Eric Church Marks His Territory

Eric Church Marks His Territory
/ John Peets /Grooming by Debra Williams/Styling by Katy Robbins: Shirt and jacket: Rogue, Jeans: Diesel, Shoes: John Varvatos

by Rob Harvilla
Sidestepping bro stereotypes and rapping carpetbaggers, the Nashville badass navigates the dangerous wilds of country radio and conservative demos with an album that challenges both from the inside. Best believe, though, this outsider will regulate.

The original plan was to shoot guns or ride four-wheelers (or both, simultaneously), but instead, we have gathered here today on Eric Church's land to watch one of country music's biggest and/or baddest superstars spread deer musk on trees. This was his idea — his way of fulfilling the Manly Activity requirement of our time together.

"We can fake something else," he explained, back at the studio. "But this is what I'm doing."

So, we walk out to the studio parking lot, where a gorgeous black BMW is parked right in front, which we pass in favor of a beat-up, mud-splattered black Silverado straight out of Central Big and/or Badass Country Star Casting, down to the fact that Church has to move his gun — sorry, sidearm — off the front seat to accommodate his passenger. There's a quick flash of sheepishness from Eric, re: the sidearm. We drive across the city from East to West Nashville, ten minutes out of downtown, to a prodigiously hilled and forested 800 acres — ridges, rattlesnakes ("way more than I'm comfortable with"), real Cormac McCarthy shit. And yes, out past, say, 500 acres, one's "property" becomes one's "land."

We make small talk. Country music has changed dramatically, has grown and prospered, just in the past few years; Nashville, too. (Maybe it's the TV show, Church muses. Has he seen the TV show? No.) We discuss the off-putting, hip-hop-flavored present (c.f. Nelly-coddling, shirt-sleeve-averse hitmakers Florida Georgia Line), and the way the genre's superstar past may be its superstar future (c.f. '90s hero Garth Brooks' imminent comeback).

Talk turns to Church's own success, his own audience, his own niche, his own lane, which, roughly put — and we'll get into this at length real soon — involves aggressive, pristinely recorded, deftly sentimental hard-rock songs lightly dusted with country or vice versa, the gestures (lyrically and otherwise) grandiose, and the guitars (electric and otherwise) comically enormous, hard-rock guitars in modern country songs being to actual hard-rock guitars what anime breasts are to real breasts.

Anyway, that's his lane, and has been since the mid-2000s. "Young males are what changed us," he says. "Because, when I first came out, everybody was marketing to the soccer mom, the 40- to 50-year-old area. I had nothin' for 'em. I'm not a soccer mom, my mom's not a soccer mom, my wife's not a soccer mom — I had nothin'. So we focused on the males. And that was before they really came back to country music."

Just inside the gate to his land sits his tour bus, a purring behemoth at rest, evidently serving during tour breaks as a way station in which to switch from boots to Serious Boots. And out comes the deer musk.

We're talking EverCalm Deer Herd Scent here — $13.98 on Amazon, packaged exactly like a stick of deodorant, which is not a good idea. Nor is the fact that Church has acquired, from the tour bus, a giant Styrofoam cup filled to the brim with steaming-hot coffee, which he holds precariously aloft in one hand as we off-road it up various not-at-all-negligible hills, both side-view mirrors folded inward, tree branches whipping the doors on both sides — real truck-commercial shit. At first, the coffee seems like a deliberate flaunting of badassness, but it just may be an honest miscalculation: "Ooh, there we go. One drop! That's warm on the nuts. WHOO!"

Church jovially explains why this outing is necessary. "Marshall, my assistant, he does everything for me — he's great," this explanation begins. "We were out here the other day, doing something for a photo shoot, and I take him up to this deer stand I've been working my ass off to make sure is perfect. And he decides — he's not a hunter at all — and he decides he's gonna take a piss."

Guffaws in the car, meanwhile, from his fellow hunters.

