Country rouser Eric Church on rowdy path to Cleveland
By John Benson
Country singer Eric Church kisses no butt.
A rebel’s rebel in Nashville in a time when the country music scene has become as homogenized as the smiling faces delivering seemingly the same songs over and over, Church is a self-made artist whose rise to the top didn’t come about without ruffling a few feathers. He famously got booted off Rascal Flatts’ 2006 tour and became a Music City industry pariah.
Instead of being tamed, this caged animal channeled his rage into his craft. After scoring six top-20 country singles (“How ’Bout You,” “Two Pink Lines,” and “Guys Like Me”) from his 2006 debut, “Sinners Like Me,” the North Carolina native went rogue with his 2009 album, “Carolina.” The songs were darker and honest, with “Two Pink Lines” detailing teen pregnancy and hit “Smoke a Little Smoke” discussing drugs.
Today, Church is arguably country music’s biggest story, armed with his latest album, “Chief,” which was just up for a Grammy Award (he didn’t win) and is already gold and nearing platinum at a time record sales across the board are drying up. After opening for Toby Keith last summer at Blossom Music Center, Church returns this winter as an arena headliner on the “Blood, Sweat, and Beers Tour,” which comes to Cleveland Friday at the Cleveland State University Wolstein Center.
The News-Herald talked to the country singer about his improbable ride to the top.
The News-Herald: Your picture on the cover of “Chief” finds you sunglass-bespectacled and bearded with a trucker’s cap ready to kick butt. Does that sound about right?
Eric Church: Yeah, if you go back and look at who I was early on in the career, there was no hat and sunglasses and not nearly as much swagger. Because of our career path, we were somewhat banished by the industry to the wilderness, where we had a hard time getting anyone to book us. We couldn’t get any big tours, fairs or country venues. So we started playing anywhere we could play and sometimes it was heavy metal clubs and there were 20 people there. During that time I started taking on a different persona and so did the band. I noticed the people started looking at me like I was a different person. That chip on my shoulder that I already had got a hell of a lot bigger.
So musically, what changed and made Eric Church a name to be reckoned with in the country-music game?
We put out “Smoke a Little Smoke,” and it was a very unconventional song for country radio. It just changed our career. That record went gold, and up until then it had been doing marginally at best. It really led us into making “Chief,” where I felt a little bit bulletproof. Everybody in town said I was crazy to release a song called “Smoke a Little Smoke” to country radio because of its subject matter. They said it was the biggest mistake of your career and when that worked, I felt pretty emboldened when I went in to make this record. So I made a record that’s pretty fearless across the board, and I think that’s why it sold like it did.
Now that you were just up for a Grammy Award, are you still an industry outsider?
I’m still probably the fringe guy. At the end of last year, “Chief” was on the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin magazine and NPR best-of lists. Those are places that normally country music artists don’t really play much. They don’t get on those lists, and I think it’s because our career paths. When you go in to play for 20 bikers in a heavy metal bar that have never listened to the radio, you can’t go in there and play “Sweet Home Alabama.” You better go in there and believe who you are and believe in your music and you better make them believe that you believe. And because we played those places, our fan base is a little wider. So that puts us out a little bit on the outside. I think because of the success we’ve been pulled back in a little bit, but we still lean more towards the fringe.
Speaking of cover songs, are there any in your current set?
I don’t do covers. I think covers are a copout. I don’t need to play somebody else’s song. It drives me crazy.
So do you still carry a grudge against those Eric Church haters out there?
I carry a massive grudge. I carry a grudge the size of the sun on my shoulder. I have a list of people – it’s about 26 names long – in radio, media and label guys. Those people are the people when I go out there and put on that show ¬– and fans see me beating my chest and doing what I’m doing – that’s who I’m thinking about.
You know Axl Rose took out his grudge in the form of “Get in the Ring,” where he literally mentioned people in the media who he would like to fight. Any thoughts of doing that?
I do know that song, but I’ve learned it’s probably best in life not to emulate Axl.
Ha, Ha. That is a good line. I think I know what he means when talking about radio, media heads, etc. Those radio stations that just wouldn't play the music.
I've written the two local stations in Fort Wayne multiple times about playing newer artists, using Eric Church as an example...someone that was putting out good music but wouldn't get the play. They "play the hits" (basically waiting until it hits the charts before playing it) Well, someone has to play them before they become hits, right?
Sonia Leigh ends her set and says thanks to the radio station, blah, blah... Why? They would never play one of her songs here until someone else plays it. That's what drives me crazy.
"I do know that song, but I’ve learned it’s probably best in life not to emulate Axl."
...best line in the interview, lol