Eric Church: The Outsider Opens Up

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On Friday, September 18, The Country Music Hall of Fame will open an exhibit to honor Eric Church. The activation will feature memorabilia, handwritten lyrics and other items that date back to the singer’s upbringing in North Carolina and wind through the twisted path he took to his top-selling present. Paste multimedia editor Dacey Orr caught up with the country superstar in Nashville between two sold-out solo performances that opened up the city’s new amphitheater to talk about where he started, where he’s going, and all of the mishaps in between that make his outsider image one that resonates with so many.

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It’s easy to begin the tale of Eric Church: He became a country-music outsider in 2006, when he got fired from a coveted gig on the Rascal Flatts tour after a series of too-long, too-loud sets that culminated in a meltdown at Madison Square Garden.

“You can’t tell our story and not tell that, and I’ve said that many times,” says Church. “I saw it coming. Some things just don’t fit. It just wasn’t working for us. I felt like I was out there not gaining any ground, and there were a lot of rules.”

In retrospect, the pairing seemed destined to go down in flames. In recent years, Church’s live shows have been known to include everything from wild pyrotechnics to enormous Satan inflatables, so it’s not tough to see how even an earlier, scaled-back version of his gritty aesthetic wouldn’t be a fit for Rascal Flatts’ sticky-sweet love songs. But at the time Church was supposed to be filling the same role that countless other major label newcomers had carved out before him: nab a spot on a big tour, behave yourself, play your couple hits and and sprinkle in some covers as the crowd rolls in for the big names who sold the tickets. But Church’s show was too loud and his sets were always going over—he admits readily that he’s never been keen on being told what to do.

“Post-that, post-getting fired, we ended up going from big places that we hadn’t earned yet—those weren’t our fans—to little teeny tiny rock clubs,” Church says. “We were black-balled in the country world, so the only places that would book us were rock and punk clubs. We went to these places and we found people that I would have never found had I stayed in those big rooms.”

Late nights at dirty bars wound up being that type of hard work that suited Church and the band much better, and while the road was less glamorous and the crowd less groomed for country artists, he says he tapped into a demographic that country as a genre just wasn’t serving at the time.

“You go into these punk bars and rock clubs at 11—that’s what time we would go on, so we had no prayer of getting anybody at the radio station to come out and see us—and I started seeing these people that listened to AC/DC and they also listened to Waylon,” Church says. “It’s just this group that listens to everything from Americana to metal, and we just started finding a little bit of an identity in those rooms.”

As for the Flatts tour, things worked out.

“Taylor Swift came in and replaced us. What ever happened to her, you know?”

Church’s candor about the whole thing is a testament to country’s increasing dichotomy within the genre: there wasn’t any doubt that the crowd was a devoted one and the slot was a tremendous opportunity, just not for him.

“It was actually one of my favorite moments. I hadn’t met Taylor, and she called me right after that,” he says. At the time, the 1989 superstar had just released debut single “Tim McGraw,” and an opening gig on an arena tour was one of many tipping points on the horizon. “She was great. I said, ‘They’re gonna eat it up. You’re gonna go out there and kill it. I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen the crowd. You’re gonna slay ’em all, and you owe me your first gold album.’ I said it in passing, but like two months later—it wasn’t long—we were playing a show with her and she walked up on the bus and had a gold album for me, signed to me. I still have it. It says, ‘Eric, Thanks for playing too long and too loud on the Flatts tour. I sincerely appreciate it. —Taylor’”

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It may have taken a tour going up in smoke to set Church and his band on the path that would build his core fan base in the live setting, but his turning point in the studio came in 2009 with “Smoke a Little Smoke.”

“Radio wasn’t going well for us. We had no real hits off our first album—nothing had made any top 10, they weren’t selling very well,” Church says. “The label was wanting us to put out stuff that was friendlier, and we tried that. There [are] two songs in my career that I’d like to have back: ‘Love Your Love The Most’ and ‘Hell On The Heart.’ Both of them were my attempt to try to get something in the top 10 and see what happened. And we got both of ’em in the top 10, and nothing happened.”

