ERIC CHURCH: The Adventures of the Carolina Kid

It’s hard to sing the young man’s blues these days, and it’s even more challenging for an ambitious 31-year-old country singer to make a case for tradition while getting in some licks for himself. And while Eric Church doesn’t appear to do anything casually, he likes to write songs that spring surprises, twist narratives and preach to the unconverted-just for the hell of it, you might say. But Church lives in a world where sinners rise up from Saturday night and perfume themselves for Sunday service. Still, it’s language that makes songs; Church is, above all, a formidable craftsman.

Eric ChurchIt’s hard to sing the young man’s blues these days, and it’s even more challenging for an ambitious 31-year-old country singer to make a case for tradition while getting in some licks for himself. And while Eric Church doesn’t appear to do anything casually, he likes to write songs that spring surprises, twist narratives and preach to the unconverted-just for the hell of it, you might say. But Church lives in a world where sinners rise up from Saturday night and perfume themselves for Sunday service. Still, it’s language that makes songs; Church is, above all, a formidable craftsman.

He’s got a critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) debut under his belt; Sinners Like Me appeared in 2006 and produced hit singles-such as “How ‘Bout You”-that were as brash and catchy as the so-called album cuts. In many ways an old-fashioned long-player that achieved its effects through artful sequencing and Jay Joyce’s savvy production techniques, Sinners was a first effort any aspiring songwriter would envy, and Church is working on a new collection which promises to match its predecessor. For all that, he remains unsatisfied.

“I was a little put off by the fact that I had so many people come up to me and say, ‘Can’t top the first one,'” Church says over a beer (and the sound of Johnny Cash on the sound system) in a bar on Nashville’s lower Broadway. He’s just finished playing a few songs to a roomful of radio executives in town for the annual Country Radio Seminar, and is taking a breather before a full-band performance for disc jockeys and other media folk later in the evening,

“I had a problem with that, “Church continues. “I felt like I was gonna make a better record this time. You should never try to make a first record, or a second record, again. You should always have a plan for what that next one’s gonna be. I knew that I could take record two to a place emotionally and diversity-wise that was gonna make people say, ‘The kid’s really grown up.'”

One of the songs Church has just played for the radio bigwigs (he was joined for the WCRS Live! performance by fellow songwriters Dean Dillon and Jennifer Hanson) is the first single off the as-yet unnamed second record. Written with Casey Beathard and Shane Minor, it’s called “His Kind of Money (My Kind of Love).” The title suggests that Church has a genius for the instantly memorable catch phrase. As usual, though, Church wants to go beyond everyday expectations; he’s no singles artist.

“Not many people make records any more,” he opines.  “A lot of people in this town make singles…and they hope they end up with a record. I prefer to make records and hope I end up with singles. Records are about the spacing and the sequencing.”

Focused and self-confident in conversation, Church has been in Nashville since 2000. He cut his teeth playing bars and small clubs around the Hickory, N.C. area (he was born in nearby Granite Falls) and began writing songs at an early age. He hit town itching to make it, and a year later he signed a contract with Sony/ATV Tree Music Publishing. Then he set out to master the craft and art of songwriting, Music City-style.

“I was raised in a Christian…Baptist family-the religion of contradictions,” Church laughs. “I had a view of the world. Then I went out on my own. When I got here, I didn’t know anybody. If I had known what I was up against, I would have never come. I got an apartment in Brentwood…I didn’t know that Brentwood wasn’t downtown Nashville, and it took me about a day to find out where Music Row was.”

With a marketing degree from North Carolina’s Appalachian State University behind him, and a six-month financial cushion provided by his father, Church went to the kind of songwriting school that Nashville is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to give an up-and-comer. “When I first came to town, I was at best a bad songwriter,” Church remembers. “I knew how to write a song. I started writing early, by myself, but I couldn’t make it all tie together. I went and started going to these writer’s nights and watched these hit writers play. I saw where the bar was, and that was another part of my education.”

Church had already logged time in cover bands and soaked up all sorts of music. “The bands that really scarred me growing up were Little Feat and The Band,” he says. “I grew up in that ‘80s era, when everything had a sound [that] could be overproduced. So to hear Little Feat and The Band was great…I even had Lowell George’s solo record  [1979’s Thanks I’ll Eat It Here]. My favorite cover is something I’m not sure the crowd knows. We still do ‘Ophelia’ and ‘The Shape I’m In.'”

Hanging out and taking stock, Church began to develop a style. “I’d study how [songwriters] set up a hook, how they delivered a hook, length of the song, the emotion in the song,” he remembers. “I’d watch these songwriters over and over, and try to soak it up.  It took me all the first year, but all of a sudden, man…you write a song. You get the point where you realize this is something you’re not ashamed to play for somebody.”

