There's an audible swagger in Eric Church's songs that you don't hear when he talks one-to-one about the things dearest to him, particularly his family. When he calls CMT.com to discuss his new album, Sinners Like Me, he's still thinking about a recent appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and the family memories it stirred.
"It was kind of bittersweet," he says. "My first performance on the Opry was in April, and my 83-year-old grandmother made it up [to Nashville] for that. The Opry meant more than anything in the world to her. She passed away this past week. So coming into the Opry this time was a little different for me. It was already special, but now the Opry is going to be that much more special because the last time I saw her was [there] at that performance."
With his sinister good looks, assertive voice and tough-guy lyrics, Church is wowing both fans and music critics. Last week, Sinners Like Me entered the Billboard country albums chart at an enviable No. 7, and the lead single, "How 'Bout You," is closing in on the Top 10. On July 17, The New York Times ran a lengthy profile of Church, an unusual occurrence for a country artist just getting started. People magazine, USA Today and Fox & Friends have all tipped their hats to the new album.
Made up entirely of songs Church wrote or co-wrote, Sinners Like Me praises the same blue-collar verities that Gretchen Wilson celebrates: hard work, hardheadedness, learning through experience, black-and-white morality and the copious consumption of cheap beer and whiskey. But the album is also spotted through with pieces that dwell on life's complexities and larger meanings.
What really sets Sinners Like Me apart, though, is the tight, bouncy instrumentation that seems always on the verge of exploding into brittle shards of sound. To help achieve that texture, producer Jay Joyce drafted such top-tier musicians as Bryan Sutton, Kenny Greenberg, Richard Bennett, Giles Reaves, Chris Thile, Bruce Bouton, Dan Dugmore and Mickey Raphael.
A native of Granite Falls, N.C., Church didn't get into music seriously until he was a sophomore at Appalachian State University in nearby Boone, N.C.
"The first year was more about partying," he admits. "Once I got to year two, I went and saw some guys play at a local bar ... and this place was packed. I'd been playing guitar in my room, and I knew ... maybe half the songs [the band] did live. I just had the idea, 'I can do this.' I went back and got my brother and two college roommates who happened to be musicians. And the next week we had a gig." The four called themselves the Mountain Boys.
On that first gig, Church says, he overestimated the depth of his repertoire.
"I guess I had in my mind I could do four sets of an hour each and replay the same songs," he says. "Boy, when I got to hour two, I realized it was mostly the same crowd staring at me. It got kind of ugly there for a little bit. But I made them a deal. ... I told them we were booked there the next weekend and if they would write what they wanted on a napkin, I promised I'd know it when they came back. We must have gotten 20 or 30 napkins. I spent the remainder of the week holed up in the dorm room, trying to learn all those songs. It turned out to be great for me because it expanded my horizon."
Church had been making exploratory trips to Nashville since his late teens. He recalls attending Fan Fair when it was still at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds and before it was renamed the CMA Music Festival. With some applause under his belt, he contemplated dropping out of college and returning to Music Row. But his dad told him if he would finish college, he would pay for his first six months in Nashville.
Like most acts these days, Church and his band put out their own album -- The Mountain Boys Live at the Blues Room -- which they recorded at a bar in Hickory, N.C. "We pressed it up ourselves," Church explains. "We did it just to get exposure. . . . Somebody told me one sold on eBay not long ago, which I got a big kick out of. We couldn't give them away."
Church graduated from Appalachian State in December 2000 and, taking his father up on his offer, moved to Nashville the next month. He confesses he was "pretty green" about the music business at the time and had no contacts to turn to. So he picked up the Yellow Pages and began phoning music publishers. "I started at 'A.' I'd call and tell them who I was and ask if they had any opening for songwriters. I didn't know how it worked yet. I thought it was like [applying for] a regular job. ... It took me a little time to figure out that it didn't work like that."
