THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
New country music superstar Eric Church is in London preparing for his British debut concert (on Wednesday, April 24, 2013). Despite a little bit of jetlag, he took a few minutes to talk to The American.
Every so often a new star is born. Eric Church seems to have risen like a rocket from unknown songwriter to major, award-winning recording and performing star in a short while, but as you might have guessed there’s more to the story than that. Where did it all begin?
“In Granite Falls, North Carolina. It’s a little furniture town, or used to be. Maybe 3,000 people, and everybody knows everybody. Typical small-town life, you know, and I think a lot of those themes end up playing out in our music. It’s a blue-collar town, lower to middle class generally. The values that I have and the things I believe in were formed in Granite Falls. Things like honesty, hard work, putting in the effort — that’s how I ended up where I am now. I watched everybody there. You get up at five o’clock in the morning, you go down to the plant, you punch the clock, you work all day — that’s what they do. I had a great childhood. My father worked in the furniture industry, he worked his way up all the way up to being president of a furniture company by the time I was in high school. I was a sports guy then when I got older I picked up a guitar and music became an important part of my life in high school and college. I started playing clubs and bars wherever I could play around the area. I started cutting my teeth as a musician there.”
A lot of people get their first instrument as a present from Mom or Dad but at the age of thirteen Church bought himself his first guitar. What motivated him to pick it up?
“I had been writing songs in my head — I didn’t even really know it was song writing, just dabbling — and the guitar was a pretty good avenue to get those songs out. I saw the need to at least try to learn how to play it.”
So the music was always there, the guitar was a tool to do the job?
“Right, right. It was an old beat-up Yamaha acoustic. I’ve still got it. The G string on it still won’t tune up right! But it was a good guitar to learn on, and it became an integral part of my life. I don’t know if I played it well, but it played better than anything else I had.”
The young Eric was listening all sorts of music. “I was pretty eclectic growing up. I listened to everything — The Band and Little Feat are my favorite bands. When we started playing in bars and clubs we didn’t get paid, we were playing for tips. Whatever somebody requested I would play — or learn. I had a deal with everybody that if I didn’t know the song they wanted I would learn it by the time I came back the following week. We played some blues places so we learned a lot of blues stuff, and some rock & roll places. We played some rough joints too. I think it made me a better musician. It really tests your resolve, how much you love it, too, when you’re doing that night in and night out. The worst were brown bag places, where people brought their own alcohol. They were the roughest, a lot of fights, sometimes we’d leave the stage and get into one. I remember one particular instance my brother, who was in the band with me, got into a fight in the middle of a song, went out into the parking lot, settled it, and was back on stage singing harmony and playing the guitar before the end of the song. It’s part of who we were, part of paying your dues. I played every sewer, twice. Now I’ve played stages big and small and you feel like you should be standing there, like you’ve earned it. We certainly put in the work.”
Don’t get the idea that Church was a guitar-slinging hobo, out on the road traveling non stop from truck stop to juke joint. He was a bright kid — you don’t graduate from high school then get a degree in marketing from Appalachian State University without some smarts. But the corporate road that beckoned was not one that he followed.
“It took me about six years to graduate college — because I was a musician,” he laughs. “I had a number of ways I could have went. I could have majored in history. I had a business opportunity. But I just wanted to play music, and for me it was the right path.”
A business career wasn’t the only thing that Church gave up by choosing music. He had been engaged, but the big musical decision led to his fiancée breaking it off.
“I went off to chase the dream, you know? I didn’t know how it was going to end up. It was the time I went all in. I could have stayed in the town I was from and got married and probably been a high school teacher or something. But I moved to Nashville and that all fell apart. Stuff like that is valuable, though, to anybody that wants to do this, because it makes you resolve how badly you want to do it. If you’re willing to give up everything for it, then you want it bad enough. That was certainly the case for me. I just packed up and moved. I didn’t know anybody in Nashville, didn’t even know where Music Row was! I just jumped in. I took a job working third shift from midnight to 8am, I’d write songs all day, go home, take a nap and go back to work. It was a rough time, a dark time because nothing was happening and everybody was telling me no, but it was an important time in crafting who I became. I was scared, but there’s also an excitement in the unknown. It was exhilarating to be in Nashville, around all the creative minds there. And I was young, only 22 years old — there’s something to being that young, you’re fearless. If I’d been 32 I don’t know if I woulda done it! But being right out of college and having that sense of adventure added to the ability to succeed. At least I put myself in that situation, I went there and I put in the effort. A lot of people don’t ever take that big leap — and it is a big leap.”
Even allowing for dues having been paid back home in Carolina, a certain level of success came surprisingly quickly in Nashville.
“Actually, really quickly. I was very fortunate, right at a year after I’d been there I got a publishing deal [with Sony — Church co-wrote Terri Clark’s 2005 hit single The World Needs a Drink and other songs were recorded]. It was all I’d ever wanted. I never really wanted to be a recording artist. I had always played bars and clubs, but song writing was my passion. I’ve always loved to read too, and I’ve always been interested in the intellectual side of writing, not just songs but all writing.”
