“I don’t like to fight, but I ain’t scared to bleed./Most don’t mess with a guy like me.”

The one time Eric Church played Madison Square Garden, he was fired.

Church was a new artist promoting a debut album, and he landed a plum position as the opening act for Rascal Flatts, a trio who play a goopy, mild simulation of country music. Their shows were full of frenzied, fainting female fans—a kind of Beatlemania in boots—and that year Rascal Flatts sold more albums than any other country, pop or rock act.

The two were not well paired: It was like matching biker boots (Church) with a silver cape (Flatts). For years, Church had played smelly bars for a dozen people who ignored him while they watched TV. Now that he’d hit the big time, he was playing for nearly 11,000 people who ignored him.

Opening acts work in a kind of veal pen. Contractually they are allowed to use only part of the stage. They have to limit their volume to between 80 and 90 decibels so the star act will always be louder. And most important, they can’t exceed their allotted time. If they go even 10 seconds over, they are reprimanded. Those are the rules.

After only three shows with Rascal Flatts, Church was unhappy. He’d gotten used to doing things his own way, and now he had to follow rules. So he celebrated the biggest show of his career by doing things he knew would get him fired. He played too loud and tossed in a bit of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” He strutted in areas of the stage he wasn’t allowed to use. He played an extended, eight-minute version of his best-known song, “How ’Bout You.” By the time he exited the stage, he’d exceeded his 20-minute limit by 10 minutes. Because Madison Square Garden is unionized and has curfews, his antics cost ­Rascal Flatts about $30,000 in penalties. As soon as Church came offstage, ­Rascal Flatts’s manager fired him. (He was quickly replaced by a pretty 16-year-old named Taylor Swift, who was much more willing to play by the rules.)

Church shadowed the tour for a while, playing clubs in the same cities, often for a dozen people, losing money while carrying expenses of about $5,000 a day. The Rascal Flatts tour was called Me and My Gang; to tweak them Church called his tour Me and Myself.

A month later he was opening for rock legend Bob Seger, which was a better fit. But in the country world, Church had earned himself a reputation as a disrespectful jerk. It’s been a long time since being a rebel was a good business strategy in Nashville, which—despite the frequent use of cowboy imagery—is a go-along-to-get-along industry. Church’s record label was angry. Other bands refused to tour with him. And radio programmers decided they didn’t want an asshole in their format.

“We ended up banished to the wilderness,” Church told a reporter a few years later. “Nobody would touch us. It’s like we were nuclear.” Only a few months after his debut album, Church had already ruined his career by being prideful and obstinate. Or had he?

“Give me a crowd that’s redneck and loud./We’ll raise the roof.”

Exactly six years after Church was fired from a great job he hated, he’s in the middle of another arena tour—this time as the headliner, with two opening acts of his own. “Your job tonight,” he tells the audience in a brawny North Carolina accent, “is to drink and sing and party your asses off.” The folks in the Friday-night crowd in Biloxi, Mississippi began drinking long before this encouragement, and they roar happily as Church and his five-piece band play “Drink in My Hand,” a raucous celebration of alcohol’s relaxing ­properties. Church’s third album, Chief, was his breakthrough. It included two songs that hit number one on the country charts (“Drink in My Hand” and “Springsteen”), sold more than a million copies and was named 2012’s best album by the Country Music Association, an award voted on by the same Nashville industry that not long ago thought he was an asshole. Church, now 36, deserved the award: Chief wasn’t just the best country album of the year; it was the best rock album too.

How is that possible? Since the 1980s country has been, well, “expanded” if you like the change—“ruined” if you don’t—by influences outside its own traditions. Garth Brooks, who has sold more albums than anyone else in the past 20 years, was an avowed fan of James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Billy Joel, not to mention Kiss, Boston and Styx. A decade earlier, Waylon Jennings sang “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” in which he wonders why country should stay unchanged. That battle has long been lost.

Country has evolved because the South has evolved. The family henhouse has been supplanted by Walmart, whose ubiquitous stores add to the homogenization of the region. Family-owned general stores have been replaced by Cracker Barrel, which has fake-rural and faux-retro restaurants at highway exits in 42 states, grossing $2.6 billion last year by simulating a rustic down-home experience.

