Originally published in the August 1, 2011 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
To be clear, Eric Church does not wear makeup. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name another contemporary male country artist who would be less likely to pick up a tube of eyeliner. However, in discussing his nightly metamorphosis into the wild-man onstage persona his bandmates have dubbed “Chief,” Eric enthusiastically cites an influence who does: shock-rock icon Alice Cooper. “That’s exactly who I’ve always compared the transformation to. And in some ways, Kiss, too,” Eric says. “They become different people onstage.”
But while Alice uses mascara to cover his eyes and face to become Alice, Eric opts for aviators and a pulled-low baseball hat to transform into Chief—and it’s that image that adorns his blockbuster new album, appropriately titled, yep, Chief. Rest assured, though, this is not a Chris Gaines-like alter ego. The record is 100 percent Church, born from a monthlong writing exile in his remote North Carolina cabin and informed by the energy of his unbridled live show.
“Writing in the cabin opened up the direction for where the record was going. It’s really a reflection of how we got here. And I got here with my live show, on the backs of our fans,” says Eric, a few days after debuting some of the album during an intimate acoustic performance in Nashville for members of his Church Choir fan club and SiriusXM listeners. “We played the smallest places out there and that’s where we found ourselves and our fan base, in those little bars, clubs, and rock ’n’ roll joints. As I thought about this next record, I thought it had to sound that way and feel that way.”
Mission accomplished. Together with his producer, Jay Joyce, Eric has created the most lively, and arguably most adventurous, record to come out of Nashville this year. You can almost feel the crowd jostle and the beer spill onto your boots as the album unfolds, from the one-two punch of opening tracks “Creepin’” and “Drink in My Hand” through cautionary first single “Homeboy” and sublime closer “Over When It’s Over.”
“With this record, I was always in the room live with the band and we used a lot of the vocals that went down in tracking. We didn’t go back and overthink them,” Eric explains. “It allowed the album to breathe. It has a heartbeat. It feels alive.”
Just like his high-octane concerts, where the soft-spoken Eric cedes the stage to the over-the-top Chief (a nickname also shared by Eric’s grandfather, who was chief of police in Granite Falls, N.C., for 27 years). “How I am during the day is nothing like I am onstage. It’s two different guys. That’s where Chief came from,” Eric says, going on to explain how a common pitfall of the club circuit played a role in his now signature hat-and-sunglasses look. “We were playing all these bars [with fans] and they were absolutely baking my contact lenses. It was like playing in a rotisserie every night. They kept popping out, so the hat and sunglasses thing just happened on its own. It became kind of a uniform for me.”
A uniform in a fist-pumping, foot-stomping army. During his hourlong set a few weeks earlier at Philadelphia country station WXTU’s anniversary concert, Eric struck his chest nearly 20 times, and kicked the stage with all the force of an irate mule. Such involuntarily actions have left the singer/songwriter literally bruised and broken. “I had like five or six days of shows in a row one time, and I got out of the shower and I had these bruises on my chest that looked like somebody beat me,” he says, sheepishly confirming that he also once fractured his kicking foot onstage. “Yeah, yeah, I did that, too.”
But Eric stresses that, like Alice Cooper, his primal character doesn’t accompany him home. Nor does the notoriously private North Carolina native divulge much of his personal life. Which makes it all the more surprising that, during the SiriusXM taping, he revealed the gender of his and wife Katherine’s first child, due this October—it’s a boy. “Sometimes you get caught up in the moment, but it’s something that would have come out anyway,” he says. “But I am overly private a lot of times.”
Still, Eric opens up about impending fatherhood, and the feelings of excitement and anxiety that come along with such a pivotal life change. He confirms he’s had that “Oh my God, I’m going to be a parent” moment, but says Katherine has as well. “The good thing is my wife is going through the same thing. We’ve been pretty honest in talking about it. It’s almost like there’s an alien coming. There’s something moving in her and I’m seeing ultrasounds and all this stuff, and it’s so surreal. Everybody has said to me that at some point in the first couple months after the child gets here, you’ll have that moment where it all makes sense. We’re excited about it, and I’m going to let it do what it does.”
Including influence his songwriting? “To be determined,” he says. “If [having a child] changes the music . . . I have to write about what’s real, I have to write about me. So if that happens, yeah, it will. But I’m not going to start writing lullabies.”
When asked about balancing his badass image with that of a new dad, Eric circles back to his alter ego. “I think it actually helps me to know that I can check out and be that person for a little while. Another guy who does this, and I’ve gotten to know him to a degree, is Hank Jr. He’s Bocephus onstage, but he’s a totally different guy off that stage. And in having that balance, you can be a dad, you can be who you are, you can have a life, and then you can step into a character out there. The songwriting is still the same. It’s still about honesty, about who you are. But when the hat and the sunglasses go on, I can be a different person. I can have a chip on my shoulder.”
It’s that chip, that sense of swagger, that distinguishes Eric from other safer, more radio-conscious acts. “If you step onstage and you don’t have a chip on your shoulder, you’re beat. It’s too late,” he says, posing an insightful, even daring theory. “I see a lot of new artists do that. They walk out there and it’s, ‘Aw shucks, I’m just like you.’ But you’re not.”
In truth, he’s right. The larger-than-life acts, like Hank Williams Jr., Garth Brooks and even Toby Keith (see page 30)—with whom Eric is touring this summer—are captivating because they transcend the everyday once they step onstage. “I want that in the people that I look up to,” Eric says. “I want those guys to come onstage and have a presence. I think that’s important.”
Likewise, there is a clear presence throughout Chief: confidence, the kind that can only come from trusting your gut and having it prove correct. For Eric, it came with the decision to release the unconventional Carolina track “Smoke a Little Smoke” to radio.
“When I picked it as a single, most of the quotes were, ‘It’s your funeral.’ That’s what people were saying to me. But I knew what was happening with the song live and how people were reacting to it. And then it became a big hit,” he says, proudly recounting the creative freedom that the success of “Smoke” has afforded him on Chief.
“It was such an out-there song, such a live song, such a breathing song, that I decided when we made this record, we were going to just go with that vibe. We were going to take that rope that people gave me, tie it to the back of a truck, and take off down the road.”
And Eric hasn’t hit the brakes since. CW