It’s only in the context of modern mainstream country music – hi, Little Big Town – that Eric Church gets to play the rebellious outsider. And even he seems to know it.
“I’m a long-gone Waylon song on vinyl," Church sings on his latest album, “Chief," suggesting he’s more a throwback than Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney or take your pick of male country stars.
Waylon ran with real bikers, the dangerous kind, the type of character the Rolling Stones had previously hired for security. Willie brought those bikers together with hippies in a way that freaked out everyone else. Merle spent three years in San Quentin.
Church was kicked off a 2006 tour with Rascal Flatts for playing too long, which is less rebellious than it is endearing.
Nonetheless, it’s the modern Nashville machinery he’s been in conflict with these past few years, so that’s the context in which his success should be celebrated.
That success includes a headlining tour that visits Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday, more than 1 million copies of “Chief" sold, and its being honored by the Country Music Association as album of the year at November’s award show, where Church had a prime performance spot.
“I spent a lot of my career wondering where I fit in," he said in his acceptance speech. “Too country. Too rock."
A little too much drawl, a little too much volume. One look at the top of the ticket and it’s not hard to see why Church is a bit of an awkward fit in the modern country mainstream.
Chesney is the undisputed king of the genre at the moment, wrapping his success in the sand, sunny vibes and escapist merchandising Jimmy Buffett perfected. Toby Keith is rewriting old Toby Keith songs. Carrie Underwood is now what Faith Hill last was. Taylor Swift moved 1.2 million copies of her latest album in the first week of its release. The record, “Red," continues her crossover to pop music by sprinkling dollops of dubstep into the mix.
Church, meanwhile, was the only country act asked to play Metallica’s Orion Music Festival in June. “Drink in My Hand," the first single off “Chief" and Church’s first No. 1 country song, opens with a riff descended from the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man."
The record’s second single, and Church’s second No. 1, caught the attention of Bruce Springsteen, which a hit song titled “Springsteen" is bound to do. It’s a salute to the memories a song can bring back. “Somewhere between that setting sun, I’m on fire, I’m born to run," Church sings.
Late last summer, Church told Billboard magazine he’d gotten a note from Springsteen – written on a set list from one of the rock legend’s two Fenway Park shows – telling Church how much he enjoyed the song.
Talking to the Hollywood Reporter later, Church said: “I don’t know when you know that you’ve made it, but just the fact that someone like Bruce knows you’re alive and appreciates what you’re doing is a pretty cool thing."