Ultimately, Church met Perry Howard, a representative of BMI, one of the major performance rights organizations. Howard introduced him to the people at the mammoth Sony/ATV Tree publishing company, where he finally got the songwriting deal he'd been looking for.
Of all the songs on Sinners Like Me, the least mainstream is "Lightning." It is the meditations of a man who's about to be electrocuted for killing a liquor store clerk in a botched robbery to buy food for his baby daughter. Church says it's the oldest song on the new album.
"I wrote that song when I first came to town," he says. "I was on my first trip back to North Carolina to see my family, and The Green Mile was on DVD or TV, I'm not sure which. I was watching it one night, and there's a line in it where the lead actor said, 'You know, it's been eighty-some years since I let John Coffey ride the lightning.' I just thought that was a very interesting way of looking at the electric chair. ... It ended up probably being the song that got me my publishing deal, and it's the song that got me my record deal."
Church achieved his deal with Capitol Records following a showcase he did at Nashville's Mercy Lounge. Several of the songs he performed that night ended up on the album. Two years ago on his birthday -- May 3 -- Capitol called him in and offered to sign him. It came as something of a surprise, he says, since other labels had turned him down. "I went into this stunned silence," he remembers. "I was just not prepared to hear that."
Before Joyce began working with Church, he had made his reputation producing such non-country acts as Macy Gray, Patty Griffin and Audio Adrenaline. "It's weird how all these things tie together," the singer marvels. "The guy that signed me to Sony/Tree, Arthur Buenahora, heard something in my songwriting and music and something in Jay's production, and on an absolute whim put us together to do a few demos."
The first demo they did "was so foreign to my ears," says Church, "I wasn't sure if it was good or bad. ... After we got farther into the demo process, I began to see a sound develop. ... Jay's a great chameleon. He's able to go in and out of all these genres and never be out of place in any of them."
When it came time to cut the album, Church says he had formulated some definite ideas about how it should be done. "I was adamant that we had to do this album different from how most people do it. I didn't want to go into a big Nashville studio, and I didn't want a sterilized environment. By that time, I had been a songwriter for a couple of years. I knew my way around a studio pretty well. I wanted to hole up in Jay's basement to make this record, and, luckily, Capitol let us do it."
The first recording session was a bit unsettling for everybody, Church says. "You had your all-star pickers, and you had some guys nobody knew about. And we stuck 'em all in a basement. It was really, really weird the first hour of that session to see everybody looking around like, 'What is this? This is not normal.' Then, all of a sudden, you could feel the vibe changing, and you could feel that even though they were out of their normal element it was a good thing. I think they committed to the record. They actually became the band."
Church has made much of the notion that Sinners Like Me is an honest representation of who he really is. So it seems fair to ask how a college graduate with a father financially able to support a six-month foray into Nashville would hold such "redneck" attitudes, including a twice-stated contempt for "trust fund" kids.
He laughs and pauses before answering. "I think that's probably just me. I think that's human nature. The people I looked up to and the people in my town [were] about standing up for what you believe in [and] hard work. The town I came from really had one industry, and that was furniture. You worked in a factory, which I did through high school. So I think being around those people and growing up and seeing the way those people worked and the challenges they encountered, a lot of that went into the record.
"I encountered other people in college, but I also formulated what I believed and why I believed it. I think college made me decide what that was early on. ... People may not like it, but I'm at least going to say it. ... In college, I spent most nights in bars with the same people I was raised around."
And, Church, continues, "I'm not a trust-fund type. I just happen to have a dad that really wanted me to stay in school. When I first wanted to go to Nashville, I was probably 17 years old. He was smart enough to say to me, 'You're not ready.' And he was right. I wasn't ready. Not only wasn't I ready emotionally, I wasn't ready musically. That was his way to bribe me. I fully believe he never intended to pay that. ... He thought, 'OK, this kid's going to go to college, meet girls and find something else he wants to do with his life. I won't have to worry about this.'"
Church is now touring as an opening act for Brad Paisley and playing some solo club gigs on the side. This fall, he will tour with Rascal Flatts.