Uncertainty about his future as a recording artist is not the sentiment one expects to hear from a man whose third album, “Chief,” took album of the year at the 2012 Country Music Awards just weeks ago. But as quickly as Eric Church has risen to the top of the country music charts, he questions whether he’ll stick around for the long haul.
What: Eric Church, with special guests Justin Moore and Kip MooreWhen: 7:30 p.m. ThursdayWhere: North Charleston Coliseum, 5001 Coliseum DrivePrice: $37.50-$47.50 more info: www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com
“The way I make records, it takes so much out of me every time. It’s an absolutely brutal process. I hate it, as a matter of fact,” exclaims Church, on the phone with Charleston Scene from his bus in Tulsa, Okla., amid a tour that brings him to the North Charleston Coliseum on Thursday.
“I love playing live, though, that’s the thing. The reason I go through the process of making records is to see the crowd’s reaction to these songs when I get on stage. That part is fantastic, and I don’t see it stopping, but the record part — no guarantees there.”
Church grew up a small-town boy in Granite Falls, N.C., just across the Catawba River from Hickory. His story echoes that of thousands who have made their way to Nashville, Tenn., in pursuit of a dream, and he’s one of the fortunate few to catch sight of the top and hold on.
During his college years at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Church built a local following as a bar performer, taking gigs five nights a week where he’d play anything “if you wrote it on a $20 bill.”
From honing his Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett chops to soaking up the influence of friends who brought him to Phish and Widespread Panic shows, Church developed a musical taste that expanded well beyond the AC/DC and Metallica of his high school days and the Tom Petty and Bob Seger he was accustomed to hearing at home and on the radio.
“I’m a child of the ’80s, so I grew up with all the music that you’d hear when you went to a ball game or jumped in a friend’s truck,” Church explains. “I came of age just as country music entered its boom, with Garth (Brooks) in the early ’90s, and I listened to that, and old country stuff, absolutely. But I think the main thing for me is that I came to Nashville with a pretty broad, diverse standpoint. I was playing a lot of Grateful Dead songs, and singer-songwriters like John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker, plus Little Feat and the Band, who are my two favorite artists of all time.”
One of Church’s current hits is the track “Springsteen,” a song that stemmed from a fleeting experience on an amphitheatre lawn, creating a memory that a particular song brings back.
He openly admits that his own experience didn’t occur at a Springsteen show, but he felt that The Boss best encapsulated the feeling of the song and its potential connection with fans.
“Everybody has that show they saw where a line in a song or a melody created a memory and a connection that they’re going to remember forever when they hear that song,” Church said. “More people have probably had that experience at a Springsteen show than any other artist, just because of who he is and the kind of music he makes and who he stands for.”
The track debuted on the heels of “Drink in My Hand,” his first No. 1 single that topped the charts in January. It’s a simple sing-along ode to relaxing and kicking back, a theme and lifestyle prevalent throughout his earlier two albums as well, 2006’s “Sinners Like Me” and 2009’s “Carolina.”
Writing about life
Like a modern-day Willie Nelson at the start of his career, Church’s polished and produced records mirror the popular country music of his day.
Church, however, hasn’t waited until later in his career to confess about his favorite pastimes; there’s no hidden message in the song “Smoke a Little Smoke.”
Another crowd favorite, “These Boots,” features a reference to hiding his marijuana in his boots from the cops in Tupelo, Miss.
At the same time, Church isn’t afraid to release singles with a deeper cultural significance, including the early single “Two Pink Lines,” a recollection of a teenage pregnancy scare where he acknowledges that “two pink lines” would have changed his life’s trajectory: “One means none, and we’re home free. Two means three and a diamond ring. I wonder what fate is going to decide, we’re sittin’ round waiting on two pink lines.”
“You have to be able to go there as a songwriter,” Church said of his down-to-earth, realist writing style. “Honestly, ‘Two Pink Lines’ was one of the first big stiffs we had with radio because people didn’t want to hear about the subject matter, but it’s something that happens. It’s real life, and I’m proud that we wrote those songs.”
Church took the same approach to one of the “Chief” singles, “Homeboy.” The song is a plea to a little brother to give up his criminal path and return home to a blue-collar life, a small house and his high school fling.
“ ‘Homeboy’ has some racially charged elements in it, and I’m not trying to stir the pot; it’s just reporting on what’s happening in America,” he said. “A lot of that stuff, you just have to not be afraid to write about what’s going on. At the same time, people want to have a good time. Music is entertainment. It can be informative, it can be smart, and it can be clever, but people still have to want to come to a show or sit in their truck and listen to the music.”
For any country singer, however cliche or simple a particular song may be, success is usually gauged by the ability to tap the pulse of blue-collar middle America.
It was during his college days that Church first realized that people felt a connection with his songs, when he’d return to a venue and patrons would request an original song he’d played before.
“That was the first time for me where I said, ‘Maybe I can do this for a living,’ ” he recalls.
When he moved to Nashville after graduating, breaking off an engagement and a corporate career following his degree in marketing, it wasn’t to be a singer.
“I went there to be a songwriter, and the artist thing sort of found me. I was writing songs for other people and pitching them, and people started to say, ‘That guy should be doing his own thing.’ I didn’t have an avenue for my songs; I was just going to pitch them to other singers and fate intervened.”
Boots in the air
After three albums, culminating in a Grammy nomination and CMA award for “Chief,” Church sounds like he’s in need of a break to get back to living the laid-back lifestyle he sings about.
“From my standpoint, I wouldn’t be surprised not to make two or three more records in my career. I don’t know that, but I do know that each one we put out will stand with the others,” Church said. “I’m a perfectionist and I have a vision for my songs, and getting them from my guitar and what I hear in my head to the recording is a long, arduous process. I’d be surprised if you and I were having a conversation in 10 or 15 years and I was still making records, just because of what it takes out of me.”
The end result, however, is still worth it, Church said. He lights up when he mentions how half an arena of people hoist their boots in the air during “These Boots,” a song that was never a radio hit.
“It’s fun ... for me to sit there and watch people take their boots off, or sing along to ‘Sinners Like Me,’ ” Church said, adding that he’s particularly excited to return to Charleston, a town he recalls visiting on a grade-school weekend field trip.
“Since I started touring, it’s become one of my favorite places to just jog around town before a show, and a couple of my favorite restaurants in the country are there. And it’s cool that it’s not too far from where I’m from, so it has that feel of being back at home.”
Soon after playing Charleston, Church will take a month off for the holidays before touring Canada and then joining Kenny Chesney for the spring and summer of 2013.
He’ll also release his first live album, recorded at the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga, Tenn., early next year.
In his down time, he said he’s already starting to write “a little bit.”
“That’s the thing; I’m still somewhat recovering from ‘Chief,’ but I’m a songwriter,” he said. “Everyone’s always asking when the next record will be. I’m still trying to figure it all out. But as long as we can continue to push the envelope, I’m willing to go anywhere this leads.”