Eric Church Is Our Greatest Working Rock Star

The most indulgent moment on The Outsiders, the colossal 2014 country-rock opus from the dominant Nashville star Eric Church, is a tremendously goofy extended spoken-word metaphor about how Nashville is the devil. On the indulgently named “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness),” Church’s husky baritone goes into serious-mutter mode, and he throws down some paranoiac nonsense about the city he calls home: “She lurks in friendly shadows, but she’s a junkie with a limp / The agents are her bookie, and the labels are her pimp.” At Church’s Charlottesville show last night (and, presumably, at every show on his current arena tour), there’s a moment where the lights go out and the Jumbotron shows Church reciting the poem in a cinderblock staircase, cheap in-camera effects sometimes turning his eyes red. It’s a silly moment, but it’s nothing compared to what comes next: The lights come back up, and holy shit, there’s a 50-foot inflatable Satan standing at the back of the venue. It’s a great stage prop, too: Glowing eyes, long bendy horns, a belt buckle that says “Nashville.” Look at this fucker:

Church has been kicking around Nashville’s country-music assembly line for a long time now, and the reason that he looks at the city as the devil probably has something to do with the way the city frowns on spoken-word interludes and giant inflatable devils. Church makes big, brawny shitkicker music, and his preferences have placed him at odds with a country-music industry that’s moved toward rap-inflected, truck-centric, Affliction-shirt party songs in recent years. Church sees himself as part of the outlaw country lineage — his song “Hag” is literally about pledging allegiance to Merle Haggard — but he’s really something else.

There’s plenty of Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr. in his music, but there might be more AC/DC or John Mellencamp. His riffs gleam and surge. His choruses kick you in the soul. His lyrics go hard in country’s real-life-situations wheelhouse, but they’re less about drinking lite beer in muddy fields and more about figuring out ways to stand up tall in desperate circumstances. His biggest hit, “Springsteen,” is about being transported by the memory of a song, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s not called, like, “Randy Travis.” Before he played it last night, he tried out an apparently spur-of-the-moment acoustic cover of “Born In The USA,” a song that the real Springsteen didn’t play when I saw him play the same room two years ago. Church sold the room out, just like Springsteen did. Played for almost as long, too.

Despite his antipathy to his city’s conventions, or maybe because of them, Church is now Nashville’s indisputable Head Cracker In Charge. After his 2011 album Chief spawned the #1 country singles “Springsteen” and “Drink In My Hand” and turned Church into a massive star, Church had the capital to make whatever the fuck he wanted. And what he wanted to make was The Outsiders, a deeply impressive and all-over-the-place LP that currently stands as one of the year’s biggest sellers. (For most of the year, The Outsiders sold more copies in the U.S. than any other album released in 2014. Coldplay finally caught up a couple of weeks ago.) The Outsiders has its obvious hit-single moments — “Give Me Back My Hometown” is already a signature song for the man. But it’s also, very consciously, an album-length statement, and a great one. The opening title track and first single crams a whole lot into its four minutes, recalling, at various points Muse and Metallica and Skynyrd and, probably unintentionally, Warren G. (When Church howls “a regulator’s born to regulate,” he’s probably referencing Young Guns, the movie Warren sampled on the “Regulate” intro, but it doesn’t come off that way.) “Roller Coaster Ride” has a tricky complex low end that, Church says, was inspired by Fiona Apple. “Cold One” uses Hammond organ squelches and brass-band tootles and multitracked banjos to shockingly funky ends. “Dark Side” is a dirgey brood about how Church hopes he never has to kill a motherfucker. The Outsiders is a dense and weird and singular album, and I would’ve already written about it on Stereogum if it hadn’t come out the same week as Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. (Benji is a dark masterpiece and all, and I probably still like it better than The Outsiders. I sure find myself throwing The Outsiders on more often, though.) When someone can make an album this dense and swampy and singular and move a fuckton of copies of it in 2014, you have to consider that person as an actual rock star. And then you have to ask yourself what rock stardom even means anymore.

Mainstream rock music, the way we once understood it, no longer exists. There are a lot of reasons for that. Grunge threw it into a years-long identity crisis in the early ’90s, and that eventually led to the rise of things like rap-metal and Creed. For a while, the alternative rock stations couldn’t figure out what counted as alternative anymore, so they played everything, and you couldn’t tell the difference between them and the mainstream rock stations. Everyone was playing the same Godsmack songs. This was not a sustainable situation. Alt-rock lost all veneer of cool to indie, which never got a firm radio foothold even after the Strokes and the White Stripes gave the underground a brief mainstream spark, and to rap, where challenging formalists were all over the radio. At this point, rock radio, to the extent that it even still exists, is a total identity-free mess. Classic rock dinosaur acts like AC/DC and Mötley Crüe still clog up the touring circuit (and put on great shows), but nobody wants or expects them to write any new music that’ll live up to their oldies. Fringe figures like Arcade Fire cross over to arenas every once in a while, but they don’t really try to seize the popular imagination the way the old arena stars once did. And the industry has stopped producing mainstream car-radio riff-rock stars.

That strain of down-the-middle guitar rock — your Foreigners and your Bryan Adamses and your post-Slipper When Wet Bon Jovis — didn’t go completely extinct. Instead, the guys who had been making that stuff moved over to country, which Garth Brooks and Shania Twain had opened up to arena-rock theatrics. Today’s country stars love nodding to tradition, but they don’t really belong to it. Someone like Keith Urban is more likely to sing a watered-down Fleetwood Mac song than a watered-down Kenny Rogers song, and a Jason Aldean occupies the same cultural space that, say, Molly Hatchet once filled. History has a funny way of forgetting those unglamorous everyday-dude rock stars, but they’ve always been a huge part of rock’s appeal. There was a period in the mid-’70s, for instance, where Bob Seger was battling it out with Bruce Springsteen for touring-circuit supremacy. Church is, more or less, our Seger. He’s battling it out with… well, nobody. He has no Springsteen. Nobody is on his level. Jack White? Dan Auerbach? Those guys are a big deal, but they are simply not capable of cranking up beers-up singalongs the way Church can.

