Hard Work Pays Off For Country Rocker

Eric Church doesn’t pull his punches. He likes to talk straight and there is a focus and certainty to his voice that comes through, even over the phone. He knows where he’s come from, and he knows where he wants to be. And — oh yes — he’s in the process of blowing up.

The AFM Local 257 member has been favorably compared to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings — not because of his sound — but, rather, because of his willingness to speak honestly in his songs to issues other country artists might avoid. But, this is not about being an outlaw — he’s not — but he’s not Rascal Flatts, either.

Church chuckled as he prepared for the trip to this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards show in Las Vegas in April. He had been named the 2010 ACM New Solo Vocalist before leaving, and was up for the academy’s New Artist of the Year.

“It’s kind of unique going to the ACM’s knowing you already won one,” he said, laughing. “I guess it kind of takes the pressure off a little bit. Of course, this is my third record so I’m not really all that ‘new’ either. I’ve been touring since 2005.

“I think that’s because we’ve done things a little different. People are starting to accept what we’re doing so it’s really cool.”

What Church has been doing is slowly winning over audiences, and following the Capitol release of his second record, Carolina, in 2009, breaking into the top end of the charts. Two singles from that album, “Love Your Love The Most” and “Hell on the Heart” cracked the top ten on the country charts. And, with the advance release of “Homeboy” from the upcoming and yet-to-be-titled album due out in July on EMI, Church is becoming more fixed and finding that real acceptance.

It has been a determined climb. Church moved to Nashville in 2001, painfully green, after graduating from Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., and did the unthinkable — he picked up a phone book and started calling music publishers in hopes of landing a writing gig. It was a natural thing for him to do — he had been writing and performing his own songs since he was 13 years old.

“Coming to town, I think, because I was young I thought everything would be easy,” he said. “I was able to come here, at least, and I took some lumps early on. You know everybody’s going to come here and get kicked around — that’s just how it is. I was young — maybe young and dumb.

“It was such a struggle. I didn’t know anybody — I didn’t even know where Music Row was. I came here and got a phone book and just started calling publishers trying to set up meetings and you can imagine the kind of response I got.”

Church had been playing clubs five nights a week his last couple of years in college, concentrated in western North Carolina. He had wanted to leave school and come to Nashville before finishing, but his father convinced him to stay, and promised to give him money to live on for six months in Music City after graduation.

Despite his playing experience, Church was very much a self-taught man, and though he had built a reputation and a bit of a following in college, he found out quickly he would need more when he arrived in Nashville.

“I guess my classroom, when I got here, was the writer’s nights where these guys were playing their hit songs,” he said. “I remember going and having them just kick my ass —a lot of them were hits, but just to be arriving in town and thinking you’re a great songwriter, and hearing what they were writing here — well, we were a long ways apart.

“I will say I committed myself to studying what they were doing. I lived there. I stayed there. I listened to how they crafted a song. It’s a time I wouldn’t trade for anything but it’s also a time I wouldn’t want to do again.”

That study, along with his innate talent and desire, paid off. Church, the young man who had come to Nashville and picked up the phone book, landed a publishing deal within a year with Sony Tree. Then, a providential turn took place as Sony Tree’s Arthur Buenahora introduced Church to producer Jay Joyce, Nashville rocker of the highest order. Buenahora saw a flicker of the intangible artist in Church. Something clicked with Joyce and the stars aligned. They began to cut demos, and in blinding Nashville fashion, Church was offered a recording deal with Capitol.

The pairing of Church and Joyce, in a way, was only natural. Church’s country swagger, though spawned from a wildly varied mix of musical influences, needed Joyce’s rock & roll sensibility. Together, they found his sound. The resulting debut album, Sinners Like Me, was released in 2006. Three singles, “How ‘Bout You,” “Guys Like Me,” and “Two Pink Lines” made some noise.

Church possesses a pure country voice, but his core attitude is best found in his bigger, rocking numbers. Known for a rowdy live show, he has blurred the lines between rock and country even more. You will find the proverbial wall of sound, as on the current “Homeboy,” layered with acoustic guitars, distorted banjos, driving electric guitars and big percussion, behind his vocal.

Joyce again produced the follow-up, Carolina, as the sound continued to evolve, and the pair is now putting the finishing touches on the third.

“Musically, Jay is the biggest factor,” Church said. “He’s the wild card that always brings something to it musically. He is a person who is really a genius in the studio — really making sure that the song is coming across the right way. It’s always about the song. It’s never about making something palatable to a certain group of people. It’s always about what’s going to make the song sound the best. That’s what a great producer does.”

