Sunday, 13 September, 2009 11:47 AM
Eric Church is Not Just Singing
to the Choir (CMA)
by Jim Wright
Nashville recording artist Eric Church
2009 CMA Close Up News Service
When Eric Church wanted
to leave college to pursue music, his dad made him an offer he couldn't
refuse. "He told me if I'd graduate from college, he would
pay for my first six months living expenses in Nashville,"
the North Carolina native recalled. "I graduated with a degree
in marketing and my dad was true to his word."
That degree has paid
off. Church's sophomore album, Carolina, is out. He has already
wrapped up the 37-stop first phase of "The Young & Wild
Tour," to resume in mid June. And his fan base, known as the
Church Choir, is expanding not only because of their hero's all-stops-out
shows and originals-only sets but also because of where many of
those shows take place - like, for instance, Lollapalooza.
As in previous years,
the three-day, all-star blowout, scheduled for August in Chicago's
Grant Park, is all about rock, with the Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode,
The Killers, Jane's Addiction and other headliners throwing down
their mixes of metal, neo-punk, hip-hop and all shades between.
But Church, and a couple of other Country artists, will be performing
there as well.
"We're in Rolling
Stone too," he pointed out, referring to his profile in the
May 14 issue. "We're getting a chance with that and with Lollapalooza
to talk with some people who probably have no idea what goes on
over here in Country Music. Country is the coolest format. It's
where the true singer/songwriter lives. It's where the true troubadour
lives. But we sometimes hide that. That's why I love being there
on the fringes, like an ambassador introducing Country Music to
the rest of the world."
These appearances also
reflect a strategy that has allowed Church to solidify and build
his fan base through bookings into venues where many Country artists
seldom tread. "That's always been the plan," said Jay
Williams, VP, Music, William Morris Agency. "For so many artists,
the first tour or two is opening for someone bigger, and then they
go on the fair and festival run in the summer. We did that with
Eric too - but when you're opening for Brad Paisley or Rascal Flatts,
it's hard to see who you're connecting with. So early on, we came
up with that strategy for building Eric's career from the ground
Williams and Church,
along with Manager John Peets and Director of Touring Fielding Logan,
both of Q Prime South, worked together to implement this approach.
The idea was to book into rock clubs, often in university towns,
where regular customers might be won over and fans from the Country
realm could be persuaded to attend. It worked from the start, with
shows often selling out if not the first time then on return bookings.
Not once, according to Williams, did Church draw smaller attendance
on subsequent visits to those markets.
"We bring a lot
of Country fans into venues they've probably never seen," Church
observed. "They're used to going to places where there's line
dancing and stuff like that, and in these rock clubs it's standing
room only. It's a different experience, more about the camaraderie
you have with the crowd. It's hot and sweaty and loud - and I love
that. It becomes as much about the environment as what we present
onstage. It's not the most comfortable thing in the world, but it's
an experience for the fans."
By strategic planning,
Church has upped total sales for his debut album, Sinners Like Me,
above the 300,000 mark, without having lofted a single into the
Top 10. "We shouldn't be where we are, but I have to say it's
the fans that have pulled us through," he said. "We go
into a market and we'll have more people at the show than we had
the last time. We've made ourselves a brand - Eric Church and The
ECB Band - and the merchandise is all consistent with that brand.
We're headlining this year in venues from 1,500 to 5,000 capacity
and we're pretty excited about that."
Church is also excited
about his new album, Carolina, produced by Jay Joyce, who also worked
with him on Sinners Like Me. "I think Jay is just a genius,"
he insisted. "He is sonically like nobody I've ever been around.
He has the greatest ability to hear me play a song acoustically
and hear it in a produced and developed manner. He brings such an
interesting element to a project. Truthfully, Jay is not a guy who
sits around and listens to Country Music, so he comes from a fresh
place. He tells me that as a songwriter I need to get out of the
way of the song, not let the song get too complicated. And we're
committed to making cool records, which is indicative of the kind
of fan base we want to have."
As for Joyce, he bases
his working relationship with Church on the respect he has for him
as an artist. "Eric actually had some things that he wanted
to say and some songs that he wrote, so that was the one thing that
attracted me to him," the producer said. "I got more of
a sense of an artist from him."
The goal for Carolina
was simple: Both Church and Joyce resolved not to remake Sinners
Like Me while still giving fans something just as special as the
debut album had been. "We were both committed to the same vision
of making a great record," Church said. "It took us some
time to record this album, but that's OK. I may not make many records,
but the ones I make will be quality and I think Jay shares that
Assessing the rise in
Church's confidence and quality of work since their first collaboration,
Joyce added, "His voice has matured, and he's found a range
for his voice that works emotionally. And the craft of songwriting
has also matured. He knows what he wants, so that makes it easy
as far as production. He's not afraid to take chances, and it just
makes it more fun and interesting to work on things like that."
The mindset throughout
the Carolina sessions was in Church's words to "kick the door
down, here we are, you guys better be ready to party." It starts
rowdy and hard and keeps that energy cranked to high throughout
the first several tracks, peaking with "Lotta Boot Left to
Fill," the younger generation's answer to the question George
Jones posed in "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes."
"I'm anxious to
see what happens with this song," Church admitted. "It's
an observation song of how I see some of the people who maybe don't
respect the industry. If you're going to call yourself an artist,
take yourself seriously, like the people who have gone before us.
If you're not serious about it, I think you should move on."
Yet on balance, he added,
"I think Carolina is a little friendlier record than Sinners
was. The first part of the album is similar, but around the middle
of the record it starts to change. 'Love Your Love the Most' (written
by Church and Michael Heeney), which is the first single, is where
you can really begin to see our growth as an artist. We're the same
but we are taking you on a little bit different journey.
"I think you'll
also see a record that is a little more vulnerable, a little more
intimate," he continued. "The song 'You Make It Look So
Easy' is one I wrote for my wife and sang at our wedding. That's
a song that's a definite growth stretch for us. I really struggled
with putting it on the album. The song 'Carolina' (written by Church)
is sonically the masterpiece of the record; it's unlike anything
I've cut before."
Just as Sinners Like
Me reflected Church's life at the time of its release in 2006, Carolina
captures where he is today. "On that first record I was single.
Now I'm married," he pointed out. "You know, some of the
greatest records ever made were snapshots. Waylon's Dreaming My
Dreams was where he and Jessi [Colter] were at the time he recorded
that album. That's what real artists do, and it's why I put the
song from my wedding on here."
Because Carolina took
more than three years to complete, Church is grateful that Capitol
Records Nashville gave him the time he needed to write or co-write
each of the album's 13 tracks and record. "The 'sophomore curse'
exists because you have success with your first release and then
the label rushes you in and you hurry to make that second album,"
he said. "That rush is what ends up making the quality not
as good. Our thought going in was that we had to keep the quality
as good as Sinners. We were fortunate to have wide critical acclaim
with that record, so the bar had been raised. I felt like we could
meet that bar and go over it. I loved that challenge, so even though
it took a little longer I'm happy with it."
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