"He takes a piss at the bottom of my deer stand that I've been working for about six months to get right. I look down, and he's in the bushes, pissing. And I was like, 'Dude, you just, absolutely — I'm done. It's over. It's over with.' And I've spent the last couple days trying to regain control of the area." If you urinate in the forest, cautious deer are less likely to show up and thereby consent to be shot, by you. So Church is embroiled in — forgive us, as he forgave Marshall — a pissing contest.

The Silverado's occupants are all in turn prevailed upon to smell the deer musk. ("It smells like shit. It smells like deer.") Along the drive, we marvel at stumps and branches stripped bare by rutting specimens: "It's just like a stripper pole, man," Church says. "They take their horns, and when they're marking their territory — they're in what's called 'The Rut' — they're trying to breed." ("RUT FRENZY," screams a cover line from the latest issue of Deer and Deer Hunting, also available on the tour bus.) "So the key would be either to mimic the female, or you mimic a dominant male. That's what I'm doing."

To the layman, Church is smearing Right Guard on the foliage. But he brings an admirable, casual swagger to this and, in fact, all activities, tall and trim and jocular in not-too-tight jeans, unassuming shades, a light camo jacket, close-cropped dark hair, and no hat. (The hat, or lack thereof, always carries deep symbolism in country music.) A chic but "captain of the football team" bearing, if the captain of the football team was also the punter. He looks like Somebody, and nobody worth messing with.

It is early December, pleasantly seasonably warm until the sun sets (at 4:30). The woods are eerily silent, save the leaves crunching underfoot, and the ongoing small talk. How he wants to invent a mobile app that is essentially a nanny-cam/machine-gun hybrid that will allow him to shoot deer remotely via text message. How he locked his keys in his truck while up here a couple days back, and had to bash out a side window with his hatchet.

He's being professionally photographed, by the way, as he does all this, the deer-musk thing. His longtime manager — part of the "us" in "Young males are what changed us" — takes the shots; another team member holds a doormat-sized sunlight reflector. Church is posing, without ever seeming to. It's a pissing contest/photo shoot.

So let's try this three ways:

Who is Eric Church?
He's the guy who smears deer musk on trees for pleasure, and is photographed/journalistically observed doing so as part of his job.

Who is Eric Church?
He's the most exciting, sonically fearless singer in Nashville. The guy who can win the CMA Album of the Year (for 2011 breakthrough Chief, his third, anchored by a monster low-power ballad called "Springsteen") and play Coachella, Austin City Limits, and Metallica's Orion Fest. A CMT-beloved bad-ol'-boy copacetic enough to take the stage at Lollapalooza and uncouth enough to later report to Rolling Stone that "I was stunned at how pussy 90 percent of those bands were. Nobody's loud. It's all very fuckin' Peter, Paul and Mary shit." The guy who hates the term "outlaw" and still gets it all the time. The guy whose imminent fourth album, The Outsiders, is so audacious and sprawling and electrifying and ridiculous that he almost convinces you he still is one. (You can hear an advance stream of the whole thing right now... via NPR.) The guy even people who don't like country like; the guy everyone else loves, unless he has (inadvertently, he would insist) insulted you personally, which is always possible. The guy so divisive he's a uniter.

Who is Eric Church?
The guy who has mastered the fine art of mimicking the dominant male. Half the fun lies in trying to figure out if he's mimicking at all.

You should listen to more country music. Even if you initially hate it. Especially if you initially hate it. So spin your own Silverado radio dial to your friendly local station, and wait for "The Outsiders" to come on; in the meantime, please enjoy several grain silos' worth of affable, tight-pants'd gentlemen co-opting some once-unlikely, now-clichéd source (usually Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, a displeased Tom Petty, the Beastie Boys, or if you're really lucky, some godforsaken mutant spawn of all five) to sing the praises of small towns, of trucks, of dirt roads, of the even tighter-pants'd blue-jean vixens who congregate therein or thereon.