Similarly, the country music industry in Nashville creates a packaged and polished product out of an authentic culture that once existed only on porches and at barn dances. This is wonderful, but it’s also problematic. Fans constantly (sometimes viciously) argue about who is or isn’t real country. The debate is idiotic, because country now has many different traditions, some represented by singers who, in their day, were viewed as untraditional (Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash).

The fight about whether a singer is or isn’t real country illustrates what writer Tracy Thompson describes as “the Southern genius for living in an imagined past.” In her book The New Mind of the South, Thompson—a Georgia native and Pulitzer Prize finalist—notes that historians have been “lamenting the death of Southern identity for 50 or 60 years now.” Symbols that once defined the region—tar-paper shacks, muscadine vines—have vanished. And the once predominantly Republican states of Virginia and North Carolina voted for Barack Obama in 2008, though voters there were “just doing what the South has always done,” Thompson writes, “which is to morph into something else.” (Virginia continued to morph, voting for Obama again in 2012.) In other words, the South’s many traditions include a tradition of change. Confusing and contradictory, right?

Authenticity is a phantom, even in country, seemingly the most genuine of genres. George D. Hay, the announcer and guiding force of country’s venerable Grand Ole Opry radio show, was a PR genius who created a hillbilly image for the music, even when it was fraudulent. He rechristened Dr. Bate’s Augmented String Orchestra as the Possum Hunters, instructed musicians to wear overalls rather than the tailored business suits they usually wore and posed them in cornfields and pigpens for promotional photos—even though they weren’t farmers. (Humphrey Bate, leader of the Possum Hunters, was a physician.) None of this has anything to do with the quality of the music, any more than Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is less of a great song because the singer has breast implants and wears a wig.

As late as the mid-1950s, drums were officially banned from performances at the Grand Ole Opry because they weren’t traditional country instruments. But lately country has entered its heavy metal phase. Here’s small-town Georgia boy Luke Bryan onstage, wearing a Mötley Crüe T-shirt, covering Metallica and (as Church did years ago) “Crazy Train.” There’s Jason Aldean, recently called “a country singer with a hair metal heart” by a Houston Chronicle writer, singing Guns N’ Roses songs in concert.

No one in Nashville leans as close to rock as he does, Church declares. “Not even close. A lot of people are trying to now, because it’s working for us. They do a Guns N’ Roses or an AC/DC song because they want to look like they love rock and roll.”

There are two guitar players in the Eric Church Band. One was in the Black Crowes for four years. The other, who’s husky and tattooed, came from a Tennessee thrash-metal band called Bush Hog. If a crowd seems a little bored, Church slaps them with a cover of Pantera’s “Walk.” His lyrics mention Jennings, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard while using gobs of distortion, drum loops and other digital tricks.

“I don’t believe country singers should make the same fucking music over and over. Some people hate me. We’ve been polarizing, and that’s okay,” Church says. (“We” is the pronoun country singers use instead of “I.” It’s a way to acknowledge that others have helped you become successful and to declare a humility that might or might not actually be there.)

“I love the heavy backbeat in his music, and he’s got a lot of attitude,” says Seger. “His records sound hairy and strong. And God, his band is really good. It’s heavy country-rock, as close to rock and roll as you can get.”

Church’s new live album, Caught in the Act, is ornery and rough, and it smells like beer.

“We’re further into rock and roll than anyone else, and that’s why a lot of traditionalists have a major problem with me,” he says. “I don’t have a fiddle player or steel guitar or the things purists think country is supposed to sound like. I have a banjo—and we distort it through two distortion pedals. I didn’t grow up listening to Hank Williams Sr. or Ernest Tubb. Well, I did a little bit, but mostly I grew up with rock and roll, from the Band and Little Feat to Seger and Metallica.”

It’s not just that Church likes Metallica; Metallica likes Church too. When the metal band organized the first Orion music festival last year, his was the only country act out of 37 bands. (Church and Metallica are managed by the same company.) When they’re unhappy, Metallica fans express their feelings by throwing bottles, coins and other injurious objects. Before their Orion set, Church gave his band a curt instruction: “Put the hammer down.” Metallica singer James Hetfield introduced Church as “a rebel,” and when the show was over, he said Church “fit right in.”

“I’ll maybe break out that old rock and roll,/Drink a little drink, smoke a little smoke.”

