If I had to choose one (modern-day) artist whose music never ceases to amaze me, whose talent seems only to grow with each new endeavor, I’d have to choose Eric Church. Ok, it’s a tie between Eric Church & Corey Taylor, but today I’m going to focus on Church since his recent album The Outsiders is still on frequent replay in my car & on my computer (yes, it is playing as I write this).
As someone who loves both rock & country, Eric Church is for me the perfect combination of these two vastly different genres. When I had the great pleasure of attending one of his concerts in the fall of 2012 I couldn’t help but feel like I was at a redneck rock concert more than a traditional country concert. It was nothing short of scintillating. Church’s music has often been snubbed as “too rock to be country” & “too country to be rock.” Therefore it’s not surprising that he has made a name for himself less by hit radio singles & more by inspiring live performances in venues from bars & rock clubs to stadiums & arenas. In an era when few country artists actually write their own music, Church has penned nearly every song he’s ever recorded. He’s also never rushed his work & when you read/watch his interviews, it’s so apparent that his greatest commitment is always to his MUSIC. If you need more proof that Church is a horse of a different color so to speak, consider that his albums are produced by Jay Joyce, a man who normally produces rock albums. Additionally, in an era where most musicians are relying on social media to build their popularity, Church shuns such methods. He lets the music speak for itself. This has sometimes gotten him in trouble such as when he got kicked off of a 2006 Rascal Flatts tour for playing too long (he was replaced by none other than Taylor Swift). Indeed Church has made a name for himself as a bit of an “outlaw,” a country music star who isn’t afraid to sing about smoking weed & teen pregnancy & whose interviews are often studded with curse words not normally spoken by his peers (at least not in public). Indeed, here’s just a quick sample of some of the words/phrases found on his most recent album that are not normally found on country music albums: cocaine, sex, needle in a vein, bitch, joint, damn rock & roll, tramp, slut, pimp. Yet it’s well-known that Church tours with his wife & young son so that he doesn’t miss important time with his family. When speaking of his work, he often uses the term “we” instead of “I.” It’s obvious he values his band & realizes the success of his music isn’t all about him. It seems that underneath the tough persona he’s built Church is actually a pretty decent guy.
Above all else, it’s Church’s music that sets him far above his peers. Today’s popular country music is often more like pop music with a little twang, & the endless “country party” songs are as vapid as any Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears song (consider Luke Bryan’s That’s My Kinda Night or Florida Georgia Line’s Cruise). Not so with Church. This is not to say he doesn’t have songs about drinking. After all his first number-one hit was Drink in My Hand off of his 2011 Grammy-nominated album Chief. But with Church there is so much more to even his drinking songs. If a country artist ever knew how to craft clever lyrics with double entendres & unusual rhyme schemes, it’s Church. (Consider I’m Getting’ Stoned, also off of Chief.) I’m not trying to trash other country stars. Indeed I’ve been to Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, & Blake Shelton concerts & enjoyed every minute of them. But I didn’t go home & buy their albums like I did after Church’s concert . . . There’s just something about his music that is so powerful & that I believe will stand the test of time while many of his contemporaries will fade into oblivion after a few more decades. Consider some of these gems from his most recent album, The Outsiders, released just a few weeks ago.
The first song, for which the album was named, starts off on a real rock & roll beat & never gives up. As Church has explained, this is a song for anyone who’s ever felt left out, like an “outsider.” The idea isn’t super original but the execution of it sure is. Wow.
Just when you think Church has morphed into a rock star, he slows it down with the second track, A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young, a song about a man who is amazed that, at 36, he has out-lived Hank (Williams, Sr) & Jesus. As you listen to the lyrics you can’t help but feel this piece is probably autobiographical for Church (he is 36 after all). While not my favorite song on the album, it’s certainly a powerful one.
Time to switch gears again. Next up is Cold One which contains the memorable line “If she had to leave did she have to leave me one beer short of a twelve-pack?” This one isn’t exactly full of deep philosophy but the MUSIC is superb. The beat is funky & there’s a very bluesy sound that somehow reminds me of the bayou or some of the really old-school jazz.
The fifth song on the album, Talladega, chronicles a trip to a Nascar race with friends during the summer after high school graduation. While I have never had any interest in Nascar, that’s beside the point. The song isn’t so much about racing cars as it is about being young & making memories & how fast life goes by. The mark of a good song is that listeners can relate to the emotions & ideas conveyed by the song, even if the actual content isn’t 100% relatable. This is just one example of how Church continually succeeds with this.