Also: Everyone is drunk. "Let's say I pick you up in my truck and we go ball in a field somewhere" is the subtext (or text) of 90 percent of male-driven modern country songs. With time, you can regard this formula as amusing and reassuring and genuinely pleasurable; disgusted detractors and bemused supporters alike have taken to calling this phenomenon "bro country," which is unfortunate for everybody involved. (Church, at one point, wonders aloud who invented the term, in a steely tone that suggests he'd like to remotely gun down that person via text message, also.)

The larger genre has plenty of alpha females — from established megastars like Miranda Lambert to sly young provocateurs like Kacey Musgraves to underground critical darlings like Ashley Monroe to alpha human pop star Taylor Swift, whose relationship with country is roughly analogous to Beyoncé's relationship with the rest of Destiny's Child. These women are great; these women are critically beloved; these women are indeed usually way better, actually, doing everything that the boys do backwards, and in high-heeled boots. But the looming, suffocating cloud of vaguely deer-scented Axe Body Spray is hard to ignore and harder to dispel.

If you give all this an honest shot and still hate it, you may find solace in the recent mash-up viral video "Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013." But you'll really find solace in Eric Church.

"The Outsiders" drops onto all this like a bomb. It creeps up on you, a slow, murmuring, churlish AC/DC variant, the naked guitar line surly and swampy, with Church starting off in spoken-word-badass mode:

They're the in crowd
We're the other ones
It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from
We let our colors show
Where the numbers ain't
We're the paint where there ain't supposed to be paint

Forgive him the paint-by-numbers thing; forgiving him is, in fact, a central theme of Church's music. So then the chorus explodes into a cock-rock bacchanalia — "THAT'S WHO WE ARE! THAT'S HOW WE ROLL!" — buttressed by those anime-grade Marshall-haystack guitars, Church's nasal, needling tenor quickly morphing into a full-blown wail: "And the player's gonna play / And a hater's gonna hate / And a regulator's born to regulate."

It's corny, but deeply thrilling, and the last 90 seconds are just far beyond: a wordless, gloriously depraved near-prog-rock thrash breakdown that'd sound excessive anywhere, even on your friendly neighborhood proto-metal station that's probably called "The Bone" or something. On a country station, even given the queasily fungible 21st-century definition of "country," it sounds absurdly incongruous, sounds incredible, sounds hilarious, sounds like a threat and a promise and a nuclear assault before you can even respond.

It also sounds like unimaginable power, a cheerful fuck-you from a one-time genre pariah with a Godzilla-sized chip on his shoulder who now fills arenas and hoists industry trophies, who describes the mindset behind his first three records as, "We can kick a little ass, but not all the ass," and now intends to kick all the ass. You think of no one so much as Drake — that this is the hostile sonic equivalent to the rapper's recent boast, "This is nothin' for the radio / But they'll still play it though / 'Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake, that's just the way it go."

"The Outsiders" didn't exactly top the charts, but you suspect that wasn't the point; whether he succeeded in bombing the system a little bit is debatable. "I don't know if it freaked anyone out," says Becky Brenner, who has spent more than 35 years in the industry as a DJ, program director, operations manager, and now an independent consultant. "We're very lucky in country radio that we can play many different kinds of music with different nuances to it — pop country, rock country, now we've got rap country. You've got a little bit of everything in there. It's just, how far does it go? And that one, you can see from the limited airplay that it got, was a little too far to the edges."

Brenner's (and the radio's) love for Church is undiminished, however. "The uniqueness of his voice, the power with which he sings — there's so much emotion in everything that he sings. And then once you see him do that live, then you're just sold even more. Because it's coming out of every single pore of his body… you can't help but love that. There's just an energy and a vibe that can't be ignored." She pauses. "And okay, I do kinda like the rebels a little bit."

Church was born in Granite Falls, North Carolina; his revered grandpa was the police chief (nickname: "Chief"). Young Eric took up hunting and fishing (on Chief's own, prodigious land), but was gigging around by high school; despite lots of bar-band chicanery, he graduated from Appalachian State with a degree in marketing, which he still gets shit about. "I understand branding," he allows, relaxing on his tour bus late in our time together, clinking ice into his glass for emphasis as he pours whiskey from his personal, bottomless Jack Daniel's barrel, a barrel of whiskey being roughly analagous in quantity to "a shitload."