At the close of the Orion set, Church’s band added the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” an ode to marijuana, at the end of “Smoke a Little Smoke,” his own pro-pot song that had pretty much salvaged his career.

Church’s first album, Sinners Like Me, was not a big success. One of the singles, “Two Pink Lines,” was about a pregnancy scare. In a typical country song, pregnancy would be celebrated as a blessing. But in “Two Pink Lines” (based partially on an experience he had at the age of 19), Church and his girlfriend express delight when her pregnancy test is negative.

“Radio didn’t like the song,” he says.

For his second album, Church wrote a song he knew was dumb. It’s in the same mold as other predictable rural-pride songs that work well on radio because they celebrate the consumer goods that are iconic in Southern life—call it a Country Checklist song. In this subpar effort, Church lays it on heavy: He mentions beer, barbecue, Jack Daniel’s, college football, fishing, trucks, chewing tobacco, NASCAR and cowboy boots. The only thing missing is something about hunting or tractors.

Church wrote it “almost out of anger or spite,” says his manager, John Peets. Church had seen similar songs amass a lot of airplay, according to Peets, “and he said, ‘If this is the shit that works, let’s just write one.’?”

“That was my Hail Mary,” Church says. “And the sad truth is, it works.” Although “Love Your Love the Most” became Church’s first top 10 single, it didn’t boost his career, because it was so generic. Radio play was up, but record and ticket sales were flat. He felt he was his record label’s redheaded stepchild because it was focused on more popular acts, including Dierks Bentley, a friendly and gregarious singer who could have a fine career in politics.Church sensed his record company was on the verge of dropping him. His first seven singles hadn’t done much. If he was going to fail, he wanted to go down with a song he liked: “Smoke a Little Smoke.”

“Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s an openly pro-pot song. Radio’s not gonna play it,’” says Church. There have been plenty of weed anthems in country—by artists including Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Houser and Toby Keith—but they are rarely released as singles, and they certainly aren’t expected to save a singer’s career.

Church would not be dissuaded. “I remember the label saying to me, ‘Okay, it’s your funeral,’” he says. The label sent “Smoke a Little Smoke” to radio. It didn’t chart as high as “Love Your Love the Most,” but it had a much bigger effect.

“It immediately moved records,” says Church. He had finally distinguished himself from the other male singers in Nashville: He was the guy with the pro-pot song.

“I’ve thrown a punch or two and gave a few black eyes,/But Jack Daniel’s kicked my ass again last night.”

“There are some drunk motherfuckers out there,” says Marshall Alexander, Church’s cheerful production manager.

Church is on his tour bus, wearing sweatpants, a cigar in his mouth. His wife, Katherine Blasingame Church, and son, Boone, who was born in late 2011, are back home. They regularly tour with him, and Church says Boone keeps rock-star hours: “We’ve trained my son to sleep until noon and go to bed at midnight, after my show.”

He is still an hour away from his set preparations, which involve the same rituals every night, including a substantial plastic cup of Jack Daniel’s and Coke. Church proved his devotion to JD by writing “Jack Daniels,” an ambivalent love song, and Jack Daniel’s gave him a barrel of 94-proof Tennessee whiskey. Every barrel produces about 250 bottles. Church is on his sixth barrel.

The Chief emblem, a shadowy image of Church in sunglasses, looks like a police sketch of a mugger who targets old women, or a guy you’d see loitering at one a.m. in a convenience store parking lot. It’s a caricature of Church, who’s a sturdy six-foot-three with a confident oval face, a quick wit and stylishly messy hair.

The sunglasses weren’t originally a fashion statement: While playing four-hour sets in bars, Church’s contact lenses dried up because of the smoke and stage lights. Someone suggested sunglasses to block the light. It worked and had the added benefit of making him look like a badass.

Without the glasses and hat, fans don’t recognize him. This afternoon he put on a T-shirt and shorts and ran a few miles near the beachfront venue while the parking lot filled with partiers playing his music in their trucks. No one spotted him.

“When it’s showtime, I better be the baddest motherfucker on the planet. And a lot of it, honestly, has to do with the hat and sunglasses. They put me in a different mode mentally. Take them off, and I’m not in that mode,” Church says. “Now, if people say that’s crazy, fair enough. I know that probably sounds like I need medication. Maybe I do.”

