Frequently Asked Questions: Eric Church

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(Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

(Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

By Caitlin White

Frequently Asked Questions is exactly what it sounds like, where we have experts guide you through the unknown about people and topics in music and pop culture. Eric Church‘s fourth studio album, ‘The Outsiders,’ is out this week, and it further cements his unique position within the mainstream country world. He’s a self-proclaimed outsider… who still manages to debut at No. 1 on the charts. Let’s explore this dichotomy.

Who is Eric Church?
Kenneth Eric Church is a 36-year-old country music star from Granite Falls, North Carolina. He started writing songs when he was 13, later forming a college band with his brother called Mountain Boys. He wanted to head to Nashville by the time he was 17, but his dad wisely bribed him to stay in school; if he finished his degree his father agreed to foot the bill for six months in Music City post-grad. So he got a degree in marketing and then hoofed it to Nashville, where it only took him about a year to score a publishing deal with Sony/ATV. Soon he partnered with producer Jay Joyce, who helped Church record the demos that landed him a deal with Capitol Records Nashville.

That sounds like pretty standard fare: Kid with big dreams moves to Nashville and becomes a big ole country star. So how is he an outsider?
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Eric. After his first record Sinners Like Me came out in 2006, he was slotted as an opener for both Brad Paisley and the coiffed-and-corny Rascal Flatts. But during a performance at Madison Square Garden, Church played his set too long—for what Rascal Flatts claimed was the fourth time—and they infamously fired him, subbing in then-unknown Taylor Swift as an opener. Even before this, though, Church seemed to realize he wasn’t a good fit for Rascal Flatt’s paint-by-number pop-country. His music had a raw edge to it that was increasingly rare in the country landscape.

Getting fired from a major tour as a rookie can’t be good for your future, can it?
Ostensibly, no. After this, it was difficult for him to get any gigs at all, so he began performing live at rock clubs and dive bars, where he was forced to deal with unimpressed or unruly crowds. Eventually though, this earned him a rabid and rare fanbase that was a bit removed from the typical country audience. So he built his audience fan by fan while touring behind Sinners Like Me, eventually nudging its lead single “How ‘Bout You” to reach the Top 20 on the Hot Country chart. Church’s next record, Carolina, was released in 2009 but didn’t do much on the charts despite a strong third single, the pot-stirring “Smoke a Little Smoke.” Still, the song helped stoke the embers in Church’s growing independent fanbase, and he ended up snagging the Top New Solo Vocalist award at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

Country music has its own set of awards?
Yup, and not just the ACMs but also the CMAs (Country Music Association Awards), the ACAs (American Country Awards) and the CMT (Country Music Television) Awards. There’s a lot of ways for country to honor and award its artists internally, and Church was nominated for tons of these awards even if his radio and commercial sales weren’t the greatest at first.

So country music was beginning to like Eric Church even though he rejected the easiest path? 
Exactly. And while country music was sleeping on him, he’d managed to get a lot of fans that normally weren’t drawn to country. Moreso, his music was resonating with people who eschewed the newer mainstream and pop influences they were hearing in the genre. A lot of people were drawn to his grittier, bluesy sound and insistence on staying true to his own style and personality. So he pretty much fully recovered from the Rascal Flatts fiasco, and his 2011 record Chief was a big commercial breakthrough. The album, which went platinum, earned Church something his previous two albums had lacked: No. 1 singles. Both “Drink in My Hand” and “Springsteen” hit the No. 1 spot on Hot Country chart. “Drink in My Hand” would fit right in with the affable party-touting good times of a Luke Bryan set, but instead of rolling into that lane, Church took a surprising side road with “Springsteen.”

Does Eric Church even like Springsteen?
Uh, duh. Listen to the song and you’ll hear The Boss’s sinuous guitar lines and nostalgia-driven lyrics. It was a slow-burning power ballad from a bygone era, and this appealed to even those who couldn’t care less about modern country—similar to the way Springsteen captivated audiences outside of rock enthusiasts. “Springsteen” went as far up as No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100—a chart that few country artists manage to crack at all, let alone get inside the Top 20. Church was being touted as the country genre’s shot at rock and roll crossover.

