In-depth interview: The “Chief” of country music – Eric Church is taking chances in risk-averse Nashville
This in-depth feature is the cover story of the most recent edition of LookatOKC. A different version of the story will run Friday here on BAM’s Blog, on NewsOK and in the Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
On the edge of normal
Eric Church has fun with surprise success following chart-topping breakout success.
In the past six months, Eric Church has learned time and again that success is a lot more fun when it comes as a surprise.
And the surprises have just kept coming since his third album, “Chief,” shocked everyone — including Church himself — when it not only bowed at the top of the Billboard Top Country Albums chart but also in the No. 1 spot on the cross-genre Billboard 200 list.
In January, Church embarked on his first headlining trek, “The Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour,” and the rapidly rising superstar again was taken aback when he started selling out arenas. The tour, featuring special guest Brantley Gilbert, is coming to Chesapeake Energy Arena Thursday, March 8; limited tickets were available earlier this week.
“There were no expectations, and the great thing about that is you’re always gonna exceed them. I had more low expectations. I mean, I was generally nervous. Keep in mind, a lot of these cities that we’re gonna play on this tour, we were in clubs or theaters the last time we played there. You know, that’s a big jump in a year’s time, 18 month’s time. So the last history I have coming through some of these markets is a thousand, 1,500 people,” said Church, who played at Thackerville’s WinStar World Casino on his last trip to Oklahoma back in December.
“It’s been a long time coming for us. I mean, we’ve been doing this awhile, and we’ve not always been an artist that was played on radio. We kind of had to go out and somewhat make our own path. And I think in doing that — you know, in going out and making our path when we really couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to us, when we couldn’t really get anybody to turn our way and look at what we were doing — we went off and played bars and played clubs and really not only found ourselves but really found our fan base and found the kind of music we wanted to make.”
On the edge of normal
When the North Carolina native’s “Chief” debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart, he became the first core country artist to have a No. 1 album on the list without having scored a No. 1 on the radio airplay-powered Hot Country Songs chart since back in 1994. The last time it happened, Tim McGraw’s “Not a Moment Too Soon” album hit No. 1 a week before the single “Don’t Take the Girl” became a country chart-topper.
Church, 34, hadn’t even notched a top five hit when he dropped “Chief” and rose to the pinnacle of the music world. He didn’t get his first No. 1 until January, when the upbeat party anthem “Drink in My Hand,” his second single from “Chief” and 10th overall, hit the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs.
“Luckily, we just kept beating that door down ’til finally radio came around, and not only radio came around, but I think the whole genre came a little bit more to our side of things,” he said by phone last week from Battle Creek, Mich., where he was getting ready to play a show.
“It was way more conservative when we started this thing as far as what they would play that were on the fringes or maybe a little just on the edge of normal. And I think for us we’ve benefited from some of that change.”
Church has always tried to make his music unique, back to his 2006 debut album “Sinners Like Me.”
“For me, it’s just trying to take things that have never been done and giving it a try. You know, it doesn’t always work. We tried ‘Two Pink Lines’; our second single was a song about teen pregnancy and it was ahead of its time. And it didn’t work,” he said with a laugh.
“So it doesn’t always go down. You don’t always have No. 1 songs. But I think it’s worth the chance. I think it’s our time to do stuff like that. It’s our time to try those things and not just make the same frickin’ song over and over and run it up and down the chart. I’m just not interested in that. That’s boring to me. So for me at least it’s just trying to keep the music exciting and … when people hear stuff they go, ‘Wow, what is that?’ and they’ll turn it up — love it or hate it.”
With his sophomore album, 2009’s “Carolina,” Church cracked the top 10 with a pair of ballads, “Love Your Love the Most” and “Hell on the Heart.” But the third single, “Smoke A Little Smoke,” a foot-stomping rocker with lyrics that need no explanation, fueled “Carolina” toward gold certification and lit a fire on Church’s career.
“‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ was the thing that really changed everything for us, and we sold most of our 500,000 records on ‘Carolina’ on ‘Smoke a Little Smoke.’ It was very unconventional. The label told me I was nuts and ‘you can’t release this song,’ and it became a pretty big hit,” he said.
When the time came to work on his third album, Church holed up in a cabin in North Carolina and pondered the lessons he saw in the “Smoke.”
“What I decided when we were at the cabin was really ‘Where do we go from here? What is next? Because we’ve tried this career one way and we’ve somewhat been spinning our wheels.’ I always felt like with the stuff that went to radio early on, at times … we began to look at the easiest route up the radio chart. And I think a lot of times those are the most passive routes to the fan base. And with ‘Smoke a Little Smoke,’ it was not an easy route, and I knew that going in. But it was the most reactive song we had,” he said.
