Country Music Bad Boy Eric Church Brings His Blood, Sweat and Beers to L.A.
Hot off his CMA Awards win Thursday night, the artist opens up on why being kicked off Rascal Flatts’ tour was a blessing in disguise, getting a hand-written note from Bruce Springsteen and that infamous comment on “The Voice.”
Headlining a nationwide tour for the first time in his career, country music bad boy Eric Church brings his rock-flavored stage show to Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 4. The concert, held at the Nokia Theater L.A. LIVE, marks Church’s first time hitting the stage in Hollywood since assisting on Toby Keith’s tour in 2011.
“The way we built our career in this country is hard to build out West,” Church tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s going to be an interesting stop for our first headline tour. I’m looking forward to it.”
Prior to the 2011 release of his third studio album Chief, which hit No. 1 on a slew of Billboard albums charts and spawned three hit singles, Church had slowly burned his way into the music scene. His 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me, gained only modest traction, with his sophomore effort, 2009’s Carolina, faring slightly better. His bad boy reputation was spurred on having been booted from Rascal Flatts’ tour in 2006 for staying on stage longer than his allotted time, temporarily hindering the singer’s career -- but ultimately exposing him to an entirely different fan base.
“We were seen as troublemakers that weren’t even booked at any of the venues where county acts play. They wouldn’t book us,” Church recalls. “We ended up in hard-rock clubs and rock clubs. That’s where the story starts to change.”
Church then began bringing his band in front of a largely young, male audience that had become “disenfranchised from country music” and had gone elsewhere to seek new forms of musical entertainment. “It was a fan base that I didn’t know existed,” says Church, who would go on to perform as one of the headlining acts -- and the only country act -- at Metallica’s Orion Music Festival in 2012.
And it was that fan base that helped Church’s 2010 single “Smoke A Little Smoke” (“the big turning point,” says Church,) pick up steam with radio airplay, peaking at No. 2 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, No. 16 on the Hot Country Songs chart and No. 78 on the Hot 100.
“Everyone told me I was insane to release a song of that subject matter to country radio, but I just told them what I saw every night when I played it – the fans tore the walls off that place,” says Church. “I was so passionate about putting that song out and it changed our career. It made Carolina a gold record.”
Next up was “Springsteen,” undoubtedly Church’s biggest hit to date, off his third (and most successful) studio album, Chief. The track peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart and No. 40 on the Hot 100. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 across all genres. Says Church, “Everything Changed.”
“Springsteen” even caught the ear of The Boss, himself, who sent Church a handwritten letter scrawled on the back of a set list.
During a stop on Church’s Blood Sweat and Beers tour earlier this year, Bruce Springsteen’s road manager dropped by Church’s bus to present the note. He explained that the iconic singer had performed nearby the night before and, when told that the stage manager would be attending Church’s show the following day, requested that he deliver a personalized letter. In the note, Springsteen said he was a fan of the eponymous song and hoped that their paths would cross someday.
“It was really cool,” Church says. “When he handed that to me, that was a big deal. 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.”
At the time of publication, Church had not yet made face time with Springsteen, but he hopes to be in the audience for a show sometime in the near future.
Chief, named for Church’s grandfather and transformed into his own nickname on the road, was recently certified Platinum by the RIAA, as was “Springsteen.” The former on Thursday even earned Church the coveted CMA Award for album of the year.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Church thanked his wife Katherine and his little boy at home who was "up past his bed time."
"I spent a lot of my career wondering where I fit in. Too country. Too rock," Church said in an incredibly fitting acceptance speech. "I want to thank you guys for giving me somewhere to hang my hat tonight."
And while he was among the most popular guys in the room at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena that night, his comments haven't always landed him in country music's popular crowd. Case in point: April 2012, when Church's controversial quote in a Rolling Stone article sparked feuds with Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and the entire reality television community.
Referring to American Idol, The Voice and X Factor contestants skyrocketing to instant fame, and the musicians who put their creativity on hold to sit in a chair and judge the competitors, Church said: "Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green f---ing turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That's crazy. I don't know what would make an artist do that. You're not an artist."
Asked if he would accept the opportunity to judge any of the aforementioned shows, Church zinged, "If I was concerned about my legacy, there's no f---ing way I would ever sit there."
The statement, perhaps rooted somewhere between ignorance and truth, is one that Church still stands by. But there's a bigger picture to be seen.
"Just like anybody else, I wanted the success right then," Church says of his humble beginnings. "What I've learned over time is that I wasn't ready for that success. I needed the path. I needed the trials and tribulations. It made me a better songwriter and a better artist."
Church insists that the success of Chief could never have happened had he not experienced the crippling hardships of a struggling young artist.
"I think we're doing a lot of this young talent a disservice because we're putting them in this situation of television exposure that they're not ready for," he adds, admitting that he's making mere speculation as someone who has never watched the series in question. "I truly believe there are no shortcuts. None. Zero. If you take a shortcut, you're going to pay for it. That's just what I believe."
As for Church's journey, the country rocker rolls through Los Angeles on Nov. 4 and will continue his trek back to the East Coast, where he'll take his final bow on Feb. 15 in Oshawa, ON. After that, fans could be waiting a while for a studio follow up.
"I'm not an artist that's going to make a lot of records," he says. "I don't believe you ever make a record for financial reasons… so when I get in the mood of writing a record, it's full on. It's just not there yet so we'll see. I hope it comes, but right now, we're not in the vicinity of close."
He adds: "Chief -- it’s a living record. I could listen now and there’s time I’m back in that room, back there, owning that song and singing that vocal. It just feels so alive. I think that’s the key to making records like that. I don’t know if the next one is supposed to sound like that, but it’s those moments when I’m not afraid to follow that creative path. I think some people end up chucking it all because they worry about what people are going to think.
"I think that as long as we’re willing to go to the wall, and let creativity be the guide and accomplice, then I don’t know where it will go. But I can’t wait to find out."
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@thr.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci