With Sinners Like Me and Carolina, Eric Church established himself as one of the most exciting young artists in the country music, mixing man-up rockers like “Lotta Boot Left to Fill” with mature, never-quite-melancholy reflections (“Those I’ve Loved,” “What I Almost Was”) on the different paths and people that open and close over the course of a lifetime. Last year’s Chief, meanwhile, proved to be his breakout, leading to a tour and a spot at this weekend’s Metallica-curated Orion Fest. In advance of that once-in-a-lifetime gig, the two of us talked over the phone about the music he heard growing up, his history of playing rock bars, and how it feels to be the only country act on the festival’s bill.
Hey Eric, how’s it going? I’m sure you’re excited for this weekend.
Man, I’m excited and I’m not gonna lie to you, I’m a little bit nervous about it. I’ve been to Metallica shows, and I’ve seen that. Being from another genre, I think it’s a crazy thing and a great thing that they’re doing this. It says a lot about them, involving other genres like they are is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard of. I’m just nervous to get out there and see what people think of us.
So what’s it mean to be the only country act picked for this?
Oh, it’s huge for me. The kind of music that I’ve always strived to make—and I think by and large most of the time we’ve done it—is not overly definable by what genre it is. We play a lot of places where I get people that come up and say, “I don’t really listen to country, but I like what you guys do.” I get that comment a lot, so I think for us to have somebody like Metallica, who are one of the hardest bands, maybe the hardest band in the history of heavy metal, to come out and say, “Hey, we want you to be the only representative of country,” is a great honor for us. You look at the rest of the lineup: Avenged Sevenfold, who I love, the Arctic Monkeys—there are some great bands who have nothing to do with and have probably never heard of anyone in my side of the world, so to be able to go over and do that is an honor.
What’s your plan of attack? Are you going to play as if it were a straightforward country crowd, or are you going to do something a little different for the new audience?
I think we’re going to do something a little different. Part of the reason that it somewhat makes sense for us to be the band they chose is that the way we came up was a little different. We didn’t play the traditional country clubs that everybody else out there played: Frankly our music wasn’t very welcome there, and we just weren’t invited to play. So we would have to play the rock clubs, and there were many nights in the back of bars where everybody in there was tattooed and never heard of you, and there’s 12 of them at the bar drinking, and it’s up to us to make them care. Some nights we’d go a little harder than other nights, so it’s not foreign to me. We’re gonna try to do some stuff we haven’t done in a while, maybe some stuff that’s all in your face, stuff that we love doing but that we don’t have in our show right now. The great thing about is that you do have the Metallica guys who have come out and not blessed the performance but sent us the invitation.
I take it you listened to a lot of Metallica when you were younger?
I grew up in the ’80s, so that was when they were coming into their heyday. So they were everywhere. AC/DC was the same way, in every pickup truck or car you get in, it’s in the cassette player. I’m a fan of their music, but I’m also a fan of their path: They pretty much created their own spot, and I think they still own it. For all the time they’ve been doing it, is it about 25 years maybe?
Yeah that’s about right.
So for 25 years, you know? And they’re still the biggest band out there.
As a musician, you play in country clubs, rock bars, and now at a metal festival, but it sounds like back in North Carolina everyone was listening to everything.
Yeah, especially being a kid and growing up, absolutely. You were listening to what was hot at the time, that’s what was playing in everyone’s cars. Hell, when it went into the ’90s, it even went towards the rap world. I can remember The Chronic, that was in everybody’s car. It was just the thing at the time, you know; it was never the kind of thing where we only listened to one kind of music. And when I got older, it was in college when I started playing bars that I dove in deeper. I had a broad stroke of all these bands that I listened to, but then I dove into their back catalogs, and also who they listened to and who influenced them. That’s when it got a lot deeper for me, musically.
Did listening to rap, or the presence of rap back then, did that inform “Homeboy” at all?
You know, not really. As a songwriter, it’s important for us to paint the picture and set the song up, and that’s just the brush we used. The thing I’m proud of about “Homeboy” is that we didn’t shy away from pain. One brother is the stay-at-home brother and has everything together and works back in the hometown, has a family, all that stuff; and the other brother got involved in drugs or whatever. The brush that we used to create that brother, that’s where the “hip-hop hat” and all that came from. Some people thought that was more racially charged than it was, but we were just painting a picture, not shying away from or worried about where that line was. We were really just looking at society and saying, “Here’s two different paths that were chosen.” And everyone has a different twist on the title of the song. I don’t think that was something that was influenced by anything from me growing up, to be honest with you. It was just a couple of songwriters sitting down and trying to draw a direct distinction between the two paths that two brothers chose.
Last summer, opening for Toby Keith, you spent a lot of time around a guy who has made a name for himself beyond traditional country audiences. Is there anything you learned from him or any advice that he gave you in this regard?
The thing that I learned from Toby, just hanging with him a little bit, is that Toby has always just done his own thing, regardless of what anybody else thought, regardless of what the industry thought. He’s always been very outspoken, he’s always stuck to his guns at times when it wasn’t the most popular thing. I respect him for all those things. At this day and time, so many people are scared to say anything or stand for anything just because they’re worried about the repercussions. You get a lot of artists out there who you don’t really know where they are or where they stand. Toby’s always been a guy who you know where he is, and by and large I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. We’ve never shied away musically, or from telling you what we think. And I think that’s needed.