Eric Church is Not Just Singing to the Choir
By: Vernell Hackett
When Eric Church wanted to leave college to pursue music, his dad made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "He told me if I'd graduate from college, he would pay for my first six months living expenses in Nashville," the North Carolina native recalled. "I graduated with a degree in marketing and my dad was true to his word."
That degree has paid off. Church's sophomore album, Carolina, is out. He has already wrapped up the 37-stop first phase of "The Young & Wild Tour," to resume in mid June. And his fan base, known as the Church Choir, is expanding not only because of their hero's all-stops-out shows and originals-only sets but also because of where many of those shows take place - like, for instance, Lollapalooza.
As in previous years, the three-day, all-star blowout, scheduled for August in Chicago's Grant Park, is all about rock, with the Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode, The Killers, Jane's Addiction and other headliners throwing down their mixes of metal, neo-punk, hip-hop and all shades between. But Church, and a couple of other Country artists, will be performing there as well.
"We're in Rolling Stone too," he pointed out, referring to his profile in the May 14 issue. "We're getting a chance with that and with Lollapalooza to talk with some people who probably have no idea what goes on over here in Country Music. Country is the coolest format. It's where the true singer/songwriter lives. It's where the true troubadour lives. But we sometimes hide that. That's why I love being there on the fringes, like an ambassador introducing Country Music to the rest of the world."
These appearances also reflect a strategy that has allowed Church to solidify and build his fan base through bookings into venues where many Country artists seldom tread. "That's always been the plan," said Jay Williams, VP, Music, William Morris Agency. "For so many artists, the first tour or two is opening for someone bigger, and then they go on the fair and festival run in the summer. We did that with Eric too - but when you're opening for Brad Paisley or Rascal Flatts, it's hard to see who you're connecting with. So early on, we came up with that strategy for building Eric's career from the ground up."
Williams and Church, along with Manager John Peets and Director of Touring Fielding Logan, both of Q Prime South, worked together to implement this approach. The idea was to book into rock clubs, often in university towns, where regular customers might be won over and fans from the Country realm could be persuaded to attend. It worked from the start, with shows often selling out if not the first time then on return bookings. Not once, according to Williams, did Church draw smaller attendance on subsequent visits to those markets.
"We bring a lot of Country fans into venues they've probably never seen," Church observed. "They're used to going to places where there's line dancing and stuff like that, and in these rock clubs it's standing room only. It's a different experience, more about the camaraderie you have with the crowd. It's hot and sweaty and loud - and I love that. It becomes as much about the environment as what we present onstage. It's not the most comfortable thing in the world, but it's an experience for the fans."
By strategic planning, Church has upped total sales for his debut album, Sinners Like Me, above the 300,000 mark, without having lofted a single into the Top 10. "We shouldn't be where we are, but I have to say it's the fans that have pulled us through," he said. "We go into a market and we'll have more people at the show than we had the last time. We've made ourselves a brand - Eric Church and The ECB Band - and the merchandise is all consistent with that brand. We're headlining this year in venues from 1,500 to 5,000 capacity and we're pretty excited about that."
Church is also excited about his new album, Carolina, produced by Jay Joyce, who also worked with him on Sinners Like Me. "I think Jay is just a genius," he insisted. "He is sonically like nobody I've ever been around. He has the greatest ability to hear me play a song acoustically and hear it in a produced and developed manner. He brings such an interesting element to a project. Truthfully, Jay is not a guy who sits around and listens to Country Music, so he comes from a fresh place. He tells me that as a songwriter I need to get out of the way of the song, not let the song get too complicated. And we're committed to making cool records, which is indicative of the kind of fan base we want to have."
As for Joyce, he bases his working relationship with Church on the respect he has for him as an artist. "Eric actually had some things that he wanted to say and some songs that he wrote, so that was the one thing that attracted me to him," the producer said. "I got more of a sense of an artist from him."
The goal for Carolina was simple: Both Church and Joyce resolved not to remake Sinners Like Me while still giving fans something just as special as the debut album had been. "We were both committed to the same vision of making a great record," Church said. "It took us some time to record this album, but that's OK. I may not make many records, but the ones I make will be quality and I think Jay shares that vision."
Assessing the rise in Church's confidence and quality of work since their first collaboration, Joyce added, "His voice has matured, and he's found a range for his voice that works emotionally. And the craft of songwriting has also matured. He knows what he wants, so that makes it easy as far as production. He's not afraid to take chances, and it just makes it more fun and interesting to work on things like that."
The mindset throughout the Carolina sessions was in Church's words to "kick the door down, here we are, you guys better be ready to party." It starts rowdy and hard and keeps that energy cranked to high throughout the first several tracks, peaking with "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," the younger generation's answer to the question George Jones posed in "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes."
"I'm anxious to see what happens with this song," Church admitted. "It's an observation song of how I see some of the people who maybe don't respect the industry. If you're going to call yourself an artist, take yourself seriously, like the people who have gone before us. If you're not serious about it, I think you should move on."
Yet on balance, he added, "I think Carolina is a little friendlier record than Sinners was. The first part of the album is similar, but around the middle of the record it starts to change. 'Love Your Love the Most' (written by Church and Michael Heeney), which is the first single, is where you can really begin to see our growth as an artist. We're the same but we are taking you on a little bit different journey.
"I think you'll also see a record that is a little more vulnerable, a little more intimate," he continued. "The song 'You Make It Look So Easy' is one I wrote for my wife and sang at our wedding. That's a song that's a definite growth stretch for us. I really struggled with putting it on the album. The song 'Carolina' (written by Church) is sonically the masterpiece of the record; it's unlike anything I've cut before."
Just as Sinners Like Me reflected Church's life at the time of its release in 2006, Carolina captures where he is today. "On that first record I was single. Now I'm married," he pointed out. "You know, some of the greatest records ever made were snapshots. Waylon's Dreaming My Dreams was where he and Jessi [Colter] were at the time he recorded that album. That's what real artists do, and it's why I put the song from my wedding on here."
Because Carolina took more than three years to complete, Church is grateful that Capitol Records Nashville gave him the time he needed to write or co-write each of the album's 13 tracks and record. "The 'sophomore curse' exists because you have success with your first release and then the label rushes you in and you hurry to make that second album," he said. "That rush is what ends up making the quality not as good. Our thought going in was that we had to keep the quality as good as Sinners. We were fortunate to have wide critical acclaim with that record, so the bar had been raised. I felt like we could meet that bar and go over it. I loved that challenge, so even though it took a little longer I'm happy with it."