Eric Church is all about the live show, and that's where he's been hearing the most feedback about his new single, "Homeboy." The edgy song tells the story of a brother who's gone off the rails and wound up in jail.
"I've been pretty shocked about the number of people who have come up and had their own personal account of that person in their life, whether it's a son or daughter or a brother, sister, mother or father," Church said during a recent visit to CMT.
"It's been humbling to hear a lot of the stories. I don't know that when I wrote the song, I thought about it in that way. We were just trying to craft the best song we could craft, the most clever song we could craft. It's really cool how music plays an important role in people's lives."
Certainly, Church's music speaks to country fans who are seeking something more rebellious and rugged. In this interview, the North Carolina native discusses several provocative songs on his new album, Chief, along with the one thing he's refused to change in the last decade.
CMT: What were you hoping to capture when you made the video for "Homeboy"?
Church: I think the seriousness of the song. Sometimes you can get caught up in how catchy the choruses are or how hooky they are and lose sight of the fact that it's a serious song about a serious subject matter. We filmed it at the former Tennessee State Prison. I mean, for anybody who's never been there, it's a serious place. When you go through the gates and they close behind you, you can't help but think that there are people who never got to leave there. ... From a director's standpoint and from an artist's standpoint, I think everybody had that ominous feeling, that heaviness, that I think a video like that should have.
People have been asking online if you have a brother.
I do have a brother. He's been arrested. (laughs) But it wasn't really about him, quite honestly. I knew a lot of people who have been on the path they shouldn't have been on. I think we can all relate to that.
"Creepin" is a memorable way to open the record. What were you going for on that production, and how does that set the tone for the project?
A couple things. ... With the title, "Creepin'," I love the way the song actually creeps. It doesn't just slam you. Dynamically, it starts you in a certain place and creeps you into the record. I love the vibe. I love how rhythmic it is. I think it sets a tone that this is going to be a record that is sonically -- and maybe even songwriter-wise -- is going to be a little different than what people have seen from us before. "Creepin'" had to start the record. You can't have a track like that and not have it up front. At least by the time you get to the end of that and dynamically you reach the crescendo, it's a really good pad for what the rest of the record becomes.
How does your live show factor into your success?
It's everything right now. There were times when our career [when] everything other than the live show had gotten pretty sideways. I could play for a couple of hundred people in March and go back and play the same place, and there would be 500 people. Those 200 people had told 300 to come and see the show. It's the only reason we're here. It's like the live show got out in front and carried everything else to where we are. I'm proud of that. It was hard at the time. It was hard to go through. I didn't know if we were going to make it a few times. But looking back on it, I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Was there a low point among all this?
I think right after we had "Two Pink Lines" come out. "How 'Bout You" was our first song, then "Two Pink Lines" came out. It didn't do great. A teen pregnancy song -- people didn't want to hear that. Then I got fired from the [Rascal] Flatts tour. And I got fired because I'm a guy who's going to tell you what I think. I'm going to rub you the wrong way. That's just me -- me being authentic and maybe abrasive, but again, I stand up for what I believe in. In doing that, I got banished off any real tours. We got banished to bars and clubs. But the interesting part of it is, that's where I found who I was. That's where I found my fan base. Those are the ones who came and piled up at the front of the stage at these bars and clubs. We watched that grow. It's almost like that became our focus in our career. The radio and all the other stuff were peripheral at that time. And it really took the fans leading the radio to where we are now. It was definitely the live show that made it all happen.
In "Like Jesus Does," you mention Waylon Jennings in the first and last lyric. What is it about his music that you really identify with?
It's not just him. I think anybody who has taken where country music was and helped take it to where it is, is somebody I respect. You take Cash, you take Waylon -- they took it from where Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and those guys had it. They brought it to where they were. Even in more recent times, you could throw in George Strait and Garth Brooks. They took it to a different place. I think it's our job as new artists to grab that flag and take it somewhere.
I get frustrated when there's a lot of artists who will run songs up and down the chart that are the same thing we've heard a hundred different times -- in any decade you wanted to pick. That frustrates me. It's not using the time that we have, which is a small one, to actually further the format and move the format.
In "Country Music Jesus," you say that country music needs a Jesus to save it. Can you explain what you mean by that?
That song is interesting because of a particular critic, who shall remain nameless for now, who wrote an article. I got pulled into the article, and I had no business being in the article, about the state of country music. It was comparing the new generation, this young movement, to Cash and Waylon, and saying that we're not getting it done. And that we needed a country music Jesus to come and save the format.
And I took offense to it. I'm not interested in making music that was made in 1974. I want to make music that is different and that's being made now. I feel like Cash did that. I feel like Waylon did that. I feel like Garth did that. Good or bad, it doesn't matter. They did their own thing, and they did it different. They expanded the format. I think that's what we're supposed to do. That's what we're here to do. I took offense to his comment, and that was my missile across the bow as a tongue-in-cheek way to respond to that.
That's an interesting clarification because I was thinking, "How serious is he about this?"
(laughs) I'm not. The gist of the article was, "We have to have these guys. We need the new Cash, the new Waylon." And I disagree. There's only one Cash. There's only one Waylon. Those guys have had their time. It's about taking where we are now and growing it to where we go from here. Someday, somebody will take the flag from ... whoever. Us. And take it to where it's going to be.
When I was listening to one of your new songs, "I'm Getting Stoned," it reminded me of that era because of the classic wordplay -- "She got a rock, and I'm getting stoned."
It's a great hook. It's a great country music hook. I love that. That era shaped me more than any other era. I just don't want to copy that era. I want to put my own twist on what those guys did.
"Over When It's Over," to me, is a song about acceptance and seems to come from a pretty mature place. Do you think you could have written that song 10 years ago?
No, I don't think so, especially lyrically. That song and "Hungover and Hard Up" are my two favorite "lyric songs" because they've got different twists on words and phrases. I don't think I was mature enough, even on the Sinners Like Me record, to write that quality of stuff. I think that's the growth of a songwriter.
And how can you not end a record with "Over When It's Over"? I couldn't put it anywhere else but there. I love the way "Creepin'" creeps into the start of the record and "Over When It's Over" ends it. When you hear those last lines, the record's over. I love the literal and figurative sense of that.
So much has changed for you over the last 10 years, but what has remained the same?
I think my convictions. Again, that's part of the reason it's been a longer path for me. I'm not a very compromising person and, at times, it's put me in a rough spot. But now I'm proud and grateful that I was able to keep true to my convictions and make a certain kind of music and not be one of those people that nobody talks about anymore.