He had a huge hit. Why’s he bringing up all this outsider stuff again?
Church and his camp took note that the rock sounds on Chief were well-received and went in that direction for the new album. While country music has faced criticism in recent years for celebrating “bro-country” or overtly pop influences, Church has been pegged an outlaw for leaning more on heavy metal riffs and assuming an anti-establishment air. There’s a lot of glad-handing in the country music community at the moment, but in his recent SPIN cover story Church openly admits to not like everyone. He thinks it’s a more honest take, but it certainly isn’t the popular one. The Outsiders could be a conduit to the return of country’s rugged, rock-oriented roots, which are very much on the outs in the zeitgeist at the moment. While his competitors are tipping their ten-gallon hats to hip-hop and opening their arms to the country party anthem, Church veers off with a decidedly “anywhere but here” mentality. That means The Outsiders has monstrous, growling guitar jams, and defiant, spoken-word breaks alongside gospel-tinged ballads and even finger-pickin’ loved-and-left funky crawls.

Does it work? Is The Outsiders Eric Church’s masterpiece?
Depends on who you ask. A whole subset of country music critics are already lauding the record with laurel wreaths and applause. The response to the record is overwhelmingly positive and again, it’s an evident outlier amongst a sea of beer-and-truck choruses. But other factions think he’s gone a little overboard with the disparate influences and the wandering sounds of the record sometimes wander off into obscurity.

How obscure are we talking? What’s the weirdest thing on The Outsiders?
That honor belongs to one of the last tracks on the record called “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness).” For this song, Church stayed up 48 hours straight writing a poem that portrays Nashville as a Babylon of debauchery and artistic prostitution. He wanted to use an excerpt from a Shel Silverstein poem but couldn’t get the rights to it—hence the Hail Mary two-day writing marathon.

Yeah, that sounds pretty weird. Is any good though?
It’s definitely the worst song on the album. But it’s still cool because he took a chance doing something he liked and really believed in. Plus it unspools into a bluesy, rousing challenge to Satan that channels a Charlie Daniels ferocity, without the fiddling contest.

Okay, so what actually works here?
“Give Me Back My Hometown” has the makings of a commercial hit, and even if it doesn’t earn a number one, this song is an evocative mix of working-class pride in small town ethos, break-up bitterness and an anthemic chorus that once again recalls Springsteen. It’s also worth noting that The Boss has a song called “My Hometown” that’s an easy touchstone for this track. “Cold One” is another early favorite that details a romance gone sour and devolves into a brilliant, funky lick infused with blustery brass backing.

If I’m looking to get into Church’s music, should I start with the new album?
It might actually be a better idea to start with Carolina. It lays the groundwork for where he goes on the next two albums, and a lot of the deep cuts are intelligent, droll takes on country’s classic themes. “Lotta Boot Left to Fill” is a great example, it’s basically a call-to-arms to modern country singers to live up to their idols instead of just name-checking them. “Smoke a Little Smoke” is a jam whether you inhale, puff or prefer your lungs smoke-free. Bonus: if you’re in love with someone amazing, listening to “You Make it Look So Easy” will make you cry every time. And if you’re single, you’ll probably cry harder.

How have the rest of Church’s peers reacted to his declaration that he’s so divergent from them?
The only thing that might irk people about Church is his swaggering assertion that he’s different—it can come across as dismissive of his peers or even like needless bragging. Sure, the record is a bit out on a limb, but it’s not like he’s really been breaking down huge barriers in the genre, more like stirring a pot that’s boiled before but has recently been on a slow simmer. By going off in his own direction, Church is shaking things up a bit, but it’s doubtful that he’ll chart new territory aside from drawing a lot of fans who don’t traditionally listen to country. As region and genre begin to disintegrate altogether, country is moving from niche to ubiquitous with a rapid speed, and Eric Church is at the front of the pack.

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