In 2001, he moved to Nashville, as all nascent country stars must; he first took a stab at writing songs for others, as most do. Eventually, he landed a publishing deal with industry magnate Arturo Buenahora, Jr., who in turn hooked him up with a wildly unlikely producer — a cheerfully grizzled Cleveland native and rock dude named Jay Joyce, who made his own Nashville pilgrimage in the '80s (his old band, Bedlam, landed multiple tracks on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack). Decades later, Joyce still has very little interest in country music and its hierarchies of badassness as such: "I've never shot a gun in my life," he tells me. "Nope. I had a lot of fights…." He and Church have been artistically inseparable ever since.

Signed to Capitol Nashville, Church's first two albums — 2006's Sinners Like Me and 2009's Carolina — are fascinating experiments in throwing all manner of tender-roughneck shit against the wall to see what sticks, in balancing unavoidable genre tropes with the weirder, wilder predilections of star and producer. There are songs they clearly love (Joyce initially went wild for "Lightning," a spare, haunting Death Row lament worthy of Steve Earle), and blatant, nearly self-loathing sops to country radio ("Love Your Love the Most" sings the praises of cold beer, college football, good BBQ, Church's truck, and so forth, through audibly gritted teeth). Some tunes — the self-loathing ones, usually — dented the radio; most didn't. Not bad, but the major-label end was nigh.

Then came "Smoke a Little Smoke," one of two major plot twists in the official Eric Church myth, a wry, strutting Carolina deep cut released as a last-ditch, Hail Mary single in June of 2010 against, he insists, his label's wishes. Anchored by the singer's own slippery acoustic guitar (expertly balanced with quick bursts of aggro anime action), it recast him as a thoughtful, soulful bad boy, pointed ("Need a little more right / And a little less left") and gently witty ("My definition of 'change' just ain't the same") in equal measure. Joyce's mix was sumptuous, sophisticated, and surprising, the whole thing cleverly repackaging yet another country cliché (the winking pot anthem) as a declaration of independence. Like "The Outsiders," it didn't exactly top the charts, but Church had what he needed: separation from the pack.

"His stance — he's about shaking it up, doing something different," Joyce says. "And that's pretty rare when you find new country artists. They're so ready to sell their souls just to have a chance. And here's the kid nobody knows, and he's already saying he doesn't want to do this, and he doesn't want to hire the same producer, the same players, and he wants to do something different. That's pretty brave when you got nothin'."

By the time "Smoke" revitalized him, Church had more of nothin' than most. Which brings us to the other half of the EC creation myth: In 2006, he got himself kicked off a mega-tour with industry titans and manscaped doofus nesting dolls Rascal Flatts for angrily stretching his opening set wayyyyy too long at Madison Square Garden. Replaced, uproariously, by a young, mostly unknown, far-more-pliable striver named Taylor Swift, he was cast out into a quasi-blackballed limbo, booking his own meager and often lightly attended solo tours at various unsightly holes in various walls. It's a rebellious and romantic notion (very indie, such DIY), even today: "Now, when we go in to play an arena or whatever, it's Groundhog Day. I can't even tell — the damn arenas look the same."

I would run into industry people who'd say, 'We wanna use the Eric Church model,' or 'We wanna bottle that.' You'd be nuts to do — to try to follow that!

That banishment was a blessing, and a barely disguised one. "One thing that's great about our fans, and the way we built our career, is they're our fans," he says, back on the royal we. "I don't know that they belong to a format or they belong to a certain demographic. They're just ours. I found that a lot of people, when they first come out, new artists, it's almost like they're trying to borrow and steal other big acts' fans. They come out to open for people. For us, we never did that. We couldn't. So we had to make our own. They became ours from the beginning, and then they converted other people. I didn't do it; they did it. And I think that's the unique part of our story."

