk rock, ’80s throwbacks and electronic-infused material. Lorde is at No. 1 with her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mashup “Royals,” while AWOLNATION‘s “Sail,” a tune in a very similar vein, sits nearby. Imagine Dragons can rock, but also goes for occasional electronic and/or folk influences.

The hardest rocker? Arguably Paramore with the sunny “Still Into You.”

The idea of a hell-raising “rock” star in country music is nothing new, though the music was admittedly different back then. In the ’50s and ’60s, country and rock often crossed paths seamlessly. An obvious example is Johnny Cash, who in “Folsom Prison Blues” sang about literally killing a man. The recently deceased George Jones is also a major stone from which many contemporary country artists have stepped, as is Merle Haggard (a country legend who actually did spend some time behind bars) and “outlaw” artists Waylon Jennings and Willie NelsonOf all country music to cross over to the rock charts, though, it’s Cash who remains the prime example; his 2003 cover of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt” hit No. 33 on the Alternative Songs chart.

A number of contemporary country artists have already seen huge success in playing the rock card. Jason Aldean, for instance, has been a major player in this development, thanks to such songs as “Take a Little Ride,” “The Only Way I Know,” “Hicktown” and “My Kinda Party.”

“It’s not just country served right down the middle,” Aldean said when describing his sound to Radio.com. “I love traditional country and grew up with a lot of that stuff. But it’s not something I particularly want to get out on stage and sing for an hour and half every night. I want [my music] to be a little edgier than that.”

Related: Jason Aldean: Country’s Biggest Rock Star

Florida Georgia Line, perhaps the biggest breakout act in country this year, is another group showcasing a rock influence in many of its numbers, including behemoth hit “Cruise.” And Brantley Gilbert sounds like he could be fronting a rock band on songs like “Kick It in the Sticks.” Even the ladies get into the game occasionally–Miranda Lambert‘s hellraiser of a tune, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” is chief evidence.

With “The Outsiders,” though, Church pushes the envelope and sends the rock side of country music into new territories. The bass-heavy song changes pace at will and features a droning guitar one might’ve found on a rock radio station a decade ago. The lyrics are a rallying cry, too. “They’re the in-crowd, we’re the other ones/It’s a different kind of cloth that we’re cut from,” Church sermonizes in the song’s intro. “We let our colors show where the numbers ain’t/We’re the paint where there ain’t supposed to be paint.”

“The Outsiders” acts as a statement for Church’s upcoming album of the same name, scheduled for a February release. Though little is known about the album as a whole, Church has deemed it a mix of Waylon Jennings and Metallica and emphasized that “it’s different.” And if the title track is any indication, country fans turned off by Church’s recent musical adventures need not apply.

Eric Church The Outsiders album cover
(Courtesy EMI Records Nashville)

The Zac Brown Band’s foray into a harder rock sound could be the start of something more, too. In fact, Grohl’s collaboration with Brown may not have been a one-off affair. Rumors are circulating that the Foo Fighters frontman may be producing Brown’s upcoming album. But whoever winds up at the helm, based on “Day for the Dead,” the next ZBB album could indeed rock harder than ever before.

Where this subset of country goes remains to be seen. After all, “The Outsiders” hasn’t been out long enough to gauge defined interest, and it’s still too early to know if “Day for the Dead” is a true teaser for a new direction in the Zac Brown Band’s sound. But if these two new songs are an indication of country’s future, music fans craving more guitar in their diet might find themselves turning away from rock clubs and aiming for the nearest honky-tonk.

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