He bought the Von Dutch cap about five years ago for $6 at a truck stop in Mississippi and has worn it at every show since. He’s tried to find an identical replacement cap, but it doesn’t exist. He searched on the internet. He contacted Von Dutch, which has no record of manufacturing the cap. It’s either a cheap knockoff or a magical talisman right out of The Twilight Zone: Mississippi.

Church says he fought with his record company about his look. “You have good hair,” they told him, “and good-looking eyes. The girls want to see them!” But since he was wearing the cap and sunglasses onstage, he wanted to wear them in photos and videos for consistency. So Church ignored the label.

He has even tried to duplicate the hat. “We had a designer come in—I can’t believe I’m telling you this. We had a designer try to duplicate the hat,” Church says.

“Do you wash the hat?” I ask.

“No, I do not. Katherine, my wife, has tried. No, no, no, I—I can’t,” Church stammers. “I mean, if something happened to the hat….” His voice trails off as he ponders the hypothetical tragedy.

“When you’re not onstage, where’s the hat?”

“I’m afraid to tell you.” He laughs. “There’s a place on the bus. We made a little cubby for the hat.”

I have to ask: “Can I put the hat on?”

“No. Hell no. It’s locked up. It’s in bed. It’s asleep.”

During tonight’s show, which I watch from the soundboard, the manager of one of the opening acts says he’s seen an average of three or four fights per night. A large part of Church’s success has come from filling a niche in the country market for a rugged, masculine singer. Among Garth Brooks’s other achievements, he converted a lot of women to country music, and by 1997 radio programmers referred to country as a “female format.”

Because women were listening to country radio, the stations played a lot of songs they thought women would like. Because the stations were playing songs they thought women would like, record companies signed singers they thought women would like. In the old days, a photo of the 10 top country singers would look like a convict lineup. These days it might look like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog shot.

Among hardcore traditionalists, this change hasn’t been popular. One highly trafficked country website routinely erupts in insults aimed at handsome singer Luke Bryan, who’s apparently perceived as too feminine. The blogger who runs the site has referred to Bryan as a woman, claimed the singer has a vagina and alluded to Bryan as gay.

“When we started,” Church explains, “male country fans were being ignored. I hunt. I fish. I drink beer and watch football. I love NASCAR. I’m a guy’s guy.”

His concerts are loud and heavy on pyro and go well with alcohol. Kip Moore, one of Church’s opening acts, says, “I drank a whole lot more than usual during that tour. Watching Eric made me want to drink. You’re not gonna see a lot of alcohol at a Carrie Underwood concert. But an Eric Church show creates rowdiness. I don’t think there’s a deep science to that: Testosterone and alcohol don’t mix, and that causes fights.”

In the middle of his second encore, Church sings “These Boots” (another song that mentions weed), and fans hold up their boots in celebration. One fan near the stage gets a little carried away, tosses a boot onstage, then climbs up to retrieve it. “We’ve got a climber,” a crew member shouts into a walkie-talkie. The one-booted climber isn’t arrested, but he is tossed out of the arena.

While watching Church’s set that night, Moore saw a couple screwing in the audience. “A guy pulled a girl’s skirt up, and the dirty deed was going on,” Moore reports. “That was a first for me.”

It’s not a first for Church. He recounts a show last year in Battle Creek, Michigan where “half the crowd was fighting. And I saw guys who had girls bent over the rail, screwing.” His lighting designer—a guy who’d toured with nearly every major metal band, including Van Halen, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses—was shocked. “He said to me, ‘You should call this the Fucking and Fighting Tour.’”

Compared with Battle Creek’s, tonight’s audience doesn’t impress Church much. “There wasn’t mass bedlam, which is what I usually see.” Tomorrow will be wilder, he predicts.

“These boots have counted off many a band,/Playing one-night roadhouse stands for tips in empty rooms.”

When he wasn’t auditioning for the school play by singing a Garth Brooks song, Church played basketball at South Caldwell High School in North Carolina, and he’s studied the state’s greatest hoops player, Michael Jordan. In particular he likes Jordan’s 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech, a smirking 20-minute tirade in which Jordan taunted everyone who ever doubted him, including his two brothers.

