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'Chief' hat fits Church

Special photo
“Chief,” Eric Church

Special photo “Chief,” Eric Church

Carlton Fletcher

carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com

When Eric Church slips on his trucker cap and his dark shades, an internal switch is flipped and the country star becomes “Chief.”

In Nashville and out on the road at venues hosting his Blood, Sweat & Beers tour, no one deserves the title more. With the 2011 release of the album that bears his nickname and THE hottest tour in country music, Church is indeed the top man on the totem pole.

“It’s been crazy since the record came out,” Church said in an exclusive interview with The Herald. “Man, we’ve been playing in clubs and bars forever, and now this. We’d been banished to the bars and clubs for so long, but that’s where we learned to perform.

“Now, in the nine shows we’ve done on the tour we’ve had nine of those WOW! moments where you walk out and think ‘where the hell did all these people come from’?”

Church will bring Blood, Sweat & Beers to the region March 24 when he performs at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center. Joining him for the 8 p.m. show will be another rising young country star, Brantley Gilbert.

“This has been an incredible jump for us,” Church said of the arena tour. “I look around and say, ‘Weren’t we playing in little clubs like last year?’ It’s just been a fast ride since ‘Chief’ came out, but we’re all enjoying the ride.”

Church took some time shortly after a show in Norfolk, Va., to talk with The Herald about “Chief” and about the Blood, Sweat & Beers tour.

ALBANY HERALD: Wow, a Grammy nomination, record-setting crowds on your tour, an album that critics and fans love. It must be a pretty good time to be Eric Church right about now.

ERIC CHURCH: (laughs) It’s crazy, man. It’s been crazy since the record came out. It’s quite a whirlwind for us. I mean, we’ve been playing bars and clubs forever, and now this. But it’s been a whole lot of fun.

AH: You’ve been at this for a while now, but the amazing reaction to “Chief” and to the current tour has been phenomenal. Were you prepared for this type of reaction?

EC: I feel like we were somewhat prepared because of all the work we’ve done. I never quit believing (that we could have success) because I knew we were putting in the time. We survived by playing in the bars and clubs and places like that. I’ve always understood how rare it is to stand on a stage in a sold-out arena like we’re doing now, but it’s even sweeter when you’ve spent time on the other side. We have. I think it’s just one of those things where the fans get what we’re doing.

AH: Everyone from Rolling Stone to NPR is calling “Chief” one of the best country albums in a while. It’s your third album. Was this a huge departure from your other two?

EC: When we went into the studio, we basically said screw it and did the album the way we wanted to. When “Smoke a Little Smoke” got on the radio after everyone said we were crazy to even release it and became our biggest hit, I decided right then when we did our next album we’d do it old-school. I love the way they made all those old records. I came into the studio and made a little speech, told the guys in the band we were going to make and write the record we wanted to make. I told them I don’t care what the label or radio or even the fans say, we’re going to make the most creative record we can, and if it leads us off a cliff then so be it. We weren’t scared. We didn’t overanalyze, and that’s part of what’s great about (the music on “Chief”). In Nashville, they’ll sit down and analyze what kind of album they think will sell and then produce records to fit that. We never analyzed; we just did it.

AH: Did you have a “plan of attack” for “Chief?” Was the process vastly different from your first two albums?

EC: I’m not a big fan of that kind of process, where you work off some plan. I’m already the kind who’ll obsess over stuff, not eat, sleep or shave. I didn’t want to get into that while making this album.

AH: Has there been a moment — on tour or elsewhere — where you backed off and said, “Wow, this has gotten huge?”

EC: We’re nine shows into the tour, and we’ve had almost nine of those moments already. You walk out on stage and there are 15,000 people going crazy and you think ‘where in the hell did you people come from? Weren’t we just here at a bar down the street, playing for 30 or 40 people?’ But what’s really amazing is when you look out there and see people singing along to every song. That’s almost a religious experience.

AH: Even before this tour took off, you’ve always been known as a great live performer. How does being on stage compare to say writing and recording for you?

EC: Writing is my passion. I’ll be writing songs until I’m 70. If I were a roofer or whatever, I’d still be writing songs. However, I hate recording, hate that whole process. The live thing, though, is amazing. It doesn’t matter if you end up in clubs where nobody knows you and you look out and see maybe 30 people who could care less. Your job is to make them care. The bars and clubs, that’s where I learned to perform. One of the things I learned is that young artists tend to worry about what people think of them or their music. What I had to learn is to forget that and lose yourself in the music.

AH: With the success you’re having, this kind of stuff — talking with the media — becomes a bigger part of your job. Is that something you enjoy or just tolerate?

EC: I kind of look at things different than a lot of folks in this business. To me, the epitome is standing up there on that stage; that’s what I live for. But doing the interviews and talking with the media is part of the process. It’s how you let people know about you.

AH: Did you have artists that you listened to growing up that influence the way you approach your career?

EC: I listened to a broad list of people: The Band and Little Feat ... there was something about them I never felt about other artists. Growing up in the ‘80s, I listened a lot to AC/DC and Metallica; that’s part of the reason my music sounds like it does. We grew up listening to rock and roll, and that’s a big part of our influence. Now I can do everything Hank Williams has ever done, but we’ve kind of come the bane of the existence of some traditionalists because we don’t use fiddle or steel (guitar), as if that’s somewhere in the country music Bible. I think people get tired of hearing the same sound, though.

AH: I read or heard somewhere that you and Luke Bryan did a show or a magazine article together. Luke is from our area, so I was wondering if you maybe hang with Luke or other young musicians in the industry during down time.

EC: I’ve known Luke since before either one of us had a record deal. He’s one of my best friends in this business, him and Dierks (Bentley) and (Jason) Aldeen. I love Luke and those guys to death, but I’m going to try and kick their ass with every record I release. It will never get ugly between us, but there’s definitely competition between all of us. I think that’s healthy, though. We’re going to do our best work, try and outdo each other.

AH: There are songs on “Chief” that are amazing to me, not even close to your typical country music. I won’t go over the album song-by-song, but I want to ask you about a few of them:

EC: “Springsteen” — Every night I sing that song I become a 17-year-old again. He’s like at the top of the list of those artists that take you back to a moment, to a time in your life. (Bruce Springsteen’s) music is a big part of the soundtrack of my life.

“Country Music Jesus” — That one is a little tongue-in-cheek. This particular critic did a story about the music of the new generation of artists and he kept harping back to “what would Waylon think?” He wrote that this generation needs a country music Jesus to save its soul. I just thought that would be a great song to write.

“Homeboy” — That’s a song I’m really proud of. It paints a real picture of America, of two brothers where they go off on different paths and one tries to bring the other back to their family by the country path.

AH: You’ve jumped into a whole different league now. You seem to be at a creative plateau ... How do you make the most of that?

EC: I’m just enjoying myself. It’s not lost on me how rare this is; I’ve been on the other side where no one was paying attention to what I was doing. I just plan to keep everything I do about the music.

AH: We’ll close here: Things are different for you now, much, much bigger. How do you get to this point and keep from becoming someone else, maybe even someone you wouldn’t like?

EC: Man, I think I’m always going to just keep telling it like it is. My wife and I just had our first child, and we’ve decided that we will still spend as much time as possible on the road together. I’ve seen people leave their family at home when they go out on th road, and it strips something from them. As the distance increases, their relationships tend to crumble. I’m not a guy who has friends with agendas; I tend to have a small, tight circle. As long as I keep my family close, I think I’ll always be the same guy.