Church says the first fruit of his mature labors was something called “Brandy.”  He laughs, “It’s never been heard. It was, like, a girl and the alcohol. It was, ‘Brandy, I just can’t choose between lovin’ her and drinkin’ you.’ That was the first song.”

“Brandy” might not have been a landmark on the order of, say, “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it satisfied Church. He continued to write and got some cuts-notably, Terri Clark recorded his “The World Needs a Drink” in 2004. He continued to work on perfecting his craft.

“I treated it like a real job,” Church says.  “I went in every day. The first co-write I had was with Brett Beavers. Sony set me up with him. To sit across from somebody and have to create something is a little intimidating. Now it’s second nature. Casey [Beathard] and I wrote ‘The World Needs a Drink,’ and we had nothin’…sat there and stared at each other, went to lunch and continued to stare at each other, came back, and all of a sudden I started playin’ some riffs.”

Church was making himself known in one of the toughest businesses anywhere.  “The first check was a hell of a day,” he says. “I still remember the conversation with my dad about the royalty check I got. He had a hard time getting his head around what I got paid for.”

Sinners Like Me paired Church with a brace of songwriters that included Beavers, Beathard, Jeremy Spillman, Trent Willmon and Liz Rose. Church found a congenial producer in Jay Joyce. “Jay approaches production the same way I approach songwriting,” he says. “I’m meticulous with the lines and the melodies, how it all relates, and how you deliver a hook. Jay is the same way with guitar parts and drum parts.”

With its warm textures and tastefully post-modern aesthetic, Sinners stands as one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory. “Before She Does” rides on the nervous twitch of an acoustic guitar, while “How ‘Bout You” uses what sounds like a muted banjo as backdrop for a song that exudes confidence but manages to subtly defy the dictates of country music production. Synth sounds merge with pedal steel and drumbeats that could have been lifted from Los Lobos’ avant-garde side project Latin Playboys.

If the music seems unforced yet self-aware, Church’s lyrics contain what might be called manageable tragedy. “Guys Like Me’ examines social mobility. “You went to college, I pulled graveyard,” Church sings.  Meanwhile, the heartland rock of “What I Almost Was” takes a look at the terrors and joys of self-invention, only from a safe distance. Sinners reads like the true confessions of a wild-ass with a sharp eye for detail, yet it also registers as pop music. There’s a wistful feel for bygone days-an early-autumn crispness-that brings to mind a country Pet Sounds.

“The first one was a very specific kind of record,” Church says of Sinners.  “It was a young, single guy. It was aggressive. It was…stories about lost love and so forth.  And it was thematic, song-by-song.”

Church says the new record will be a departure, and a watershed in his career. “We set out to kinda make this record-and I hate to use the word-a masterpiece record,” he declares. “You could say that the kid’s really grown up, and that it’s really different. It’s a journey, a trip and a vibe.”

Again produced by Joyce, the forthcoming collection takes up where Sinners left off. (It’s tentatively set for an August release, and Church says he’s been toying with a few titles, including Carolina, after one of the record’s songs.) “We kicked songs off and didn’t put songs on,” he says. “We cut 16 and left three off that are probably gonna get cut by major country artists. But I don’t know if I’m gonna let ‘em go.”

Now a believer in the collaborative process, Church says he wrote two of the record’s songs by himself. By contrast, Sinners contained only one composition solely by Church-the incredible death-row tale, “Lightning.” He says he had plenty of material this time out and had to make some tough choices.

“There’s a song I didn’t cut, called ‘Michael,’ that’s probably the greatest song I’ve ever written,” Church says. “It’s about an alcoholic, a guy that stands up and says, ‘Hey, my name is Michael.’ He talks about his wife and kids, Little League and stuff.  ‘That’s what’s going on in my life without me,’ he sings, and that’s where the hook came from. It was such a heavy song. The disappointment of this record was not having that song on it. But I couldn’t put it anywhere on the record and recover.”

That’s spoken like a true ‘album artist.’ The rest of the record sounds equally well-conceptualized, with one that Church calls “Where She Told Me to Go,” which he says is about a guy with serious woman problems, not to mention no picture on his television. “It ain’t like there was a first resort in this last-chance-for-gas neighborhood,” Church offers as a preview of the song’s lyrics. “Yeah, the great thing about that one is that it never says the word ‘hell’ in the entire song, but that’s where she told him to go,” he says.

Recently married to music publisher Katherine Blasingame, Church might be settling down, but he remains a passionately driven artist. His songs really do reflect an aspect of country music that often falls through the cracks left by other Music Row carpenters. Call it the self-awareness of the average guy who wants to be noticed, but for the right reasons-Church knows we’re all sinners in need of both redemption and benediction.

“One thing I figured out, playing bars in college, is that all these people who would come out on Saturday night to party were good people, with good hearts,” Church says.  “It was a tolerance thing for me.  I’m tryin’ to show a little bit of what I believe and what I’ve seen. But as for the songs themselves, I hope they don’t advocate a damn thing.”