“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.