Given the choice between doing what the Nashville establishment wants him to do and doing it the way he wants to, Eric Church chose the latter and it's defined his career. Now Church is sitting atop the country music world thanks to last year's platinum-selling release, Chief, the 2012 Country Music Association's album of the year. But he's not so far removed from the hard days of yesteryear. In fact, he's not likely to forget them anytime soon. After all, they made him who he is today.
In 2006, the North Carolina country rocker was supporting Rascal Flatts and touring on his modestly successful Capitol debut, Sinners Like Me. Apparently, Church didn't take to heart Flatts and company's suggestions that he shorten his set and turn down the volume. So they kicked him off the tour. Afterward, Church found himself blackballed for biting the hand that fed him. (His slot was filled by Taylor Swift on her first big tour. She sent Church a copy of her debut when it subsequently went gold, a cheeky note of thanks attached.)
"After we got fired from the Flatts tour for ruffling some feathers through just being who we are, we couldn't get gigs in any country places. We had to go play rock clubs. They were the only places that would book us," Church says. "It's been a long journey to get here to this level. It's taken a lot longer than I probably would've thought. But it's very rewarding to be able to do it and not change who you are. We never changed the music. We never changed what we do live. To be here now and have all the accolades and success we've had feels special."
Church is the antithesis of your typical pressed-and-polished Nashville star, a quality he shares with his outlaw country ancestors. Like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash before him, there's a strong rock undercurrent and an equal measure of Music City disdain in Church's music. Take 2009's "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," for instance. On it, he sings, "Get ups, gimmicks, one hit wonders that don't stick/ Pretty boys, acting tough, boy bands give it up/ And if it looks good on TV, it'll look good on a CD/ Shape it up, trim it down, who gives a damn 'bout how it sounds."
Then again, Church was a rebel from the start. The second single off Sinners Like Me was the harmonica-fueled Mellencamp-esque rocker, "Two Pink Lines," a sigh-of-relief teen pregnancy paean — not your typical song for squeamish country radio. Then for the third single off Carolina, Church released a bluesy ode to a relaxing puff of pot, "Smoke a Little Smoke." Perhaps he owes Rascal Flatts a Christmas present, because giving him the boot might've been the best thing they ever did for him.
"There is no way I would ever make the Chief record if I'm not allowed to go through a lot of struggles, a lot of trials and tribulation, playing to 20 people on a Wednesday night," he says. "It took those experiences — plugging in your own amp every night, getting paid no money, and doing it because you love it. That helped me develop into a better songwriter and a better artist. In those bars and clubs, I remember being ignored by most everybody, but that's where we found ourselves and we found our audience."
That's what Church was referring to when he slammed reality TV singing competitions in Rolling Stone this spring. While he went on to slag The Voice and Blake Shelton, suggesting he'd rather starve than have his career become about something other than music, Church's central point was how those shows allow artists to bypass crucial development stages.
"I feel like a lot of times we're doing younger talent a disservice by not letting them develop, not letting them find creatively what that journey means, and it goes back to my own journey," he says. "Even though at the time I would've probably chosen a quicker route, I'm happy now looking back the way we came. Without that journey we're not here."
Finding out where "here" is will be Church's next bit of business. After playing 250 shows a year for the last half-dozen years, he'll be stepping off the touring-go-round to get in a creative headspace in 2013.
"From the songs that I write on my guitar to the finished product of how I want it to sound and then put it together cohesively as an album and have it work, I absolutely damn near lose my mind," Church says with a laugh. "So I guess taking off this year, I kind of want to see what's happening creatively. I want to get away from the road and away from all the stuff that's happening, check back in and see what's happening from a songwriting standpoint.
"I don't know if we'll make a record next year," he adds. "But I want to see what happens and see if there's something out there creatively that will lead us to where we're going to go next."
We'll just have to wait and see, because nobody tells Eric Church what to do, least of all Eric Church.