Eric Church didn’t expect to be headlining arenas this year.
Since 2006, the unconventional country singer has had to fight his way into the Nashville establishment. Sure, he had his hits — three of the four singles from his debut album “Sinners Like Me” hit the Top 20 in Billboard’s Country chart, and his second album, 2009’s “Carolina,” spun off two Top 10 singles. But his songs about such un-country topics as smoking marijuana, and his band’s rough-and-rowdy live reputation, kept him away from having a No. 1 hit — that is, until last year’s “Chief” and subsequent singles “Drink in My Hand” and “Springsteen” rocketed to the top spot.
“Well, I mean it’s somewhat of a surprise for us,” Church said recently from a tour stop at Darien Lake in Buffalo. “We’ve always had a different band; we didn’t come out of the box and have a bunch of hits and exposure on TV. We had to kind of earn it, do it the hard way. And to be able to do that and be able to step out in this setting is really very gratifying not only to us, to the band and the fans, but to the radio stations that supported us, too.”
With: Eric Church, Joe Nichols, Thompson Square, Josh Thompson
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Times Union Center, 51 S. Pearl St., Albany
How Much: $55, $43.50, $24.50
Albany’s 107.7 WGNA is one of those stations that has been there almost from the beginning. Since his slot on the 2008 Countryfest bill, Church has gone on to become something of a regular in the Capital Region, performing for WGNA’s Rising Country Stars series and as part of larger package tours that have come through Saratoga Performing Arts Center, including the Country Throwdown in 2010, and opening for Toby Keith last year.
This year, Church will take the top slot at Countryfest, headlining the 19th annual festival Saturday in a bill also featuring Joe Nichols, Thompson Square and Josh Thompson. For the first time, the festival is moving from its regular home at the Altamont Fairgrounds to the Times Union Center, with a free outdoor fair featuring concessions and unspecified entertainment on Pearl Street beginning at noon before the concert at 6 p.m.
A working ‘vacation’
Church is only doing a handful of shows this summer, sandwiched between the two legs of his headlining arena tour, The Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour, in the spring and fall.
“We kind of picked and choosed [sic] the places we’d go to,” Church said. “It’s almost like a vacation, a break — like for the fans, many of whom are on summer vacation as well. It’s kind of like that for us, and it’s been a little bit looser, a little more relaxed, and I think a little more fun.”
It’s no accident that the Capital Region was included in this short run.
“I owe a lot to the area, those folks who came out to see us when it wasn’t the best of times,” Church said. “Now that things are good, it’s fun to come back and celebrate with a show like that.”
This area has long been a somewhat unlikely hotbed of sorts for country music away from the usual strongholds in the South. But Church, who recently played Metallica’s Orion Music + More Festival on June 23 and 24 in Atlantic City, N.J., as the only country act on the bill, has noticed audiences across the country not seeming to care as much about genre restrictions anymore.
“Here’s what I learned — and I’ve always kind of suspected this anyway — I just think the idea of genres, by and large, maybe because of the digital age — I just don’t think genres really exist anymore,” Church said. “I think those things are gone. Nowadays people listen to what they listen to, they surf back and forth. I listen to a lot of stuff myself. I don’t think people are paying much attention to that; it’s just, is it good music, or is it bad music? I think that’s a healthy thing for music.”
Although Church’s own music mixes traditional country sounds and harder Southern rock, like many country artists he was still a tad concerned about opening for Metallica at Orion, on a bill teeming with metal and hard rock acts. But in the end, his theories on converging genres seemed to be proven correct at the show, and he called the show “one of the better things we’ve ever done.”
“We were all apprehensive — we were on right before Metallica, the last artist on their stage,” Church said. “I’ve been to Metallica shows, I’ve seen that. And it was a pretty heavy day, a lot of metal, hard rock. There was a bit of a break, and James Hetfield [Metallica vocalist and guitarist] came out and he introduced us. I was shocked — by the third or fourth song of the set, people really started coming into it.”
The huge success of “Chief” — which netted Church a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album — suggests a wide audience has gravitated toward Church, and not just country music fans. Church said he believes a lot of the success comes down to timing.
“We had the two previous records, and both of them had done well; we just didn’t have a breakout on them,” Church said. “That started to change with [2010 single] ‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ — the numbers, the ticket sales, everything started to change after all those years, and it really just comes down to hard-ass work, all those years of playing 200-plus dates a year and building a fan base slowly.”
Once again, Church worked with producer Jay Joyce, who helmed both of his previous records. Church wrote the bulk of the album over a six-week period, secluded in a cabin in his native North Carolina. “I went off the grid, grew a big beard, tried to find my creativity,” Church said.
Giving album a live feel
For the actual recording, Church and his band kept things simple, recording most of the tracks live. At least four of the songs on the album were first takes, according to Church.
“I realized that the reason we’re here, the reason we got anywhere, wasn’t because of anything other than the live show,” Church said. “We built this thing slowly, grass-roots style, and I wanted the record to sound like a live show.”
The songs, which range from the melancholy stomp of “Homeboy” and “Springsteen” to more sparse, old-school country on “Jack Daniels,” continue to push out in different directions stylistically.
“We’ve gotten more accepted, but early on everybody said we sounded strange, ‘out there,’ ” Church said. “But I always liked being different; I’ve tried to stay fresh. One of my pet peeves in music — not just country music, but all music — is that artists will run the same style of song up and down on the charts over and over. They never make music that takes the format anywhere. When given the opportunity, it’s my job — it’s every artist’s job — to take whatever’s happening in music and do something different with it.”