To get an idea of what makes Eric Church stand out in the country music scene, there's only one word to know: Lollapalooza. Church played the three-day alternative rock festival in 2009, and he had no problem being the only mainstream country act on the bill.
"Somebody asked me how I felt being on a big rock stage with all of these big rock bands, and I answered honestly," Church says. "I said I honestly think we rocked harder than a lot of those guys did. I was a little disappointed in the state of rock music."
Church is getting a special opportunity to showcase his own brand of music this winter and spring as headliner of the Jägermeister country music tour. The tour hits nearly 30 cities, and the sponsorship means that Church is getting to bring out more visual production and better lighting than in the past.
And true to form, Church is relishing the Jägermeister tour as an opportunity to show that his music isn't typical country and that people who are already his fans make up anything but a typical country music concert audience.
"I think we scare people who come check us out for the first time because our shows are very intense," Church says. "There are fists in the air. There are beers in the air. It's an intense environment.
"I've seen people leave there and look at their spouse and go 'What in the world was that?'" he adds. "I like that ,because of the hardcore people we're going to have there. They are people who are really going to show them [new fans] what our show is like and hopefully provide excitement that they haven't seen at this kind of show before."
That Church could play Lollapalooza — and out-rock many of the other acts on the bill — says a lot about what sets him apart from other country acts. He's arguably the loudest and proudest country artist getting mainstream country radio play these days. It shouldn't be a surprise that the native of the small town of Granite Falls, N.C. is comfortable in staking out a place on the fringes of mainstream country. He's made a habit of being unusual and doing the unusual throughout his musical life.
This is a guy, after all, who started writing songs as a teenager before he learned to play guitar.
While attending college at Appalachian State, Church got into playing music professionally as a spur-of-the-moment decision. His first band had landed gigs at clubs, as well as fraternities and sororities around the Carolinas.
After college, Church made a run at a music career in Nashville. But unlike most musicians who come to the Music City, Church wasn't dreaming of getting a record deal. He saw his future as a songwriter.
"To me that was just more realistic," he says. "How do you get a record deal? To this day, I'm not 100 percent sure I know the answer to that. When I first started, the songwriting was just something I was going to do regardless."
Church arrived in Nashville not knowing anyone in town or really having a clue about how to get his foot in the door with the country music industry.
"Oh man, I didn't even know what Music Row was," he remembers. "The big thing for me was just trying to figure out the people I needed to talk to to try and get a publishing deal ... I didn't have any friends here. I didn't know the roads. I didn't know anything."
Needless to say, Church found ways to make contacts. About a year after he arrived, he had landed a publishing deal with Sony ATV Tree. A year later, he penned a song titled "The World Needs a Drink," which landed on a Terri Clark album.
"I got offered a record deal, and everything kind of moved quick once the Terri Clark song happened for me," he says.
When it came time to make his first album, Sinners Like Me, Church bucked the usual Nashville system. He worked with Jay Joyce, a producer who'd never made a country album. He used musicians that weren't session regulars in Nashville. He made an album that, with its hard-hitting edge and live feel, was very consciously designed to allow Church to stand out from the crowd.
"Joyce didn't try to craft it a certain way to get on the radio, which is a risky move for a new artist," Church says. "That's why a lot of guys go and they get guys who have had a lot of radio success to produce an album. They go with what you normally hear on the radio."
Church hasn't abandoned his maverick ways on his second album, Carolina. Although it hews a bit more toward ballads and mid-tempo material that should be more palatable to country radio, Carolina breaks its share of mainstream country molds.
Despite going against the grain, Carolina raised Church's profile. It's spawned his first Top 10 country single, "Love Your Love the Most," and he may have another hit with "Hell on the Heart," which blends a programmed beat into its poppy sound (it's already cracked the Top 25). The hooky opening cut, "Ain't Killed Me Yet," blasts out of the gate with the kind of crunching guitar chords one expects from a hard rock band. Meanwhile, mellower tunes, like "Longer Gone" and the title track, are more rustic and have more of a soulful edge than one usually hears in country.