By David Scarlett
© 2014 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Eric Church has spent nearly two hours in an old church-turned-recording studio in East Nashville, playing his new album, The Outsiders, for a group of Nashville media reps gathered to hear his latest offering. And when the listening session ends, the sense of satisfaction and, yes, pride that Church exudes as he answers questions about the project is undeniable. And justified.
The album, Church’s fifth (four studio and one live), is ambitious in its musical and lyrical scope and fearless in continuing the mission of Church and his producer Jay Joyce to push the boundaries of Country Music. Whether by adding a 90-second instrumental section to the end of the title cut and first single (written by Church and Casey Beathard), cleverly reflecting the lyrics in the melody of “Roller Coaster Ride” (Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell), pulling no punches in describing a passionate reunion with his wife after a long road trip in “Like A Wrecking Ball” (Church and Beathard) or including a powerful three-and-a-half-minute spoken word section during what he describes as “the trilogy” near the end of the record, the album is unpredictable.
“For this record, we did ‘A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young’ (Church and Jeremy Spillman) first,” said Church, speaking later during a quiet moment on his bus. “Then we did ‘The Outsiders.’ And I’m looking at these two very different things, thinking, ‘What is this? Where are we going?’ I hate to use the word ‘artistic,’ but it was just so damn artistic, I couldn’t wait to see where it was going from there.”
“(The project) is a whole entity,” producer Joyce explained. “But we’ll sit back and think, ‘What is this little family (of songs) missing?’ And we’re smart enough to stand back and let the record reveal itself. Sure, you’ve got to show up and do the work. But Eric came into the studio with three new tunes this time, so you’ve got to allow for a great song at the last minute. On the last record, I think it was ‘Springsteen’ (Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell) that came in at the last minute. This time it was ‘Wrecking Ball.’”
Joyce knows to expect these last-minute arrivals because he understands Church’s work ethic. The man and his co-writers wrote an astonishing 121 songs in preparation for The Outsiders. Other than family time spent with his wife Katherine and their 2-year-old son Boone, or cutting and splitting wood on the 800 acres they own west of Nashville, writing and otherwise making music is Church’s life — so much so that while he’s involved in suggesting and approving marketing strategies to promote the music, he abstains from another key marketing activity: social media.
“I’ve always kept it about the music,” he said. “I’ve always kept it about ‘this is what I’m good at.’ But it’s allowed our fans to empower themselves. Instead of me tweeting or me getting on Facebook, they do it. Then the next person does it and it spiderwebs. Some people have dogged me for not being on Twitter or Facebook, but we have the same impact. The people are doing that for us. They have a sense of ownership.”
Church’s manager, John Peets, couldn’t agree more. “We have always come from the perspective that music is for people,” he said. “Eric has always written and played for the people in the room. Once you release a record, the music is theirs. We respect them and count on them to spread the word.”
Church even made consideration of his Church Choir fan base a factor in releasing the title cut as the album’s debut single. “Could we have come first with another song off this record that might have been a big hit? Sure. But we didn’t, because I wanted to make a statement that that’s not what this is about. It’s about making sure that we’re pushing boundaries and honoring where we come from. I wanted to make sure that the people who built this foundation hear this record and go, ‘This is the one we’ve been waiting on. This is when they were fully in the screws,’” Church noted, using the golf term that means hitting in the sweet spot of the club.
“I believe with any artist, there’s that moment when you’re writing your best, singing your best and playing your best,” he continued. “The producer’s producing his best and playing his best. There’s that ‘in the screws’ moment. I think we started to hit it with Chief. And I think we hit it on this one.”
“When I make albums, I want to lay my head on the pillow 20 years from now and not regret one thing,” he noted. “I want to have stayed true to my musical and moral compass, because that’s what I trust, regardless of what’s popular or whether you get rich or famous. It’s about looking back and being proud of the work you’ve left behind.
“I may be the most rock ‘n’ roll-influenced artist in the format,” Church concluded. “I’ll admit I love to listen to Pantera. But I revere Country Music. I don’t just do it. I revere it. And I want to make albums to put up on the Country Music shelf with all the Country records I revere and go, ‘This is what we did.’”
More on Church and The Outsiders can be found at www.CMACloseUp.com.
On the Web: www.EricChurch.com
On Twitter: @EricChurch