The best track on Eric Church's third album, Chief, is all about the redemptive power of Bruce Springsteen's songs. It's even called "Springsteen." And it brings the Boss cycle full circle, since, of course, Springsteen has been singing about the redemptive power of music for 40 years now. "Even though you're a million miles away/When you hear 'Born in the U.S.A.'/You relive those glory days/So long ago," Church sings to the girl he dated when they were 17, over a muscular heartland-rock rhythm.
It's a pivotal moment on the album, one that links the 34-year-old North Carolina native to a past that seems like a million years ago.
It's also a pivotal moment because Church is typically labeled a country singer. But unlike so many of the genre's players who feel they need to name-drop Hank and Johnny (or, if you're Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw) for a little backroads cred, Church straight-up nods to the music he grew up with: no-frills rock & roll that wasn't afraid to rub against convention from time to time.
"When I started writing this record, I knew it needed to sound like the reason we're here," he says. "We're very old-school, very rock & roll. I didn't care what the label thought, I didn't care what radio thought, I didn't care what the fans thought. I let creativity lead me. And there were times it could have led us off a cliff."
Church has steadily built buzz since his 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me. People started paying more attention after 2009's Carolina, which reached the Top 5 on the country chart. But Chief, which came out last summer, was an unexpected hit. It debuted at No. 1 on the country and pop charts, and didn't take long to go gold. Recently, Church scored his first massive hit single, "Drink in My Hand."
Boozing is a common theme on Chief. For all the reflection he does on "Springsteen" and the scolding he gives a backwoods white kid with a hip-hop obsession on "Homeboy," the heart of the album sits squarely in Liquorville. In one song he's "Hungover and Hard Up." In another he pays tribute to Jack Daniel's. His current road trip is even called the Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour. "A lot of what happened on the road and a lot of that character ended up in the songs," he admits.
The success of the past seven months has afforded Church some wriggle room. Not that he was ever one to play Nashville's games — or at least not by its rules. He's a hardass, but he's also a working singer-songwriter who's just now beginning to hit his stride. And he's glad that others in the country community are along for the ride. "It's a world of distance from my first album," he says. "We used a distortion pedal on a banjo on my first single. People thought I was playing acid rock on country radio. That sounds so tame now."