I can’t say I ever thought Eric Church would record a sex song, but he did. Like a Wrecking Ball is another bluesy-sounding song with an organ, of all the damn things, propelling the piece. And unlike some of the popular country songs that reference one-night stands after nights of drinking too much beer or moonshine (consider this line from Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party: “Baby if you’re in the mood you can settle for a one night rodeo/You can be my tan-legged Juliet, I’ll be your Redneck Romeo”), this one is full of heart & soul & longing to which anyone who’s ever spent too much time away from their partner can relate.
Next up is what might be my favorite piece on the whole album (though it’s very hard to choose), That’s Damn Rock & Roll. In this piece Church argues that rock & roll isn’t about the drugs, sex, & partying that so often get so much attention or even about the money to be made from selling records. Instead he says it’s about the love of music & that rebellious, fighting spirit that never gives up. Consider the lyrics:
“It ain’t about the money you make, when a record gets sold
It’s about doing it for nothing, ’cause it lives in your soul . . .
It’s doing what you want instead of doing what you’re told.”
The song references the many great musicians who have died at age 27 & how often such incidents are pointed to as reasons why rock & roll is inherently sinful:
“Drowning demons feel no pain
Found Nirvana wasted shame
Gone too soon just like a song
Hendrix, Joplin, what went wrong?
Need some answers, right or wrong
Need something to blame it on
That’s damn rock and roll”
I don’t know about y’all but I can just hear the old-fashioned Southerners saying “That damn rock & roll!” It’s almost like Church takes the words out of their mouth & uses them to prove his point. For those of us who know that rock & roll is so much more than “ sex, drugs, & rock & roll”, this is an anthem we’ll be clinging to for a long time.
Next up, Dark Side explores the eternal conflict between good & evil that we all face every day. It’s not an original theme, but Church explores it with a brutal honesty that is unmatched by his peers.
The tenth song on this album, Devil, Devil, is by far the most bizarre song Church has ever recorded. At eight minutes in length, the first half of the song is a poem written by Church that criticizes the entire Nashville music industry. While it will almost certainly never be a hit single, it’s a superbly incisive look at the dark side of the music industry that I’m quite certain no other country artist today would ever tackle. You’ve got to admire Church’s bravery here. (If you’re wondering which song contained “bitch, slut, & pimp,” it’s this one, in reference to the music industry.)
The next to last song on the album, Give Me Back My Hometown, is full of nostalgia & longing for a hometown that has been “ruined” by the memories of love-gone-wrong. While this one is far more radio-friendly than many of the other pieces on this album, it’s no less interesting or full of the genuine, raw emotion for which Church is so famous.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit puzzled as to why Church chose to end the album with the story-telling song The Joint. While I love this song, I can’t help but feel it’s a little anti-climactic after some of the harder-hitting songs on the album. But maybe that’s the point. It fades off into the distance & makes you want to replay the whole album immediately. In any case, The Joint is actually not about smoking weed even though that’s a valid assumption considering Church has recorded more than one song with obvious references to smoking weed (Smoke a Little Smoke & I’m Getting’ Stoned). Instead it’s an old-fashioned story-telling song about a woman who burns down the bar her husband frequents a bit too often. With repeated trombone licks, this one is definitely full of jazzy influences that bring to mind the bayou or some sleazy pool hall deep in the South. It’s full of understated magnificence & I love it.
I sincerely challenge anyone who’s reading this who doesn’t normally like country music to take a long hard listen to Eric Church. His music might not be “love at first listen” but I bet it will grow on you until eventually you can’t deny his incredible talent. I’ll be the first to admit that when I first began hearing his songs on the radio years ago, I thought he was too rough & too naughty & just not my type. Of course that was also before I really got into rock music. In any case, my initial disdain slowly melted away as I realized what a fantastic musician Church really is & how his music continually evolves as he refuses to “color in the lines.” To me the mark of a good musician is often that their work isn’t always super catchy. Music that has depth & real personality often takes more than one listen to really comprehend. I’ll end my treatise to Church with an excerpt from a recent article about him which I think sums him up perfectly:
The most rock’n’roll (or rockist) thing about Eric Church may be his devotion to “The Album” as a hallowed, sanctified ideal to which all the other nonsense — certainly press-cycle considerations, but even tours, even said album’s individual songs, even if they’re alleged runaway smashes — must genuflect . . . “I hate the fame part. I hate getting recognized. I hate press. I hate all that stuff that is just so — I want to make music.”
Would that all musicians were so focused on their craft.