That was in late 2009, and when the time came to release his next single, Church wanted to look at what was working in his live show. Thanks to his hard-won following from the forgotten punk clubs along the way, that was the area of his identity as an artist that was the most developed, and every time he played Carolina track “Smoke a Little Smoke” people had been going crazy.

“Something was happening. They were tearing the walls down,” says Church of the crowd response. “So I went to the label, I said ‘This is what we’re putting out, or I’ll never make another album. I’ll never record for you again.’”

He stuck to his guns despite warnings of sputtering radio play and the impending “career suicide” of releasing a stoner anthem like “Smoke a Little Smoke” on the heels of two relatively successful radio hits.

“Actually, the quote was, ‘It’s your funeral,’” Church says with a smirk. “So I said, okay. It’s my funeral. And they put it out and the record went gold—everybody started going back to the first one after that, looking at the whole body of work, and then Chief was next.”

To be fair, the label was half-correct: “Smoke a Little Smoke” didn’t garner any remarkable radio play, but the track was making noise with fans outside the airwaves. Sales spiked, and it gave Church the leverage he needed to make the album he really wanted to record.

“I think that was the first time in our career that we did something like that, and it paid off,” he says of the rebellion. “It really allowed me to trust my instincts when we went in to make the Chief album. I didn’t go in there worrying about the radio—I went in there worried about the songs and the project and what felt right. I didn’t care about the rules.”

Chief might have benefitted from a newfound fearlessness for Church, but the record and his career in general was just as much a product of Church’s detailed study of songwriting as a craft and his intuitive working relationship with producer Jay Joyce. Church didn’t even have an interest in a career as an artist when he first arrived to Nashville; he’d come to town to be a songwriter.

“When I first got to town, every night I would go to writer’s nights around town. I would get the Nashville Scene and I would go to the back and I would find out where my favorite writers were playing,” Church says. “I would sit in the back and I would spend hours—it was almost like a classroom. I would just sit there and absorb it: how they turned a hook, how they phrased a song, how they organized it. It became a craft for me, and I really worked at it.”

Church had already seen artists like Terri Clark and Dean Miller track his songs before being introduced to producer Joyce by his publisher, Arthur Buenahora, but despite promise in the writing room, a record deal wasn’t materializing.

“Arthur said, ‘Man, you’re gonna think I’m crazy, there’s something about what this guy does with music that you do with songwriting—just kind of breaking boundaries.’” Church says. Church agreed to sit down with Joyce, but Buenahora took the meeting a step further, hurling the two musicians into the studio with singles like “Two Pink Lines” and “Pledge Allegiance To The Hag” ready to record.

“We went in for the songwriter demo, and he just took the songs to a place that I never saw them going,” Church says. “It was the first time that the artist thing started to show itself to me. I knew how to write songs, I knew what that was, but I didn’t really know what my identity would be as an artist beyond the song. When I met Jay and got a chance to work with him, it was the first time that when I heard the songs back, I heard me.”

The experience was a novel one for Joyce, too, who had worked with punk and rock bands but hadn’t done much within the country space before.

“People in this town say they want to do something different, and then when you do they get scared,” says Joyce. “They like the idea, but they don’t really want to do it because it could do one of two things: really succeed or really fail. A lot of people shoot for that middle ground, the safer route. Eric wasn’t like that. He wanted to go all the way for something different. I think he was pretty tired of what was going on.”

With Joyce at the helm on the demos, Church landed a record deal Capitol Nashville, going on to release his 2006 debut Sinners Like Me and 2009’s Carolina before they would go into the studio to record breakout album Chief.

”’Smoke A Little Smoke’ somehow got out and it made a lot of noise—it didn’t chart on the radio very well, but it made a lot of noise,” says Joyce of the Carolina track. “That kind of enabled us to take it and run with it, do whatever we wanted to do on Chief. I think that was the first record that we did where there wasn’t any compromise.”

