Eric Church blazes his own path
by Cindy Watts
February 9, 2012
Two years ago Eric Church was a fringe artist. Career highlights included a Top 10 song, a string of sold-out club dates thanks to his hard-core rowdy fans, and the bragging rights that come along with being booted from a Rascal Flatts tour for playing too long and too loud.
Then Church released “Smoke a Little Smoke,” a fan favorite that Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Church’s label group Capitol/EMI Records Nashville, admits is about smoking marijuana and advised him against releasing.
And while the working man’s anthem about kicking back with a couple of vices never made it to the Top 10 at country radio, it was the catalyst Church needed to take his career to the next level — Grammy-nominated, arena headliner.
Church will be in Los Angeles on Sunday for the 54th annual Grammy Awards. His new album, Chief, one of the top sellers in the country genre in 2011, is nominated for best country album along with works from Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, George Strait and Jason Aldean.
“When we went in to make Chief, ‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ was the template,” Church says from the tour bus in route to Savannah, Ga. “I said, ‘We trusted the gut and we put out the wildest song on the last record, I’ll have no constraints on this one.’ ‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ gave us that freedom.”
Church’s plan worked. Dungan says the album was one of the best he’s ever encountered, and when Chief was released at the end of the July it sold nearly 145,000 copies its first week in stores — well exceeding expectations. At the time, the only country artist who had bested that in 2011 was Brad Paisley, the reigning CMA entertainer of the year, who released This Is Country Music a few months before.
“I think this guy is just the real deal,” Dungan says. “He’s clearly not what traditionalists would call right-down-the-middle-of-the-road country artist. He’s always pushed it from the outside of the envelope. But his conceptualization of a song is spectacular.”
The album’s lead single, “Homeboy,” made it only to No. 13 on the country radio airplay charts. Church resolved himself to the fact that initial sales numbers might not be as high as he hoped. But he still felt like he gave his fans one heck of an album.
“I was listening to it … thinking, ‘As a consumer, this could be a special record,’ ” he recalls. “I thought at some point in time ... we would have No. 1 songs, and I thought we might have a chance at Grammys and awards just because of the content. But I didn’t think it would be where we are from the jump. For me, that was the biggest shock of the whole thing.”
When Church released the album’s second single, “Drink in My Hand,” it became his first No. 1 song. “Drink” peaked about a week into the singer’s arena tour, which was booked only after his team saw the strength of his first week album sales numbers.
“Historically, we’ve made these incremental moves, and that number was so big that it gave us the confidence that we could make a bigger jump than we could historically make in a market,” says Fielding Logan, who works for Church’s management company, Q Prime South.
“There were a lot of signs that we could do it, but the record sales were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
However, when the on-sale date approached for many of the tour dates, Church was filled with trepidation. The larger-than-life, chest-thumping singer that brims with confidence on stage wasn’t at all convinced that enough people were going to buy tickets to keep his arena tour from looking like a flop.
“Some of them, I was mortified at the size of the room,” Church says. “I think the first shows that went on sale sold like 6,000 tickets in an hour. There were probably some years we didn’t sell 6,000 tickets.”
Nine shows into his tour, Church has sold out six of them. He played Knoxville’s Thompson Boling Arena last weekend, and 13,565 fans showed up — the tour’s record so far.
But the tour has also had its growing pains. Three days before Church’s The Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour featuring Brantley Gilbert was ready to launch, Church’s backdrops for his stage still hadn’t arrived. They made it in the nick of time, but another issue arrived on its heels: ticket scalpers. For someone who built a career on the dollar of blue-collar fans, tickets poached and resold at seven times their face value has become “the bane of my existence,” Church says.
He’s also endured a few issues with his set. The second night of the tour, Church says, he was trapped under the stage for several minutes as he was trying to make his entrance.
“Everybody sat in the dark for seven minutes wondering, ‘What in the hell was going on?’ ” the singer says. “It’s such a big thing that every night you have to cross your fingers and go, ‘I hope it works.’ ”
Another surprise has come from the country music industry — people are taking notice of Church. He’s being asked about his career model, and the question never fails to make him chuckle.
“I guess it is a model from the standpoint of building it on the road and sticking to your guns and releasing a style of music and hoping that it breaks through,” says the singer. “Who wants to go out and be banished to the wilderness for three or four years playing every sewer in America? That’s not a fun experience for anybody — 220 shows a year sometimes for 20 people, that’s tough on a person and tough on a soul.”
Dungan says the way Church and his manager John Peets went about building his career even put him at odds with the record label.
“When this guy first came out he would go into a market and play a rock club on the wrong side of the tracks at 10 p.m.,” Dungan says. “We couldn’t get anyone to go out and see him at that late hour in those locations. It was very, very frustrating. But we have learned a lot about a different way of doing business from Eric Church. It’s opened our eyes and made us better.”
Much like Church took chances building his career, Church is headlining arenas his own way, too.
“We’re still trying to keep it old-school,” says the singer, who opted not to use video in his production. “It’s still about trying to do something different. We’re trying to be creative with it. I feel like everybody can turn and look at a video screen. I don’t want that. I want them engaged in the stage.”
The result, he says, is an energy that’s palpable and a feeling, along with the satisfaction of acceptance and success he’s recently achieved, he desperately wants to remember.
“It’s just hit us pretty hard and pretty fast,” he says. “We’ve been out for a while playing bars and clubs and growing this career out on the road and doing it our own way. All of a sudden, Chief comes out in the last six months and ... it’s like someone flipped a switch. I remember when none of that happened, so I’m trying to enjoy it. It’s not lost on me.”
Baby gives him balance
In addition to launching a top-selling album and sold-out arena tour over the past few months, Eric Church also achieved another milestone in life: He’s now a father to 4-month-old son, Boone McCoy.
Eric and his wife, Katherine, welcomed their new bundle on Oct. 3, and when it came time to embark on his tour, the country singer couldn’t do it without his family.
To make it work, the couple bought a 16-foot Airstream to tow behind the tour bus. The trailer was converted to a nursery for Boone, complete with replicas of every toy the infant has at home.
“We travel up and down the road together,” Church says.
“We played Memphis and we had 10,000 people. It was one of those great moments, and you walk off stage and I got back to the bus (and) he had a dirty diaper, and I changed the dirty diaper, still hat and sunglasses on. I just started chuckling. I just walked off stage five minutes ago with 10,000 people, and here I am. And he doesn’t care.”
Church explains the set-up works for him because he’s not that macho guy he is on stage the rest of the time.
“I know there’s artists that get caught up in whatever they get caught up in and a lot of that is bull,” he says. “I just need a little time to process what’s about to happen when I go on stage and get my game face on and then go make sure the fans get what they pay for.”
When some nights are particularly long, Church says, his wife is great about getting up with Boone so he can sleep in. And any small inconvenience that might come from having a baby on the road is far outweighed, he says, by what he gets in return.
“It’s fun to have him out and maybe take a walk and have those moments that don’t empty you as an artist,” he says. “There’s a lot of artists that give everything to the road. I know a lot of those guys and girls and there’s a real emptiness in their lives.
“I think that for me, that if I’m able to keep that balance, it will make me a better artist and it will help me make better records and have better shows.”
Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227 or email@example.com.
The 54th annual Grammy Awards will air live from Los Angeles at 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
If you go
Tickets to Eric Church’s May 5 show at Bridgestone Arena are on sale now through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000.
The Tennessean’s ongoing coverage of the Grammy Awards, with live reports from Los Angeles. Also follow along on Twitter @TNMusicNews and Facebook.com for the Music City winners on Sunday as they are announced.