Eric Church has a reputation as the bad boy of country music, singing about weed, women and Jack Daniel’s over roaring, squealing guitars. “That’s not country, it’s rock,” bleat Nashville traditionalists – a complaint to which Church ripostes on his new album The Outsiders. “Yeah, we’re the fighters, the all nighters,” he growls – “So fire ’em up and get a little higher/ We’re the bad news, we’re the young guns/ We’re the ones they told you to run from.”
The night before we meet I watched him play a boisterous show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in front of a backdrop showing a skull in aviator sunglasses, which Church was also wearing. When he sang about being an outsider, he delivered a series of uppercuts as though decking a line of Nashville carpers.
“I am definitely going to get stoned in London tonight!” he announced. Cue whoops from fans as Church and his band struck up the boogeying marijuana anthem “Smoke a Little Smoke”. Hell yeah!
I encounter him in a very different setting the next day, a luxury suite overlooking Kensington Gardens in the Royal Palace Hotel. The singer-songwriter is wearing a long orange puffa jacket and jeans, more Urban Outfitters than rural Americana. A pair of trainers replaces the cowboy boots he wore on stage the night before. His trademark sunglasses have been removed. Sipping from a cup of tea, he does not resemble a man who successfully got stoned in London last night.
“No,” he says with a laugh, “but I did get drunk!”
Church is in celebratory mood at the moment. The Outsiders is his fourth album, and the second in a row to debut at number one in the US charts after 2011’s Chief. The North Carolina boy who grew up listening to AC/DC and Garth Brooks has become a crossover star. It is, he says, “quite surreal”.
Now 36, Church built his following the hard way. Starting out, he and his band “weren’t really embraced radio-wise or industry-wise at all,” he says. They gigged hard, playing the sort of bars and clubs where you might find the blue-collar heroes of his songs, like the working man with “a 40-hour week of trouble to drown” in “Drink in My Hand”, knocking back beers and enjoying the way his gal dances with “that little tattoo going peeky-boo on your back” – an image typical of Church’s deft way with words. Behind the bluff façade, his songs are cleverly constructed and vividly narrated, a mix of simplicity and sophistication. “Those are the songs I’m interested in,” he says. “That’s what as songwriters I think we should be trying to do.”
Kris Kristofferson is his favourite lyricist. “He’s got a song called ‘To Beat the Devil’, and every song I write I try to make as good. I’m still trying. It’s my bar.”
Although musically quite dissimilar, he claims kinship with the “outlaw country” singers who rebelled against Nashville conformity in the 1970s. Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard are namechecked in his lyrics. In the “man cave” where his wife unaccountably insists he keep all the manly stuff she doesn’t want in their Nashville home, he has a table showing Johnny Cash flipping the finger, obtained from a heavy metal club he once played in Michigan.
The most notorious of his own run-ins with the Nashville establishment came when he and his band were fired from a support slot on a 2006 tour with big country stars Rascal Flatts after falling out with them. As Church sips his tea, I confess that the kerfuffle seems rather mild. It’s hardly burning down half of “Music City” in a pyrotechnic rage, is it?
“We’ve done that too!” he laughs. “If you get kicked off a tour like that, you immediately eliminate yourself from being able to get booked on any other tours, because you’re a troublemaker. And a lot of the country clubs, the little places that would book you, don’t want you either, so we got kind of banished to rock clubs.
“That’s where the rebel thing comes from, to me: we went on a different path, that nobody had been on.”
Church was brought up in Granite Falls, a small town in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains, about six hours’ drive from Nashville. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father ran a furniture business.
“He started out in the lumberyard and ended up as president of the company, worked his way all the way up. First person to go to college in his family,” Church says.
He followed his father to college, where he studied marketing, mainly because the course offered the quickest route to graduating. Meanwhile, he spent four or five evenings a week playing music in bars with two friends, earning tip money for covers: $200 between the three on a good night. “That was where the real musical education was,” he remembers. “When people requested a song, we had better know it or learn it.”
“I ain’t got no blue blood trust fund I can dip in to,” he sang on his first album, Sinners Like Me (2006). That’s true – but not completely accurate. When he moved to Nashville in his early 20s, his father funded him for six months, a deal brokered to ensure Church didn’t drop out of college. “My dad was smart, he knew I was headstrong,” he says.
He went to Nashville hoping to make it as a professional songwriter. The performing side came about accidentally, when singers to whom he submitted work felt his songs had too much of his own identity in them. “I never thought that would be the path. I just wanted to write songs,” he says.
As the son of a worker-turned-boss, he has an interestingly nuanced relation to the blue-collar world he hymns. He’s connected to it but also stands apart from it, an insider-outsider. His stage persona is partly the product of craft and technique, an invention, and partly the result of personal experience.
“Some of it’s songwriting, yes,” he says. “But it always draws on emotions and experiences that we all have. I’ve had those. Some are more autobiographical than others, others are drawing on experiences that I’ve had or that I know that people have had. It’s art reflecting life. To me, songwriters are observers. We either live it, we observe ourselves, or we observe people do it.” Country music, in his view, boils down to “songs about real life”. And no one, he reckons, does real life better than Nashville. “As far as I’m concerned, the home of the songwriter is country music. The best songwriters in the world are in Nashville, Tennessee. They’re craftsmen, they are the best.”
His mixed feelings about Nashville are explored on The Outsiders in a song depicting the city as “a tramp, a slut, a bitch, a mutt, a thousand pawnshop guitars”.
“I’ve always been intrigued by Nashville, all these people go to chase their dream, and some people catch it, and they have wild success,” he says. “And then you have somebody who stands out on a street corner, who’s just as talented as the person that’s selling out an arena. I’ve always thought it was very cruel. That’s why I kind of painted the town as the devil’s bride, or evil bitch if you will, because to me it’s so cruel that one person can have their dreams come true and 10 people end up with drug or alcohol issues, or have to go back home, broke … ”
That’s not going to go down well in “Music City”, I suggest. “That’s why I left the US,” Church says, deadpan. Amsterdam beckons, the next date on his European tour. If the bad boy of country music is really looking for a town to get stoned in, this time he’ll have no excuses.