Singer Church breaks country traditions

Eric Church performs at the ACM Fremont Street Experience in March in Las Vegas.

ST. LOUIS — To tweak an old saying, Eric Church is singing in tall cotton.

The New York Times last month highlighted the country singer-songwriter as one of the brightest lights in country’s latest “outlaw” movement.

This year, his third and latest album, “Chief,” was nominated for a Grammy as best country album and earned glowing reviews from Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly and National Public Radio.

And after years of opening for other artists, he is headlining a national tour, “Blood, Sweat & Beers.”

“It’s been crazy, exceeding any expectations we had,” Church said. “We spent a lot of time playing clubs, bars, dives. And now, we’re filling up arenas of ten, fifteen thousand. And believe me, it’s not lost on us, how rare and special that is.”

Church’s live performances are noted for their rock-concert energy, something in which the North Carolinian takes pride.

“We aim to empty the tank every night,” said Church, 34. “We made our mark by playing like that in those bars and clubs. And when we’d come back to a town, we’d need a bigger venue because of word of mouth about our last show.”

While Church’s songs are country at the core, danger lurks for those waiting to pigeonhole his work. Church, who has a marketing degree from Appalachian State and a Southerner’s love for college football and William Faulkner, embraces rock ’n’ roll with a tight grip.

“When I was a teen driving around listening to music, it was AC/DC and Iron Maiden,” he said. “It was (AC/DC guitarist) Angus Young and three-chord rock.”

Church said he’s interested to see how rap and hip-hop will influence country music in the next few years.

“Country music is more than yee-hahs and hay bales,” he said, noting that the genre is drawing more young people. “Now, it’s cool to be a country artist and roll onto a college campus. ... That used to be a place where kids wouldn’t be caught dead listening to country music.”

Getting that mind-set past the country establishment was tough. He said some executives and radio stations “hit me pretty hard” for a song from his second album, “Carolina,” that speaks of marijuana: “Smoke a Little Smoke.”

“Some stations wouldn’t play it, and some said it was career suicide,” Church said. “But then I’d play the song in concert, and the crowds would tear the place down. I’m glad I stuck to my guns, because that’s what led us to where we are. And I think that’s why ‘Chief’ has been so successful.

“I never talk to the label. We send in the songs and, if they don’t like it, I don’t really care.”