Eric Church’s third album, Chief, was released last July. The North Carolina–born country singer had previously scored a couple of Top Ten hits, but he wasn’t exactly making major waves.
So when Chief debuted at the top of Billboard’s country album chart, AND at No. 1 on the Top 200 (beating out all the hot pop stars of the day), heads turned, questioned were asked, and before you could say “Garth Brooks” America had a bright new star on its hands.
Just like that.
The Billboard charts are based on Soundscan reports, which come directly from retail and online purchases. Which means Church, 34, wasn’t elevated by any press hype, TV tie–ins or the greasing of music–biz industry wheels. The fans did it all.
Church’s first headlining tour brings him to the Savannah Civic Center this week — in the massive Martin Luther King Arena, he’ll be supported by opening acts Brantley (“Country Must Be Country Wide”) Gilbert and one of Savannah’s favorite visiting country rockers, Sonia Leigh.
Church’s “Drink in My Hand” has topped the country singles charts for the last three weeks. A roadhouse rocker celebrating the end of the working week, it’s fairly typical of the sort of cowboy anthem country radio likes playing these days.
But take a listen to “Homeboy,” the earlier single from Chief. It’s got deep, pensive lyrics and a rich, musically swampy feel. And it’s incredibly catchy.
And there’s very little beer–chugging Bubba in it.
Out Feb. 6, from the album, is a single called “Springsteen.” This one, which Church says is his favorite song on the album, takes a nostalgic look back at Church’s high school days in the 1980s – your first clue that he’s one good ol’ country boy who approaches his music from an entirely different place.
Chief is a country album that’s really a rock ‘n’ roll album. Was that the envelope you were trying to push?
Eric Church: We’re all given a window of opportunity, I think all artists are, of any genre. A window when you’re truly relevant, the spotlight’s on you and people are watching what you do. One of my biggest frustrations is people that just sit there and make the same music that’s been made over and over. Just run it up and down the charts. All they’re doing, to me, is just spinning their wheels.
So for me, it’s about taking that flag to that moment you’ve been given and actually trying to go somewhere with it. I mean, you may not succeed with people following you there, but at least trying to go there makes the music healthier as a whole. And that’s always been something that we’ve tried to do, from the first record till now.
The difference is, as the successes have come, we’ve been a little more fearless in doing that. We’ve been able to remove more and more of the constraints that I think the industry and other people put on us. And I think that’s why Chief really turned out the way it did. Why I think it’s having the success it’s having is because it’s made that way.
Do you think it’s a generational shift? Didn’t a lot of the people blasting country radio now grow up on rock ‘n’ roll?
Eric Church: That’s it. I get hit pretty hard from the traditionalist side of what we do, but I’ve always said, you give me a guitar and I’ll do you every Waylon song, every Hank song. But I grew up in the ‘80s, so I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll, in the cars while you were going to concerts or riding to high school. It’s what we blasted – Metallica, AC/DC.
I also just happen to love The Band, and I happen to love Little Feat. I got into some of these other things that maybe my friends didn’t.
The edge that you hear in country right now comes from what our influences were. Haggard’s influence was Lefty Frizzell —when he made music, it sounded like Lefty. But when we made music, this new generation, we listened to rock ‘n’ roll.
Haggard ... If I say to you, OK, “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Silver Wings,” you could just do ‘em?
Eric Church: I could do it, man. I’d get real close, but you’d have to let me polish it. I did so many gigs in bars and clubs growing up, our livelihood depended on when somebody walked up with a 10–dollar bill, and asked for whatever song they said, it was my job to know it and do it the best I could.
When you play the bars, you pay your dues. It does matter that you know those things. And the great thing for me, too, is that I draw on that stuff as influences. When we were playing clubs, there were people that would walk up and request stuff I didn’t know. But I did the next time I came back. I went and found it, and figured out what that person wanted to hear. It’s also stuff that you put in the tank that you pull from to make records.
When Chief came in at No. 1, there will people walking around here — in this office, this town, this country —going “Who the hell is Eric Church?” I wouldn’t say it came from left field, exactly, but ...
Eric Church: Oh, it came from left field! For us too. We were in New York City when the numbers came out. Everybody was watching the Adele record that week, they were watching Kelly Rowland. We were thinking that if we did 90,000 to 100,000 we might have a chance to compete for it. And to come out and do 145,000 records, and debut at No. 1 easily...
Everybody in New York was going “Who the hell is Eric Church?”
I don’t have a great answer for it. I just think it’s the way we’ve always focused on music. I don’t Tweet. I’ve never been on my Facebook page. I’m not funny, I’m not on TV. It’s never been about anything other than the music. And I think that at some point in time over the last couple of records, before Chief came out, that got across.
It’s astonished me what it’s done since July, from Grammy nominations to sold–out arenas. And it’s almost platinum. All these things are really, really crazy.
You mentioned the so–called traditionalists. In the beginning, were people telling you what you were doing wasn’t country enough?
Eric Church: There’s just a lot of people that hold on to what country means to them. I love fiddle, I love steel, but I don’t think it should be a rule that it has to be used in every song. I don’t think it should be a rule that you can only use a Telecaster. I think that’s not what defines or makes country music.
When people like Hank Williams Sr. and Lefty Frizzell came along, Bill Monroe said it was the end of country music because it was all, up until that time, acoustic instruments and bluegrass. When those electrified instruments started gettin’ into it, the way he said it, he thought that was the end of it.
Again, I just think that’s an antiquated view of things. The evolution of the music is what allows it to survive. And as long as the younger artists continue to do that, I think it’s going to make the format healthy.
“Drink in My Hand” and “Homeboy” are both very hooky, memorable singles, but they’re entirely different from one another. Is that important to you, avoiding the cookie–cutter?
Eric Church: Yeah, it’s the most important thing for us. And just being able to continue to do it. And we’ve not gotten to that point yet, but the more success you have, the more you compete against yourself. People will start to say “Well, this new single sounds like ‘Homeboy.’” Or “This new single sounds like ‘Smoke a Little Smoke’” or whatever.
For us, I think the hard thing is to try and figure out ways to re–invent a sound that we kind of created. It’ll be a challenge. That’s one thing that I’m anxious about. And looking forward to — I think it’ll be fun to try and tackle that.
With Brantley Gilbert and Sonia Leigh
Where: Martin Luther King Arena, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2
Tickets: $37.50–$42.50 at etix.com