“I’ve never seen a person hold grudges like that. And I like that, because I carry a hell of a chip on my shoulder.” Like Jordan, Church has memorized a list of those who stood in his way. “I carry that list onstage with me. If you don’t have a chip on your shoulder, you’re just happy to be there, and I fucking hate that.”

And then he starts to tell the story of what happened when he moved to Nashville.

“I come from a long line of sinners like me.”

“Sinners Like Me,” about coming from a family of badasses, is the Church song that’s closest to autobiography. One of the singer’s grandfathers was chief of police in Granite Falls for 28 years. Everyone called him Chief, which is also Church’s nickname. “But he was the kind of chief of police that partied. He was a good old boy.”

Chief came from a family of moon­shiners who brewed white lightning and sold it in nearby counties. On the other side of Church’s family were the Stillwells, who “are notorious where I’m from,” he says. “They were rough and did a lot of fighting—drunk fighting. The Stillwells were big, like six-foot-six and six-foot-seven. They would get drunk and beat up everybody in a bar.”

But Chief had been a boxer in the Navy. “And he was the only guy who could whip the Stillwells’ asses.” So one side of his family regularly fought with, and arrested, the other side. “He’d beat up the Stillwells, get them in cuffs, put them in jail, and when they sobered up, he’d let them go. So yeah, I am from a long line of sinners.”

After high school Church wanted to move to Nashville and become a professional songwriter. His dad, a disciplined businessman, promised to fund Church’s first six months there if he graduated from college first. So Church went to Appalachian State and formed a cover band, the Mountain Boys, with his brother and a few friends. His first semester, his grade point average was 0.7. He was kicked out of school a few times, “but when I had to get an A in calculus, I got an A.” It took him six and a half years to get a degree in marketing while playing clubs six nights a week. As he tells the story, it’s unclear what this has to do with the chip on his shoulder.

Church spent a lot of late nights in brown-bag clubs, where patrons bring their own liquor. One night a girl was flirting with his brother during a song, which was fine until her husband noticed and charged the stage. Eric told his brother, who’d been a football lineman, “Go take care of it. Take him outside. Just be back by the next song.” His brother came back, a little disheveled, but in time. Years of experiences like that, Church says, turned him from a good kid into a troublemaker.

“When you have to whip their ass during a song, that’s fucking weird,” he says.

He’d been the best songwriter in Granite Falls, so after he moved to Nashville, he assumed he’d step into an open-mike night and quickly be discovered and showered with garlands. “I was so fucking naive,” he says. “I got my head handed to me. It was rough.” His best song at the time was “Sitting in the Middle of Love.”

“Fucking terrible. Don’t laugh,” he says. “It was about a town called Love, Texas.”

He worked at the Shop at Home network, taking phone orders on the night shift at a call center. One night when the network was peddling a $49.99 set of knives, “a guy called me, drunker than hell, at three a.m.,” Church remembers. “He says, ‘I’ve just got to have those knives.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go to bed. If you wake up in the morning and still want them, I’ll take your credit card.’ They monitor the calls, so after he hung up, I got fired. That was the lowest point.” It’s still not clear what a set of knives has to do with the chip on Church’s shoulder.

A good Nashville song combines structure, a series of hooks, narrative shifts and small twists on familiar phrases. It seems easy but requires a high level of cleverness, which is one reason Bon Jovi’s country album was laughable. Church was learning the craft, but he was broke and discouraged. Even when people in Nashville liked his songs, they told him no one would record them. His engagement to a girl back in North Carolina had fallen apart. His hometown friends had careers and wives and fully formed adult lives. Church had an acoustic guitar and a rented apartment.

“It was like, Fuck this. I was ready to go home. There was one publishing company that had been courting me, and I’d had meeting after meeting with the second in command. I finally got to meet the guy in charge, and I played him four songs. During my last song, he stopped me. I thought, This is it; this is the moment I get a deal. And he said, ‘I don’t know where you’re from, but I’d go back there. I don’t ever see these songs working in Nashville.’”

Church walked to his car, listened to Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil”—about a broke and busted songwriter who’s been spurned by Nashville—and decided it was time to go back to North Carolina. He thought about leaving that night, but his brother had moved to Nashville, so the two went out and got drunk. The next morning, Church got a call from Sony Tree Publishing, which signed him to a songwriting contract and launched his career.