Chief yielded Church’s first two No. 1 singles, “Springsteen” and “Drink in My Hand,” and the album itself sold well over a million records. The eclectic and devoted following he’d won in dive bars and punk clubs on the way up was still there, but now they were filling stadiums and tapping into big mainstream country sales, too. The strength of the album as a whole (three more songs eventually charted on country radio) drove sales to his back catalog, too, building Church’s reputation as an artist worth more than flashy singles or the public persona.

“In this day and age, it’s all digital—it’s all disposable,” Church says. “I have no desire to ever make music like that. It’s always going to be album-based for me, and I think our fans get it. They appreciate it. It’s always crafted as a piece. I think it should be—I think it’s invaluable to us, and I think it’s invaluable to any artist.”

In the major-label country landscape, that devotion to the album as a whole work is less of a given than indie fans may think. More often than not, new artists will record and release one single at a time, holding out on full record releases or even EPs until there’s enough of a tangible fan base and momentum to support album sales. From Church’s perspective, that’s not a sustainable model for an artist.

“If you didn’t have a chance to put an album out, I don’t know how you ever get a fan and I don’t know how you ever get a fan base,” Church says. “It would be like reading one chapter of a book and then putting the book down. That’s all a song is. That’s all a download is. You don’t know anything about the book, you just know that one chapter. You can’t do music that way—you can’t do art that way.”

If Church makes a habit of writing music, he’s just as insistent on the importance of weeding out what fits together and what doesn’t on an album.

“I’m kind of mining for what the album is, prospecting,” he says. That process has certainly turned up its share of gold (or platinum, or double-platinum), but he’s tabled songs that sounded like sure bets for radio in favor of a cohesive album. For last year’s The Outsiders, he wrote 121 songs that he slowly whittled down to 12 for the final product.

“We take all the songs—this time it was 121. We can’t talk to each other, everybody goes their separate ways. Katherine can’t talk to me about it. We’re married, we can’t talk about it,” he says of the song selection process. “Then we get in the room and we all have it out right there. We talk about songs and I give where I’m standing, what I’m feeling, and then they start dingin’ em. The 121 goes to 60 goes to 40 goes to 30.”

He says the concept for The Outsiders, which was nominated for CMA Album of the Year and won the Academy of Country Music Award for Best Country Album in 2014, sprung from a few songs at first: “Devil Devil” and “Dark Side,” which he calls the “DNA” and the “heartbeat” of the album. Once he zeroed in on the new tone he wanted to set with the record, he says the other songs found their identity and fell into place, too.

“The invaluable part with this whole process for me, and it’s been every album that’s been this way, the invaluable part is that as we get closer to it, I get to lock in on what I see the album becoming and I’ve written most of the songs last-minute. I have a clear vision of where I think this album is going, and then I’ll write two or three or four songs that all make the record in the last week because I’ve got it, I’ve locked in on what it is. It’s been crucial for me to have it that way, and it’s the only way I do it.”

Church has a tight team of people he trusts—his wife Katherine, his manager John Peets, publisher Buenahora, and producer Joyce—and he laughs that it’s the closest thing he’s had to A&R.

“Those are the four,” he says. “I have two votes and they each have one. I can be outvoted.”

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Despite his outsider persona, it’s hardly surprising to hear Church be so jovial about surrendering control to those close to him. For a guy who’s considered a solo artist, he uses words like “we” and “us” almost entirely when he talks about the obstacles and the milestones in his career.

“You’re so driven and focused on your career until you have a family, and then you don’t really give a shit about your career,” Church says. “You focus on your family, and your career’s just the other thing you do. It affects everything. It affects me as a person, but also as a songwriter, as an artist, the way we run the organization… It’s the same thing with the band and crew. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of with what we do on the road—it’s a family.”

The welcoming vibe on the road extends to Church’s peers and openers, who have ranged from J. Roddy Walston & the Business to Chris Stapleton and JD McPherson.