With his large sound and provocative lyrics, Church sees himself as an outsider, though it is becoming increasingly harder to do. He always has. He grew up in Granite Falls, N.C., raised on two parts Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, one part bluegrass, and two parts AC/DC and Metallica. That fact itself makes for an interesting mix, and Church embodies now what has become a growing, almost typical phenomenon — country artists and fans alike influenced by wildly divergent genres.

“When I was young I got into a lot of Cash and Waylon like everybody did,” Church said. “And I grew up in the ’80s and in that time it’s hard to escape a lot of Metallica, AC/DC, Pantera — these are bands I grew up on. I was getting a lot of exposure to country but also a lot of exposure to heavier rock music — along with Tom Petty, Springsteen and Bob Seger. You add all that up and when we go to make music, I take all that and bring it in — all of what made me up musically and creatively and try to tie it to the sound.

“[In Boone] I was around a lot of people who had a lot of different tastes in music. I know when I went to college I didn’t know every Grateful Dead song, but I sure did when I left … that all matters.”

It was at Appalachian State that Church began to define himself musically. He had written his own songs growing up, but here was the opportunity to put them on the line.

“I started putting songs that I’d written into the sets,” Church said. “I was dabbling late at night when songs were running low or requests were running low, and I’d play some of my own stuff, and I found when we’d play those places again some of the people would request those songs.

“They became somewhat popular just by word of mouth. Those were the first times I thought there may be something here, there may be something to this. That’s when the songwriting really started becoming important to me. I played all the time. I got a real musical education.”

Perhaps, the newfound separation for Church as an artist comes from that place — within the lyric. From the touchy subject of teen pregnancy found in “Two Pink Lines,” to the candid and popular “Smoke A Little Smoke,” to the heaviness found in “Homeboy,” Church has been unafraid lyrically. He has written, or cowritten, every song on each of his records. And, he feels that fact is his strongest attribute.

“A songwriter is who I am — that before anything else,” Church said. “There’s a lot of people out there who record other people’s songs and do a great job of it. I’m just not a person who can walk on stage every night and sing songs that I didn’t write. I think if I walk out there and play them a song that I wrote, then I think there’s a whole other layer of believability — you know this guy not only wrote this song, he lived this song.

“I think if I wasn’t able to do that I would go back to just songwriting and not be a performer anymore. I think it’s the utmost important thing for me.”

Producer Joyce would tend to agree.

“I think what I like most about Eric is that he does write or cowrite the songs, that he is coming at it from the place of an artist,” Joyce said. “His voice and how he writes is so country that it enables me to push the envelope a bit [musically] — but still it’s country because of his makeup. There’s something unique being said by him. He’s being honest.”

And, though Church is given most credit as a wordsmith, Joyce is quick to point out that Church is more than capable on guitar.

“He’s really a great guitar player,” he said. “When someone writes the song — the way they play it can’t be duplicated by a session player, though he has other guitar players. This record in particular, I talked him into playing some electric guitar. There’s something about his rhythm and the way he interprets the lyric — they’re all one thing. And, when you break it all down — underneath the production and everything — it’s just honest.”

Of course, the touchstone for Church is honesty, and he believes that his background, his work ethic, and his exposure to many forms of music give him a unique perspective. He recalls the two songs that flipped the switch for him, and motivated him to do his own thing — Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and AC/DC’s “Back In Black.”

“When I heard that song of his [Kristofferson’s] and the honesty that was coming out of him — how he approached the songs he had written,” Church said. “To hear it coming from the songwriter, that’s when being a songwriter really started to matter to me. Still today I look on that [song] as a changing moment in my life.

“And, the other was the first time I heard the ‘Back In Black’ record by AC/DC. I can remember going to ballgames and hanging out with my buddies. Those two things were defining moments for me.”

New defining moments appear to be on the horizon. And, though Church did not win the New Artist of the Year in Vegas (The Band Perry did), one gets the sense that there will be more nominations in the future. He is someone who has taken chances to get here, and followed the dream.

“I think we’re building on a sound,” Joyce said. “We’re both exploring and defining things. There’s not a whole lot of fear involved with what we’re doing, which makes it a lot more fun. He’s not worried about fitting in to some other situation.”

To that end, Church feels strong in who he is.

“We’re just gonna make our music — that’s who we are,” Church said. “I’m the kind of guy that it excites to do some things that maybe haven’t been done before. I think Johnny Cash did that … I think Waylon Jennings did it. I think Garth Brooks did that. They took the format from where it was and moved it to where they were.

“I think every generation that comes along — if you’re making music that really means something — then you’re gonna move things … right or wrong.”

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