For most artists, making the transition from clubs to arenas would be welcomed. But Nashville singer-guitarist Eric Church isn’t like most artists. When he embarked on the Blood, Sweat and Beers tour in 2012 and 2013, he found his popularity had suddenly soared and he was playing bigger venues.
“We got jerked out of the smaller clubs and the next thing I knew, we were in an arena,” he says via phone from his home where he was on a 12-hour break after playing the annual iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas. “It was a little bit of whiplash for me. I missed the vibe of a club or theater when everyone is on top of each of other and that spirit is moving.”
Church struck platinum with 2011’s Chief (the Grammy-nominated 2012 Album of the Year by both CMA and ACM) and his latest album The Outsiders debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart and the Billboard Country Albums Chart. But unlike Chief, which benefited a tribute to the Boss (“Springsteen”) and a few party hearty tunes (“Drink in My Hand,” “Hungover & Hard Up”), The Outsiders has a different tone. The opening title track establishes that as Church sneers “we’re the riders, we’re the ones burning rubber off our tires./Yeah, we’re the fighters, the all-nighters.”
“Up until to the Chief album, we had always been more obscure, which I like,” says Church. “Chief was a big commercial success, which was great. I didn’t want people to think that that’s what we were going to do to have more hits. I wanted this album to be completely different, almost concept style.” And he says having the first song and first single strike such a different chord was an intentional move on his part.
“Being the first track and the first single, I wanted people to know that this is not what they thought,” he says. “I wanted them to feel that. I wanted them to know it was going to be something artistic and creative. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I knew it would be a shock when you heard that first song and it changed time signature three or four times. I knew that was going to be a challenge for some people, but I wanted them to know it was going to be about the creativity and not about the commercial times.”
That might make it sound as if Church is evoking the old school outlaw spirit of country singers like Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings. And yet, he doesn’t think of himself as a torchbearer for the country music’s rebels even if he does let loose a rebel yell or two on the high-spirited album.
“I usually hate that characterization,” he says when asked if he considers himself an outlaw. “I feel like we always go back to that. For me, it’s just at a time when I feel like the format — and most formats — have become homogenized. They’re the same thing over and over—the same sounds and the same subject matter. It’s a matter of doing something different and showing what the albums mean to our career.”
So if there’s anything old school about Church’s approach, it’s that he puts the emphasis on the album rather than the single.
“We’re playing for 14 and 15 thousand people in the first six shows of this tour,” says Church, who grew up in North Carolina listening to everything from Metallica and AC/DC to Seger and Springsteen.
“Out of the 26 songs we play, 23 songs have never been No. 1 songs. Most of them have not been top 10 hits. Our career has been built on the album concept. I wanted to really re-enforce that with The Outsiders and make sure people know that’s the most important thing to me. I don’t care that everyone out there is doing the singles and the downloads. I think they’re wrong. We got here because we gave people the entire package. They sing album cuts as loudly as they sing the singles.”
The current world tour will feature a unique concept as fans will get a 360° view of the stage.
“We took a year talking about [the tour] and about surrounding the people and having in-stage pits you almost create that feeling that we used to have where everyone is right there with you,” he says. “That’s what I was trying to get back to. Our stage is sloped from back to front so it goes from nine to three feet. As I walk down the ramp, I’m in with the people. It’s neat too because as we walk around the stage you actually disappear into the crowd at times. We’ve done some general admission on the floor when it makes sense. When it works out and can be done with the building, it’s a lot of fun.”
After a summer of big country shows that catered to the lowest common denominator, Church’s approach sounds refreshing. We can’t wait to see how it’s executed at the cavernous Quicken Loans Arena.
Eric Church, Dwight Yoakam, Brothers Osborne, 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, Quicken Loans Arena, One Center Court, 888-9424. Tickets: $25-$59.50, theqarena.com.