Revolution has cast a spark in mainstream country music, and outlaw rebel Eric Church is to blame. Since the release of his first album, Sinners Like Me (2006), Church has led his pack one-by-one through retrospective songwriting, invigorating live shows, and a hard-boiled attitude soaked in blood and sweat, and ice cold beers. Perhaps that's why his recent No. 1 singles "Drink In My Hand" and "Springsteen" have accomplished RIAA Gold and Platinum certification, respectively, and his first headlining arena tour, aptly titled Eric Church: The Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour, is experiencing record-breaking sales and prompting rave critical reviews. Moreover, there's no doubt since the release of his ground-breaking RIAA Certified Platinum third album CHIEF, his tenacious tribe of disciples is demanding the world's help in catapulting their 'chief' of country music from smoky barroom songster to headlining arena superstar.
On board with the upheaval in naming CHIEF one of NPR's Top Albums of The Year, renowned critic Ann Powers writes:
"Mainstream music is full of macho dudes in faded designer jeans, but it's rare to find an artist with enough sophistication and self-awareness to make the outlaw persona feel genuine. Enter Eric Church: The North Carolina native honky-tonker who fully embraces country clichés, but sharpens them with wit, chronicling wild nights and epic hangovers with just the right amount of critical distance, and single with the cool world-weariness of someone who's lost a few lovers and parking-lot fights."
Rolling Stone, SPIN, iTunes, and the Los Angeles Times also joined the crusade in granting Church coveted end-of-the-year 'top album' accolades, and the release of CHIEF earned RIAA Gold Certified sales in only six weeks, helping to launch fan-favorite party anthem and third single release "Drink In My Hand," to No. 1 on the country radio charts. Furthermore, positioned at the apex of life-long achievements for Church, he experienced the exhilaration of his first-ever GRAMMY nomination with CHIEF for Best Country Album and ACM nominations for Album of the Year and Video of the Year for "Homeboy."
Having kicked off Eric Church: The Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour on January 19 in Fort Smith, AR, Church is bringing his raucous live show to arena-filled venues from New York, NY to Los Angeles, CA, Chicago, IL, Nashville, TN and everywhere in between in 2012.
"Normally, you have No. 1 singles before you have No. 1 albums and arena tours, but for us, it was the other way," says Church who began planning the arena tour months before ever reaching the singles summit with "Drink In My Hand" and the two-week No. 1, "Springsteen" – both Church personally co-wrote. Cultivating a devoted fan base without sacrificing musical integrity and self-expression, Church has built up his following slowly, but the hard work is finally proving to have paid off.
Reflecting on his creative process when crafting the game-changing album CHIEF, Church used his opportunity to make a new record provided by his success to push his creativity and live show even further. "I have a theory that all of us only get a small window of time to make records when people will really listen and care," he says. "It's up to us to move the needle. People like Waylon and Cash or Garth and Strait - they all took the format and said 'We're going over here,' and they all changed the direction of the music a little bit."
Although his debut album, Sinners Like Me, established him as one of the most acclaimed new songwriters in country music; and the follow-up, 2009's RIAA Gold Certified Carolina, produced the singles "Love Your Love the Most" and "Smoke a Little Smoke," which—along with the continually escalating popularity of his hard-charging live show—elevated Church to the top ranks of today's country stars in early 2011 at which point Church decided to take a step back to give some thought to his next creative direction.
"I took about a month off and went to a cabin in North Carolina," he says. "We've always blazed our own trail and I was trying to figure out where it needed to go and, honestly, I wasn't sure. So, I didn't go anywhere for a month. Writers came out and we just wrote songs all day and all night. That really stoked the creative flame. Then, I spent the next six months on tour writing whenever I could."
The songs that resulted illustrate Church's impressive range. Some of the titles like his first career No. 1 Billboard single "Drink in My Hand" or "Hungover and Hard Up," instantly show that he's still comfortable with the expectations of his rowdy live audience. "You've got to know what's going to fire them up," he says, "but, you also need to give them a twist, something they can't just go back and get from the other two records." Other songs, like the ambitious third single and second No. 1 "Springsteen" or "Like Jesus Does," reveal complicated emotions and sophisticated song structures.
Church's fourth single release from the record, "Creepin'," kicks-off CHIEF."It's interesting how sonically it matches the lyrics, then, it gets full-blown and tries to creep out. I love the Roger Miller 'bow-ba-bow' vocal—that wasn't planned, it was just a product of being in the room and being involved in the magic." It's that fearlessness both on stage and in the studio that continually sets Church apart--earning him performances on stages opening for Metallica at Orion Festival and alongside top names at CMA Music Festival's LP Field.
Perhaps the bravest track on CHIEF is the first single, "Homeboy," a provocative appeal from one brother to another to get back on track and make peace with his family that was recently RIAA Gold Certified.
"'Homeboy' deals with social issues and with everyday life," says Church. "It was pretty challenging for me to take that term 'homeboy' and use it as slang, as a destination, and then at the end, as a spiritual place. Sonically, it's like three or four different songs. It's not something people are used to," he continues, "and there can be a price to pay for that. I've had people say 'that's strange,' 'it's odd'—things that some people might run from but, I think it's fantastic."
When it came time to record the album, Church had a sound in mind that felt different from his first two releases. "This record, more than anything else I've done, is breathing and alive," he says. "There's a wildness to it. It's untamed and not very harnessed."
This energy started with the singer's own role in the sessions. Much of CHIEF was cut live in the studio. Church played guitar with the band (and for the first time on record, electric guitar on "Like Jesus Does") and some of the final versions even use the original tracking vocal.
Church gives credit to producer Jay Joyce, with whom he has made all three of his albums, for helping to bring this excitement out on the tracks. "There's just a comfort level with Jay," he says. "We've both learned to sit back and let each other try different paths and get farther out there. A lot of stuff we just tried, like the handclap loop on 'Homeboy,' just because we weren't afraid. We never thought there was anything we couldn't do. I think it's the most aggressive record I've made because of that."
Though Church's focus on CHIEF is on looking forward rather than looking back, he does acknowledge that the surprising success of chart-topping single release "Smoke a Little Smoke" allowed him to explore and experiment with his new songs. Church explains, "This was the first time I picked a single because of the reaction on the road and it paid off." And his desire to capture the intensity of his live show on record is indicated right in the title of the new album. "'Chief' is my nickname on the road," Church reveals. "When it's show time, I put on the sunglasses and the hat, and that's how people know it's game time. This album was made from a live place; we recorded it with the live show in mind, so it just seemed right to make that the title."
If there is one thing country music needs more of, it's the attitude that is driving Eric Church, the approach behind every song on CHIEF, the fearlessness that lets an artist swing for the fences and attempt to change the musical landscape. "There were safer choices I could have made for sure, but I just can't feel that helps anybody," he says. "If you have any respect for the music, you'll use each chance you get to try to be one of the ones who moves the flag."