“Americana is where I think the heartbeat of country is now,” says Church. “It’s moved there—I love Sturgill, I love Jason Isbell, I love Lindi Ortega. I love a lot of that world, and find myself listening to that probably more than anything right now.”

He’s extremely involved in selecting those who go out on tour with him, and passionate about choosing artists who are making music he’s excited about. It wasn’t that long ago that Eric was the country pariah seeking to fill a freshly cleared schedule in the wake of the Flatts controversy and he was the benefactor of that mindset himself.

“Bob Seger took a chance on me,” says Church, who played a series of 45-minute opening gigs for Seger that filled costly holes in his routing and tour schedule. “He didn’t have to do that. I didn’t gain him one ticket. I’ve always remembered that. He did it because he liked the music, and he gave us a chance to succeed. When we were playing for 20 people in a club, you’d think, ‘God, if I could just get on one of those [big tours].’ I think about that now, when I get to do this and pick the people.”

“I feel like most of those guys and girls are on indie labels, there’s not really an outlet radio-wise for them. So it all feels real and I think that appeals to me. It’s something I try to do, and I’ve gotten dinged on some in the commercial format. With where we are, you have a big commerciality to it. A lot of times there are rules there of things you can and can’t do, and we’ve tried some, got nicked, and some worked. But I think there’s something to, when you go in to make an album with a lot of that world, and they have no real expectation—they’re just making music. It’s just so pure, that’s why it’s so good.”

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For all of Church’s own success with singles on the radio in commercial country—most recently, he was nominated for five CMA Awards—his albums are devoid of duds when it comes to fan reception. While that’s partially because of his aforementioned devotion to the album format, he’s brought that same purity and devotion to making his own music that he so values in his openers and his peers to every show.

“The thing that we did early on is we didn’t play covers—we didn’t fall into that thing of, ‘I’ve got one song, so I’m gonna fill up my time with songs that are big hits for other people,’” he says. “We just played our songs, and over time those have turned into their own version of hits.”

Songs that never made it to radio, like “Sinners Like Me” and “Carolina,” have become sing-along favorites in their own right. “These Boots,” a song from Church’s 2006 debut Sinners Like Me, has become a high point of every show to an almost comedic degree as bumbling fanboys wave their western footwear in the air and belt every word.

“All these things that I play live now, you wouldn’t know [whether] they were ever on the radio or not because we’ve played them over and over and over and people have taken possession of them with their own identity,” Church says. “For me, that’s something that we did and I think it’s been invaluable to our career. And we continue to [do it]: I love deep album cuts. There were nights on the Outsiders tour that we would focus on an album. I would say, ‘Carolina tonight.’ And we would play damn near everything off of Carolina and left off hits. We left off stuff that had been number one for us, you know? Didn’t play it.”

“Didn’t play ‘Springsteen’ last night! You know? We didn’t! It’s the biggest hit of our career and I didn’t play it last night,” he says. He’s only half-right when he continues to chuckle that no one noticed, though: the audience may have greeted every deep cut like a No. 1 single, but after the final note echoed over the opening night at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheatre, it was a long time before the crowd finally stopped cheering, insistent that their favorite performer couldn’t possibly be done just yet.

“Here we came out of bars and clubs and all of a sudden we’re in big arenas,” says Church. “It was this insecurity for me, where I felt like I had to play stuff either off Chief or stuff that was on the radio. I thought that was the show, but the show is what happens between those: the show is the obscure stuff. The show is the individuality for the fan; it’s stuff that they never get to hear again.”

Likewise, the story with Eric Church is less about the ubiquity of “Springsteen” that summer in 2012 or the Madison Square meltdown or the big stuff that everybody knows. Rather, it is that stuff in between—the dirty clubs and the late-night dives and the times he’s played to tens of thousands solo, when his backup band was sick. It’s the care he takes in selecting his openers and the blend of precision in the studio and recklessness on the radio tour. His path to the hall of fame is as much a body of work, with its own deep cuts and complexities, as any album he’s released or show he’s played, and the fans won’t stop cheering for an encore any time soon.

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