“So when I was at that cabin it was a remove-the-harnesses, no-holds-barred moment for me, and I just decided that this next record, it may be the end of us, but I am absolutely going to the wall with it. And I’m not thinking about what a label thinks, what radio thinks, I’m not thinking about what the fans think. I’m gonna follow the creative flame, wherever creativity leads, as wacky as it sounds, and we’re not gonna be afraid to go there and do it. And that’s really where ‘Chief’ came from, and there’s some wacky stuff on this record.”
Known for his hard-charging live show and tireless touring, Church gave the album his road nickname. And he released the soulful word-playing country-rocker “Homeboy” as the introductory single.
“‘Homeboy’ was a very strange-sounding song. I mean, it had instrumentation sonically that country music had never had on the radio before ever; you know, we’d never had a harp or pizzicato strings or a hip-hop beat. I mean, the whole thing was just bizarre,” he said.
“It was the moment where I think we had set ourselves up enough that we’re not just an artist that runs songs up and down the chart, we’re an artist that puts out stuff not thinking about it going to No. 1. We’re putting out stuff that we think needs to be said. I mean, ‘Homeboy’ was that kind of song; I knew it would be a tough fight. I knew it was an interesting subject matter, and I loved that. I loved that it was meaty. It was not something that you could just listen to; you had to attach to it as a listener.”
A dedicated road-dog, Church had built a fan base willing to support such sonic experimentation, and “Homeboy” reached the top 15 on the charts.
“Many times we were almost ran out of the business. I mean, we had a couple of real doldrums there, and if it wasn’t for the fans …,” he said, trailing off, then continuing:
“I believe when you make music that’s different … you create more passion with your fan base because you give ‘em something to either stand up for or stand up against. But you’re giving ‘em something. And we have a ton of people that hate what we do, but on the other side, we have people that just absolutely would die for what we do. And I think it’s that passion, that’s the hardest thing to find in music and the most special thing to find. You know, because when you find that, you’ve got people that’ll carry the flag for you.”
Old-school rock show
Church is following his chart-topper “Drink in My Hand” with the nostalgic “Springsteen,” which has become the fast-rising single of his career, reaching No. 28 after just three weeks.
The singer-songwriter got to watch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play live at the 54th Grammy Awards, where Church was nominated for best country album. It was his first nomination and first time to attend Music’s Biggest Night.
The country album prize went to superstar trio Lady Antebellum, whom traditionalists have criticized as sounding too pop. Church, on the other hand, has been called too rock by some country fans, but he makes no apologies for his aggressive sound.
“I take a lot of heat from a lot of the traditionalists out there, especially (since) I don’t have a fiddle, I don’t have steel guitar, our sound’s pretty rock ‘n’ roll, our sound’s pretty edgy. But I always explain that’s what I grew up on,” he said.
“I can do you every Haggard song, every Waylon (Jennings) song you ever heard, just give me an acoustic guitar. However, when we were riding around in cars and trucks, we were listening to AC/DC and Metallica and Tom Petty and Springsteen. … This whole generation, that’s what our influences were, that’s what we grew up on. So when that stuff starts making its way into the format, I don’t have a problem with it because people are just being true to what their influences are and they’re just making music. The same way I believe that Merle Haggard tried to sound like Lefty Frizzell and George Jones tried to sound like Hank Williams Sr. or Ernest Tubb: That’s what they listened to growing up.”
For his arena shows, Church has promised a little fire, a little ice and an old-school rock ‘n’ roll show.
“We’re not afraid to blow stuff up … but I’m not a fan of — and may never be a fan of — video screens and all that stuff because I feel like you really miss what’s happening on the stage because you’re focused (on the screen). It’s almost like you’re watching TV,” he said.
“So we decided not to do it. We’re doing this really cool thing with backdrops — we actually stole it from Iron Maiden — where we rotate backdrops in and out and it’s almost like old-school video before there was video. So that became a little bit of a challenge because if you’re farther away, I have to work harder to entertain you.”
Household on the road
Not all the milestones Church has experienced in the past six months have been musical. On Oct. 3, he and his wife Katherine welcomed their first child, a son they named Boone McCoy Church.
Since he didn’t intend to miss out on his child’s infancy, the singer-songwriter packed up the entire household, even the dog, and took them all on the road with him.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I bought a 16-foot Airstream to pull behind the bus, and we basically just took his nursery at home and simulated it … so he doesn’t really miss home. You know, he’s got swings and everything he needs. So we’ve just been traveling up and down the road like a band of gypsies.”
It’s a life he embraces, as long as he’s still “Chief.”
Special guest: Brantley Gilbert.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 8 Thursday.
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, 100 W Reno.
Information: (800) 745-3000 or www.chesapeakearena.com.