A cursory glance at Church’s discography might make you think his was a list of blue-collar drinking tunes but dig deeper and you’ll find songs like Lightning which is about the death penalty, or Two Pink Lines which is about teenage pregnancy. Church agrees: “Part of my thing is that I love turning a phrase. I love the hook part of songwriting. The part where you can say something that everyone else could say, but the challenge is to say it in a way that people haven’t heard before, or twist a word here or there that makes it interesting.”
Ironically it was working hard as a songwriter that lead Church into being signed as a recording artist. “I had all these songs I’d been writing that I thought were going to be for other people, but when other artists or labels heard them they said, we love the song and we love the voice or whatever but it really sounds like it’s his song, he’d have to change it for us to record it. When that happened over and over, some people at the publishing company suggested I try it. Capitol Records gave me a record deal and I thought, yeah, I’ve made it. I learned that the hard parts still coming. I tell that to any new artist that asks me, you thought you’d worked hard to get the record deal, and you probably did, but what you’re about to do is ten times harder than anything you’ve ever done.”
Capitol became interested in Church after he started working with producer Jay Joyce. “Jay added the uniqueness — I had some songs but I’d never really had a producer, I just recorded demos. When I got with Jay it was like I was hearing the songs for the first time even though they were mine. He added a life to them that I didn’t know was in them. It took a little time for other people to get — the Chief album has been our most successful and a lot of the reason for that is that it’s different, sonically, and it wasn’t accepted early on.”
The difference Church is talking about is his unique blend of rock — in places, heavy rock — with country. It doesn’t sound like a marketing ploy, more like it’s a genuine synthesis of the man and his influences. So does he still consider himself a country singer.
“That’s where I hang my hat. I’ve been told so many times that I’m too rock for country, too country for rock, too this and too that. But I’m proud to be a country artist, proud of the format, and where it is. I think it’s in a great place right now. There’s good music and bad music and there’s stuff I don’t like but there’s a lot that’s pushing the boundary and adding to the diversity of country music. The fan base is as young as it’s ever been, it’s as passionate as it’s ever been, and I love watching the young males come back to it. For a long time we ignored them, musically, and they were integral to our success; that’s where we came from. I was a young male making music for young males. That’s part for the reason for Chief’s success — the tide has turned and we’ve been on top of that wave. Johnny Cash played what his influences were, Hank Williams played his. I was a child of the 80s and I listened to all kinds of music — traditional country, but I was exposed to rock & roll too. Now you can see different influences coming through from the children of the 90s. I Don’t know where it’s going next. But I can’t be an Alan Jackson or a George Strait or a Hank Williams — they’re better at it than I could ever be, so I had to find my own way and that way is a bit more gritty and grainy, the product of the bars and the clubs. That sound is a by-product of the places we played.”
Aside from the dives he started in and the arenas he’s now filling, Church has also played a different kind of place — the Grand Ole Opry. Is that venerable venue still important for the new generation? Eric seems speechless for a moment as he thinks about it.
“I couldn’t speak for everybody, but it is for me. I have an amazing amount of reverence for the Opry. You get a different set of butterflies when you step on that stage. It’s as cool as it gets, the coolest stage I’ve stepped on. The Rymans is the mother church. Any time I can play there I jump at the chance.”
But does the band back off the heavy metal elements, turn down from 11 so to speak? “No, we’ve done both there. I’m not afraid to show the evolution of country music, I think it’s good for the music, it adds vitality. Because of the way we grew up I can play Waylon, Cash, Hank, any of those guys — give me a guitar and I can go round for round with anybody — and I have a ton of reverence for where they took the music from and brought it to, but I just think it’s our job to pick up that flag and take it somewhere else. It may be wrong, and history may judge us different, but I think we have to take it somewhere otherwise I don’t think it survives.”
Eric Church is three albums into his recording career, so what did he choose for his fourth release? Why, a 17 track live album (recorded in the Tivoli Theater in Chattanooga, TN, of course. That’s the kind of album many artists would do after ten or twelve years as a retrospective. How come?
“A couple of reasons. For a long time we didn’t have radio plays or television or gangbuster album sales. The only exposure we had was playing a show in Some City, Some Place, and it was because of the people in that crowd — whether it be 50 or 500 — telling other people about us that we’re where we are today. I didn’t want us to go too far before we paid homage and captured that. In the last year we’ve went from those rooms to the arenas and I didn’t want to get too far removed from the scrapping, fighting nature that made those shows special. The main thing we were trying to get was the energy exchange between the band and the crowd. It could have been a disaster but I couldn’t be happier with what we captured in the moment. We had a ball.”
Springsteen is probably Church’s best-known song — it certainly is in the UK. He’s said that it is about “a love affair that takes place in an amphitheater between two people.” When he wrote it, was he thinking of himself as part of the audience or the guy on stage?
“It was initially about me in the audience as a younger man, about 16. I was in an amphitheater and there was a point in that show where I knew I would remember that night forever. There’s a line in the song about ‘a memory and a melody connecting with each other’. Now when I sing that song I see people out there having that same experience. I think everybody can relate to a time when music was more than just music.”
Agreed — but was the artist in question actually The Boss?
“I’m a big Bruce fan, but the concert I was at was not actually a Springsteen show. It was another artist, who I’ve decided I’ll never name because I don’t want people to be affected by my experience, I want them to have had their own. I made it Springsteen because I ventured that more people had had that experience at his shows than maybe anyone else’s.”
See if you can get that experience at The Forum, London, on April 24, 2013