Church would have missed that call if he had listened to the expert who told him to go back home. And now Church comes to the point of his story: “I mean, you talk about the list? That guy is on the fucking list.”

After he got a record deal, other obstacles blocked his way for five years, from indifferent crowds to club owners who refused to pay what they owed the band. (One night in Idaho, Church took revenge by spray-painting the venue’s brand-new fence.)

“Most sane people would have said, ‘This is stupid. This is no way to live.’ We ain’t bathed, we’re eating Doritos, and we’re in El Paso on a Wednesday night.” He laughs. “The coveted Wednesday night show in El Paso. But it beats the shit out of Shop at Home, I’m telling you. And it puts gravel in your gut.” Church says he was a well-behaved kid when he left North Carolina; people back home “are shocked what I turned into.”

After they did about 50 shows together, Kip Moore realized Church was performing every night with a chip on his shoulder.

“He never talked to me about it, but you can tell it’s there,” Moore says. “You think about the years of frustration, the shit-hole gigs you played, the people who shot you down. All that stuff festers inside you until you’re out to prove something. ‘I told all you motherfuckers what I was gonna do. And now I’m gonna show you.’ I don’t blame him one bit.”

“You sing about Johnny Cash;/The Man in Black would’ve whipped your ass.”

It’s a Saturday night in Birmingham, and 11,000 people are filing into the local arena. Fans are eight deep at the merchandise tables, choosing among different tour T-shirts. Some have human skulls, many feature pot leaves, and one says Eric Fucking Church. The guy who designs Church’s merchandise came up with the idea after seeing him in concert, thinking, That’s the gist of the show—Eric fucking Church. At first the idea was rejected as too profane. Now it’s his top-selling shirt.

Wearing his sunglasses and Von Dutch cap, chewing gum and carrying a cup of JD and Coke, Church strides briskly into a small conference room and plays two acoustic songs for about 100 people who paid $200 each for a VIP package. “You’re so hot!” a woman yells. He encourages the fans to drink a lot and sing loud tonight. After six minutes, he’s done, his drink back in his hand. He proceeds quickly to a room with a private bar and snacks, and schmoozes with local radio DJs. When that’s over, he washes his hands thoroughly.

Last year Church created a stir by denouncing reality-TV singing competitions as fraudulent. This prompted angry tweets from Blake Shelton, a judge on The Voice, and his wife, Miranda Lambert, who was a contestant on Nashville Star. Church’s argument has some validity—Lambert writes and sings great songs, but Shelton is better as comic relief than as an ­artist—but he’d broken a cardinal rule of Nashville: If you talk shit about people, do it behind their backs, not in public. One country radio personality accused him of trying to be “the Kanye West of country music.” As a result, my meeting with Church was postponed several months until the uproar passed.

“Everybody flipped the fuck out because I said it the wrong way,” Church says. “But I don’t have anything to apologize for. I’ve been kind of a lone wolf, and I’m okay with not having a lot of friends in the community.” His point was this: A TV show that offers a shortcut is a sham; artists have to tour, endure, learn and get tough and angry. And if he sees Shelton or Lambert at an awards show? Church shrugs. “I’ll probably say hello. Or not.”

Of the 11,000 people inside the Birmingham arena tonight, 10,500 seem drunk. The other 500 are security. Some people are fighting, some are celebrating, and it’s hard to tell which is which. The last song in Church’s set is “Springsteen,” an unusual song (it doesn’t really have a chorus) that ties music to memory and romanticizes the idea of a superstar songwriter and performer. In his shows, Church—a huge Bruce Springsteen fan—adds a bit of “Born to Run” at the song’s end. Again, the admiration is mutual: Bruce Springsteen wrote a fan letter to Church on the back of an old set list. It ends, “I hope we cross paths along the way.” Church keeps the letter in a locked drawer at home.

When the concert is over and the fans are back home and the roadies are loading out the stage, Church is inside his tour bus. It’s two a.m., and he switches from whiskey to water so he doesn’t ruin his voice. He was happy with tonight’s crowd, but he’s brooding about a show he did about four years earlier, when he was scuffling and headed for failure, at a Birmingham club called WorkPlay.

“It probably held 200 people, and I couldn’t even fill it.” He remembers the exact number of people who showed up: 126. Church doesn’t forget these things.