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The Sound

A conscious decision

9/10/2014

Eric Church plays Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday, Sept 17. Photo by John Peets

Eric Church plays Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday, Sept 17. Photo by John Peets

Eric Church is blowing up. His last album, 2011’s “Chief” hit No. 1, and included two singles (“Drink in my Hand” and “Springsteen”) that also hit No. 1 individually. This year’s follow-up album, “The Outsiders” has been every bit as hot, debuting at No. 1 and selling more than 700,000 copies to date.

Church’s success has come through hard work, no doubt, but it’s also due to the unique alchemy at play: Church’s ability to string together a litany of radio-ready hits, combined with his affable yet no-nonsense demeanor, are winning fans over in droves.

But Church is also one of the most sonically fearless performers in country music today. It’s a gift that’s allowed him to play festivals like Cochella, without resorting to “crossover” collaborations, a la Florida Georgia Line and Nelly. He’s able to remain true to his country roots, without feeling bound by any one definition of the genre.

Case in point: Church could arguably be considered one of the pioneers of what’s commonly now referred to as “bro country,” but he’s managed to almost completely miss being hit by any of the ensuing backlash.

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“When I first came out, everybody was marketing to the soccer mom,” Church said in an interview. “I had nothin’ for ‘em. I’m not a soccer mom, my mom’s not a soccer mom, my wife’s not a soccer mom. I had nothin’. So we focused on the males.”

That focus resulted in the 2006 EP “Sinners Like Me,” and its first single, “Guys Like Me.”

“(‘Guys Like Me’) has a guy that drinks too many beers,” Church said. “That was before anybody had ever put beer and trucks related in songs. Now, it’s in every song. And it’s funny now to look at that song, which every (current radio hit) is a lot similar to now.”

But then, just as the beers-chicks-and trucks schtick of bro country was taking off, Church cut backfield, and released “Chief.” While not a complete departure — it does, after all, include the single “Drink in My Hand” — “Chief” was lauded for taking more chances than the rest of his summer song brethren. The album shot to No. 1 on the charts, selling more than a million copies in the process. But Church is not the kind of guy who’s going to settle for the easy win.

“Everybody said ‘Chief’ was the biggest record I would ever make,” he said. “(They told me) ‘Don’t even go back in. You’ll never top that.’ I used a lot of that as fuel. ‘OK, motherfuckers. I know you think that this is it, but we can be way more creative.’ ”

And in that regard, “The Outsiders,” three years in the making, has succeeded. The album is on pace to easily outsell “Chief” but, perhaps more importantly to Church, “The Outsiders” has far exceeded the praise of its predecessor, both from critics and fans. If people thought “Chief” was as far as Church’s talent could carry him, “The Outsiders” stands as his magnum opus.

“I wanted to make sure people understood that this wasn’t ‘Chief,’ Part 2,’ ” he explained. “It’s always been important to me, when you have that success, you have that relevance, that you’re not just taking the safe path, that you’re not just doing the easy thing.”

“You (should always be) continuing to be artistic and creative and mining new ground,” he continued. “I think the format’s better for it. The music’s better for it. And I think it’s our responsibility as artists. This album from a creative standpoint is pretty far out there. It was made that way, it was a conscious thing.” CV

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