Country's Defiant Star Eric Church Walks on the Rock Side of the Tracks

Those shades are how you know he’s cool.EXPAND
Those shades are how you know he’s cool.
Universal Music Group Nashville

Country star Eric Church, the genre's most defiant rockist, calls to mind one of Groucho Marx's best lines: Gentlemen, he may talk like a rebel, and brand himself to look like a rebel, and his rebellious tendencies may be lauded by the music press, but don't let that fool you — he really is a rebel.

Church is unusually committed to the integrity of his artistic vision, which at the current moment involves witty, reflective lyrics and simple yet expansive production. Most importantly — and in contrast so many other critically lauded country tough guys — he has the chops and pop instincts to make that commitment convincing.

"It's tough to be the outsider when you're selling records, but he finds it somehow," says his producer, Jay Joyce. "I work with some other country artists now, and he definitely does not do things like other people."

This has been true since Church moved to Tennessee in 2001. On a recent episode of the Inside Nashville podcast, Mike Dungan, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, recalled what it was like promoting Church's act in the late 2000s. "They played the rock clubs in the wrong side of town, on the wrong side of the tracks: They played at ten o'clock at night, [then] got pissed off that radio wouldn't come out to see them."

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Here's how the artist remembers that period: "I was watching all these other artists who were having radio success or success in general and weren't really working as hard as we were," he says. "I think we had done 230 shows or something that year, basically starving to death, but I couldn't get radio to play anything. To me, it felt like we were getting the stiff arm."

Church, now 39, is speaking from his family's vacation home "on top of a mountain" somewhere in North Carolina, his home state. One way to chart his rise is simply to say he can now afford such a property. Another is to point to the concerts, like a Mavis Staples birthday show and Metallica's Orion Fest, where he was the only mainstream country singer on the bill.

This success may have astounded the radio execs who refused to cross the tracks, but to the people paying attention to Church's music, it's come as less of a surprise. Even Sinners Like Me, his barely heard debut, revealed a young artist who had mastered country's conventions so he could flout most of them.

Of course, even for Church's staunchest fans, the path he's taken has been nearly unpredictable. Over the last decade, pop country has drawn from three main wells: first hard rock, then hip-hop, and, most recently, Americana, country's own National Merit Scholar cousin. Church is the only artist who's convincingly appropriated all three. Carolina, his second LP, pushed guitar levels into the red on tracks like "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," which updated Waylon Jennings's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" to take on a new generation of Nashville phonies.

With Chief, album three, he started knocking those phonies off the charts. "Drink in My Hand" rode a loose breakbeat to Number One, and "Springsteen," an ode to Bruce written in the enjambed style of Church's hero, Kris Kristofferson, followed it to the top a few months later. For Church, that sort of songwriting remains the core of his craft, which may explain why "Troubadour" is his favorite George Strait tune. "This year, I got into kind of 'high art' singer-songwriters, guys like Elvis Costello or Leonard Cohen, then of course John Prine," he says, self-consciously chuckling after the phrase "high art." That direction was already apparent on Mr. Misunderstood, a surprise release he dropped at the end of 2015. He'd purchased a record-pressing plant in Germany so that he could produce 80,000 vinyl copies without his label's knowledge.

Musically tight but freewheeling in spirit, Mr. Misunderstood sublimates the hard swagger of the earlier albums into ten confident, understated tracks. The title track and "Round Here Buzz," songs about two different kinds of high school misfits, make it the ideal "driving around your old hometown" LP, and the former gets bonus points for unexpectedly shouting out his Staples-tribute stage-mate Jeff Tweedy, whom Church calls "one bad motherfucker."

The lyric is part of Church's ongoing mission to demolish the partition that divides country and Americana, the broad meta-genre that either rejuvenates the roots of country music or, if you find the whole thing a bit affected, produces a variant of country music suitable for bourgeois tastes. "We're the same family," Church told reporters in a press conference following November's CMA Awards, where Mr. Misunderstood won Album of the Year. "I think that when it works right, we're all pulling for each other, and we don't draw that hard line in the sand of 'Well you're here and I'm here.' "

Earlier that night, Church had performed "Kill a Word," the new album's most literary track, as a duet with Rhiannon Giddens of the revivalist string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. According to Giddens, a former Grammy winner, no other mainstream country artist had ever expressed a desire to collaborate — or continues to break so much new ground.

"He's doing something fresh and cool," she says. "His production pulls in other things without trying hard — it just kind of does it in a natural way. I'm a student of early American music, and all American music comes from a blending of cultures, a blending of different kinds of music. Right now he has the ear of the establishment, and he's playing his part, which he sees as taking these walls down."

Eric Church plays the Barclays Center on January 27.


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