It's almost too perfect, actually — Rascal Flatts are the archetypal love-to-hate, limp-country deities, an excellent foil for a guy craving to style himself as a tough-talking free spirit. They're the law to his outlaw. "I laugh all the time, because after that happened, I would run into industry people who'd say, 'We wanna use the Eric Church model,' or 'We wanna bottle that,' he says, incredulous. "You'd be nuts to do — to try to follow that! None of it, at the time — okay, so, first single doesn't go Top 10. So, on your second single, a) get fired from the biggest tour in country music; b) put out a song about teen pregnancy; c) follow it up with a song that didn't go Top 10; d) struggle and be banished to the wilderness to play rock clubs, sometimes heavy metal clubs. It doesn't make sense up here! We were reacting to the environment. We always kept it about the music. So, there is no model. There is no plan. You would never be able to recreate the conditions we went through."

He never had to worry about a radio boycott, at least. "There's a percentage of the audience that loves the outlaw and wants the person that's the renegade… then there's the other side of the audience that says, 'Really? You have to go that far?'" Brenner says. "What's great about country radio is we tend to be able to just serve them all. Country fans are very forgiving about things — unless you ask the Dixie Chicks, of course."

Out of all this brilliantly if accidentally sculpted chaos came 2011's Chief, Church's commercial breakthrough, which flaunted serious range, from the Stones-y barfight-starter "Drink in My Hand" to the delicate thank-you-for-loving-me-despite-myself ballad "Like Jesus Does" (a Church specialty) to the operatic "Homeboy," a studio-finessed, shotgun-gospel epic that took some heat for admonishing a prodigal son "with your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground." (Church seems to have little time for rap, personally, though he acknowledges that most younger stars now, from Florida Georgia Line on down, grew up with little else.) But "Springsteen" is the ringer, a sweet, calmly piano-driven rock-concert reminiscence that both directly references "Born in the U.S.A." and proves itself worthy of the lineage.

Cue the raves, the trophies, the insider plaudits, the spinoff live album (last year's Caught in the Act) that itself went Top 5. Oh, and cue the unease. "We got pulled in a lot," Church says now. "I felt when we made Chief, we were way left of center, and all the sudden, center moved left. When that happened, yeah, that freaked me out. I don't like being there. I never, ever, ever want to be in the middle. I never want to be the standard."

Hence, The Outsiders. "With this album, I wanted to show, 'Okay, you guys can come this way all you want, but I'm goin' on out — if you wanna follow, that's cool, but I'm goin' way out here on the edge, because I do better out there. I feel better out there.'" Started from the bottom, now we're here. Beat him or join him.

One tangible result of this ascent is Joyce's swank new studio, housed in an honest-to-god former church (Baptist, most recently) in East Nashville, a neighborhood somewhat derisively regarded as the city's very own Williamsburg, a formerly rough part of town (Joyce notes that he used to buy drugs here) now reborn as an artisanal-boutique enclave "where the waiter is always right," as one joker puts it. No pews in the church now, though a huge crucifix (with green neon underlighting) still looms above the gear-packed altar. There's a song on Chief called "Country Music Jesus," by the way.

We are here today to blast The Outsiders in full, at biblical volume, with color commentary from Church himself, his voice a bit raspy, as he spent most of yesterday cutting down trees for firewood (he's hosting a Christmas party later this week), and has inhaled a great deal of dust and exhaust. This renders him inaudible while the album is playing, but then again, your own thoughts are rendered inaudible, at any volume. The Outsiders is absolutely bonkers, even if the full-blown backwoods-Metallica firestorm teased by the title and leadoff track never materializes. ("That's still fun," Church quietly murmurs, as the song's thrash-prog coda shorts out.)

As an opener, "The Outsiders" is a bit of a feint — it's followed by a spare, lithe, acoustic thank-you-for-loving-me-despite-my-slightly-older-self softie of a ballad called "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young," in which Church marvels at outliving both Jesus and Hank Williams. This is followed by the bumptious "Cold One," the closest thing to a bro-country variant here, with its booming kick-drum and (per the punny title) its she-left-me-and-took-one-of-my-beers lament. It sounds like an escaped-subway-alligator Paul's Boutique sample; Church, his knees bobbing up and down on a studio couch, is greatly pleased. "We figure, by that point, people know that all bets are off."

