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Grammys 2012: Eric Church rocks the country

February 11, 2012 | 11:06 am

Metallica? AC/DC? That music, which this 34-year-old firebrand grew up with, makes its way into a style honed on the road, grabbing bar patrons’ attention.

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Eric Church knows where he stands among the nominees for this year’s Grammy Award for best country album.

“If you’re not into country music, I’m definitely the one where people would go, ‘Who is that?’” the singer admitted with a laugh last week from Knoxville, Tenn. “I feel a little bit like the odd man out, and I don’t think anybody else would argue that.”

Church’s competition for the prize, due to be presented Sunday evening at Staples Center, includes such pop-friendly acts as Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton — not to mention George Strait (known unofficially as the King of Country) and Jason Aldean, whose “My Kinda Party” was the genre’s biggest-selling release last year.

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But if Church’s album, “Chief,” is the Grammy category’s dark-horse candidate, it might also be the best of the bunch: a smart, sometimes thrilling collection fueled equally by Nashville craft and road-dog passion. The songs, all but one co-written by Church, address trouble in any number of settings, from the bedroom to the workplace to the bar (especially the bar). And though the disc contains a handful of delicate ballads, Church sings and plays with a rocker’s intensity that led Rolling Stone to put “Chief” on its list of the top 20 albums of 2011.

“Hands down, it’s one of my absolutely favorite country records of recent memory,” says Keith Urban. Last year Urban invited Church onstage during a show in Milwaukee and today says he admires the younger singer’s “mischief, swagger and raw nerves.”

“He’s doing something different,” adds Jay Joyce, who produced “Chief” as well as Church’s first two albums. “Lots of people say they wanna do that, then they get in the studio and they don’t. But Eric was truly interested in finding his own thing — and he was willing to work a little bit to find it.”

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Church, 34, attributes some of his music’s rowdiness to his growing up “a child of the ’80s” in North Carolina. (He moved to Nashville in 2001, writing songs for other artists before scoring his own record deal.) “You couldn’t ride around in trucks with your friends and not be exposed to AC/DC and Metallica,” he says. “That’s in the fiber of what I do because it’s what I grew up on.”

But Church admits he also draws a great deal of power — particularly in his live show, which can feel more heavy metal than honky-tonk — from the resistance he’s encountered on his climb through the country-music star system.

“We haven’t had the easiest path with radio,” he says, pointing to willfully provocative singles like “Two Pink Lines,” about an unintended pregnancy, and “Smoke a Little Smoke,” whose subject requires no explanation. “To some country traditionalists, I’m the bane of their existence because I don’t use fiddle and I don’t use steel [guitar]. So there were times we were way off everybody’s radar, out there playing bars and clubs.”

The singer remembers one gig at a biker joint in Dayton, Ohio. “Everybody in there was male, bearded and had tattoos,” he says. “And they didn’t have a clue who we were. That energy — that fist-shaking, chest-thumping whatever — comes from demanding people in those places to listen to us.”

“Eric’s breaking the mold in a legitimate way,” says Ronnie Dunn, who as half of the chart-topping duo Brooks & Dunn knows as much as anyone about the traditional route to success. “He hasn’t had major radio play, but he’s out there on the road putting it in front of people night after night. There’s plenty of guys who tout themselves as self-proclaimed outlaws; he’s earning his stripes along the way.”

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Of course, a Grammy nomination — even one that Church refers to as a “guaranteed long shot” — suggests that this outlaw may soon become an insider. The week after its release in July, “Chief” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album-sales chart, and it’s sold 578,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan — a modest figure compared to Swift’s and Aldean’s multi-platinum numbers, but impressive in larger context.

And when Church called in from Knoxville, he apologized for being 10 minutes late: He’d been up into the wee hours, he said, celebrating a sold-out concert the night before at the University of Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena. Church’s current headlining trek, dubbed the Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour, runs through May 19.

“It’ll be interesting to see if he mellows out now,” says Mike Dungan, president of Church’s record label, Capitol Nashville, before adding with a laugh: “I hope not.”

Dungan views the success of “Chief” as the result of a sustained effort to “wear down the bias that people had against this kind of aggressive sound.” Over time, he says, “Eric made the impression that he makes great music whether it fits the format or not. They came around to his way of thinking.”

Joyce says he senses opposition to Church’s unconventional approach. But the producer acknowledges that his client has made an observable impact in Nashville. “I get a lot of kids who wanna be Eric Church but who don’t wanna put in the seven or eight years to get there,” he says. “And that’s why Eric is Eric.”

Church’s manager, John Peets, calls the singer’s appetite “pretty ferocious” and says he and Church are intent on extending the hot streak. “I know it’s art we’re dealing with here, but we’re trying to kill people,” he says. “If you’re in the game, you should play.” Peets, who also manages the Black Keys, adds that he wants to take Church’s career worldwide, a rarity for a country act. “I don’t know how we do it, but we’re not gonna rest with what people think is possible for this genre.”

“Believe me, I’m not just gonna let this moment go by,” Church says. “When I stood on that stage last night and looked out, I was thinking: We’ve earned the right to be there. We’ve worked as hard as anybody to get to this level. And now that people are interested, I wanna make them realize what they’ve been missing.”

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-- Mikael Wood

Photo credit: EMI Records Nashville

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