The veteran honky-tonk revivalist Dwight Yoakam opened for Church last night, and the contrast couldn’t have been more plain. Yoakam, in his cowboy hat and his rhinestones and his denim suit, consciously recalled everything country used to be, before it became the logical home for a rock star like Church. Yoakam boot-scooted. He aw-shucksed. He had a backing band wearing very, very sparkly clothes. He’s got the sort of leathery charm that would make him the coolest asshole at any dive bar, and his presence has led him to character-actor glory, playing great bad guys in Sling Blade and Panic Room. He’s also got credibility levels that Church probably envies. But he’s not a rock star.

Church doesn’t wear a cowboy hat. (The closest thing to a costume change in his show is when he pulls a beat-up baseball cap over his thinning hair.) He comes off onstage like a beefy mechanic. He holds a guitar most of the time, and it’s usually one of four guitars onstage. It’s the least audible guitar, too, and I suspect that he mostly keeps it because, without it, he’s prone to making the goofy rap-hands gestures of a singer who’s not sure what to do with his arms. The other guys in his band look more the part. One guitarist has tattoos and enormous arms and rockabilly hair, and he plays the more metallic solos. Another has tattoos and biker face-lines and black clothes and an enormous bushy grey goatee, and he plays the bluesier solos. (Those guys even launch into a few bars of Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” at the end of “Smoke A Little Smoke,” a Church hit that helped make weed anthems safe for country radio. That sounds like a small thing, but it’s not.) Backup singer Joanna Cotton, when she gets to step to the front of the stage, comes off like a roaring tornado. Next to them, Church looks like a bit of a herb. But he is a perfect herb, a down-home everyman whose conversational vocal delivery surges into something huge when it needs to and who comes off as a perfectly genuine human being even when leading the choreographed rigors of an arena show. And holy shit, he has songs.

I need to talk about “Homeboy” for a second. The song, a 2011 hit for Church, finds his narrator sneering at “your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground,” telling his knucklehead brother to come back to the small town where he belongs. Culturally, it’s a moralistic take on “Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” a backwards-minded plea to stop all this “trying different things” malarky. And what’s a “hip-hop hat,” anyway? A Yankee fitted? A Schoolboy Q bucket hat? A Flavor Flav top hat? Is it a hat that just says “hip-hop hat” on it? This song should really bug the shit out of me. It’s an attitude I simply cannot stand, in song form. But it’s also a heartfelt plea to heal a family, a helpless wail against the unstoppable force of drifting time. And it’s rendered in perfect Southern-rock power-ballad style, building and surging and exploding in all the right moments. The way Church’s voice chokes with just the right level of emotion on the chorus — “if you never do anything else for me, just do this for me, brother” — it kills me. When Church sang “Homeboy” last night, I was absolutely humiliated to find myself tearing up. Writing a great song is one thing. Forcing someone to love a song that they should, by rights, hate is another thing entirely. Church can do both.

I actually saw Church live once before last night. In 2009, he played the Lollapalooza festival, randomly chucked into the fifth or sixth stage in the middle of a hot afternoon. Church was two albums in at the time, and he’d had some country radio hits, but he hadn’t broken out yet. And the Lolla crowd did not give a fuck about him. In my memory, there were only maybe 50 people watching him. It was probably more than that, but I remember sliding up to the front with no problems at all. He was impressive, in gruff and businesslike sort of way. But he didn’t carry himself with the humble swagger I saw in the Charlottesville arena last night. (Last year, he returned to Lolla a conquering hero, playing one of the main stages and getting an encore.) There’s something so powerful about seeing a star at the peak of his powers, playing to his biggest crowds ever and keeping them on his side effortlessly, seizing his moment. On that level, Eric Church is the world’s greatest rock star at the moment. You will not find a single guitar-driven arena show that does those old lighters-up big-singalong things the way Church’s show does right now. Someone like Bruce Springsteen is still touring arenas and putting on better shows that Church, but his peak was a long time ago. Church’s is right now, and it’s something to see.

One more anecdote from last night: Church has a song called “These Boots,” a track from his 2006 debut Sinners Like Me that he never released as a single. When he plays it, people in the crowd take off their cowboy boots and hold them up in the air. And a lot of people at Eric Church shows wear cowboy boots. If you wanted to, you could look at this as a terrifying statement of red-state solidarity. But I thought it was adorable, a large-scale hey, I’m just like you moment. In the ’80s, Run-DMC’s audiences used to do the same thing with their Adidas. (I wore Adidas to Church’s show. I didn’t hold them up in the air.) Looking around the arena during that moment, people were so happy to hold those boots up.

In 2006, when Church was already in his late 20s but just starting out on his solo career, he was the opening act on a Rascal Flatts tour. At Madison Square Garden, he stretched out his set way too long, and it’s hard to blame him. Country singers never get to play the Garden. In New York, country acts who play arenas in the rest of the country sometimes have to drag their jumbotrons into mid-size nightclubs. Church probably wanted to milk his moment as long as he could. The stunt got him kicked off the tour, which is ultimately why Church spent years honing his live show in rock clubs and on distant Lollapalooza stages. Tonight, he comes back to Madison Square Garden. He’s headlining. If you’re in New York, you should really try to find a way into the show tonight. Bear witness. The world’s greatest working rock star is not in your city every night.

[Photo via Getty Images]

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