We are kicking all the ass here. But there's also a keen sense of when to go all out and when to pull back — "Talladega," a prime-cut red-meat tale of driving Dad's Winnebago to a NASCAR race, serves to soothe any conservative types unnerved by "Roller Coaster Ride," a space-disco funhouse of swoops and squiggles jolted by low-end piano stabs that were inspired, Church says, by a Fiona Apple concert he caught on late-night television: "It was just this — almost looked like Animal from The Muppets, just beating on the bottom part."

Back and forth we go — a "Gimme Shelter"-style shout-off with Eric-beloved backing vocalist Joanna Cotton called "That's Damn Rock & Roll" paired with "Like a Wrecking Ball," an organ-driven vintage-soul sex jam. "I've always hated where we get cute with subjects like that," Church says. "Innuendo. I'm of the old school, the Al Green, that age of, 'We're talkin' about sex.' Just come out and say it." (Joyce, in fact, asserts that "Eric is a more of a soul singer, in my opinion," though on the other hand, "I can put Eric's voice on a disco song, and it'd sound country.")

And then comes "The Trilogy," the studio code-name for a two-track, three-part gonzo descent into dirty-blues demonology that starts with some tough talk about Church putting a bullet in anyone who threatens his little boy (he's married, with a two-year-old son named Boone McCoy), before shifting into a spoken-word Nashville-as-Satan treatise that Church partially recited straight into his iPhone in the Opry Mills mall parking lot shortly after learning that Shel Silverstein's estate wouldn't give him the rights to Shel's Nashville-as-Satan poem "The Devil and Billy Markham." So Church took a shot at characterizing his adopted hometown himself:

She lurks in friendly shadows
But she's a junkie with a limp
The agents are her bookie
And the labels are her pimp

He loves those lines. The indulgence has somewhat undercut the menace by this point —the full track-name is "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)" — but you can't argue Church isn't Going For It, and after The Trilogy concludes, you get what might be The Outsiders' ultimate reward: "Give Me Back My Hometown," a colossal tear-jerker that triangulates the luxe grandiosity of "Homeboy" and the raw sentimentality of "Springsteen." It's bro country's small-town deification taken to poisoned extremes — a failed romance rendering Main Street and high-school football touchdowns and even the Pizza Hut unbearable, the aftermath of Jack lamenting his breakup with Diane. It climaxes with a wordless, soaring, bleacher-stomp-and-clap coda that unabashedly evokes… Coldplay. It sounds fantastic; it sounds great on repeat for an hour. "I think that's a hit," Church says quietly when it's over.

Of course, he'll also tell you that hits are not the point anymore, and never were. Church explains that he and his various co-writers worked up 121 songs for The Outsiders — carefully vetted and slashed from there by a team including his producer, wife, and publisher — with the sole aim of fueling the record's journey (his word). "There are eight or ten songs, I shit you not, they are Song of the Year, runaway smashes for us," Church insists. "Didn't make the album."

Bluster, sure, but undercut somewhat by the fact that as he speaks, he's idly jamming on a 1960 Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar that, in a bet with Joyce, he will win if Chief goes double platinum. By the time I talk to Joyce a few weeks later, he has surrendered it. Call this guy on his bullshit if you must, but bring collateral.

The most rock'n'roll (or rockist) thing about Eric Church may be his devotion to "The Album" as a hallowed, sanctified ideal to which all the other nonsense — certainly press-cycle considerations, but even tours, even said album's individual songs, even if they're alleged runaway smashes — must genuflect. The following day, sitting on his tour bus, drinking whiskey from his barrel in between setups for the "Give Me Back My Hometown" video, he reels off the stuff he hates about his job, which includes basically every activity that doesn't take place in a studio or directly onstage. "I hate the fame part. I hate getting recognized. I hate press. I hate all that stuff that is just so — I want to make music."

The other stuff tends to bedevil him, it's true. One theme of The Outsiders is the end of his hell-raising days — "I got a wife and got a son / That don't know half the stuff I done," goes an early line — which applies to Rascal Flatts-style media controversies, as well. A dust-up last year in which he seemed to throw shade at musical reality shows — enraging country power couple Miranda Lambert (formerly a Nashville Star contestant) and Blake Shelton (currently a judge on The Voice) — was a misunderstanding, he quickly insisted, a clumsy misstating of his point that there are no easy routes to success. (Or shouldn't be, at least.)

He doesn't abide Twitter or Facebook or any such social-media action past or future, either: "I've been very honest with the fans about that," he says. "The music is what you're gonna get, and the show. We're gonna focus on it. It's all I think about. It's all we do." This is also advisable: An early teaser video for The Outsiders drew ire for seeming to antagonize Taylor Swift (the clip was subtitled "One Will Rise and One Will Fall"), necessitating a subsequent clip waving off the controversy and insisting that "Eric adores Taylor." Let's add real quick that Eric Church is also the guy who's forced to release teaser videos that clarify the quasi-antagonistic content of previous teaser videos.

Maybe more than anybody, I don't like everybody. I think that's normal. I think that's real.

So set Taylor aside, but beyond that, all bets are off. "I'm not gonna lie to you," he says. "Maybe more than anybody — and it's not popular in country music — I don't like everybody. I think that's normal. I think that's real. I'd challenge anybody to go, not only to any industry, but go to any family, or go anywhere, and tell me if you like everybody." He knows the industry pull he has, the influence he wields, the temptation to poach his fans as he refused to (or was not allowed to) poach others'. He hears himself on the radio, and it's not him; he hears himself in interviews, and it's not him. He's at peace with who he is, and who the bros who constitute his competition are not.

"I'm 36," he notes. (As indeed, he notes on the album.) "I'm not 25, and I don't want to be 25. I know there's kids out there right now who are 25, and they're doing great. I still don't want to be them. I want to be this, and I think there's a market out there for this. I can still kick their ass, the kids — I guarantee — but I want to be honest about where we are."

Anyway, he'd rather talk about who he does like, from fellow country rebels (especially songwriter's-songwriter types like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves, both winking-pot-anthem kindred spirits) to stuff farther afield — Jools Holland got him into Malian singer Rokia Traoré; his Orion Festival jaunt got him into robed metal weirdos Ghost.

Even on a topic like Brad Paisley's woeful LL Cool J team-up "Accidental Racist" — in which the genre's highest-profile quasi-liberal failed to sufficiently apologize on behalf of America for that whole slavery thing — Church is sanguine. "There was a bunch of noise," he says. "It wasn't something I focused on because, here's why: If that's a statement he wants to make, creatively, artistically, then cool. I think that's noble. I think that's good. Because, artistically, he's reaching out… There's too many people who don't put themselves in the position to have that kind of backlash. It doesn't matter what you think about the song, good or bad. The important thing is he threw his nuts on the table. I dig it. I dig that part of it. I've done that. Where people say it's the worst song ever, they hate this, they hate that. People hate 'The Outsiders.' But people love 'The Outsiders.'"

A phrase Church uses often, as the ultimate slur, is "something other than the music." As something to avoid, to excise entirely. He's working on it, this master cleanse; he's not totally there yet. Which is why soon he's standing beneath a highway overpass in a stylish but insufficient black winter coat, night long since fallen, a Nashville December chill long since settled in, staring down a film crew two-dozen large, lip-syncing to "Give Me Back My Hometown" over and over, with a few members of that crew tasked with dumping giant bags of leaves in front of industrial fans so as to engulf him at climactic moments.

This does not look dignified in person. Nor is it "acting," per se; the video's cheerful director — who in lieu of "That's a wrap!" prefers "That's fuckin' money!" — is not asking anything from his star other than that he look mildly aggrieved and uncomfortable, which, when contending with something, anything, other than the music, may be Eric Church's natural state. So once again, the stars align: He can fake something else, but what he's already doing works just fine.

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