Eric Church has always said the right things. Or, he’s said the right things most of the time at least. The question with Church has always been where the marketing ends, and where the real Eric Church begins. Really, where Eric Church is at his best is when he doesn’t say anything, and lets his music and his actions speak for him. That’s what he did with his latest record, Mr. Misunderstood, which was critically-acclaimed, award winning, and a commercial smash, despite the lack of a roll out and very little media push afterwards. He let the organic inertia of his noble deeds carry it to the top as opposed to peddling it through conventional channels.
Undoubtedly, Eric Church has built one of the most rabid and loyal fans bases in music by doing it his way, the hard way, and as an antithesis to the way Music Row regularly handles its business. He’s done it through hard touring and taking care of his fans. He’s done it by ruffling feathers, like when he got kicked off the Rascal Flatts tour at the beginning of his career for playing too long and too loud. But he’s also no Cody Jinks or Sturgill Simpson, and sometimes seems a little quick to want to take credit for all of his renegade behavior, when in truth he has been helped by country radio, awards shows, and other Music Row institutions, even if it’s not to the same level as some of his contemporaries.
In a recent feature in The Nashville Scene ahead of two sold out shows at Music City’s Bridgestone Arena, Eric Church explained his philosophical approach to music.
“Artists who have had success and are further on in their career, a lot of them get caught up in making good money,” he tells The Scene‘s Marissa R. Moss. “They keep doing their thing and not rocking the boat. But I’ve never had success that way. I’ve had success rocking the boat. And I see artists who try things and it doesn’t work — they probably made the right decision, but it just didn’t work — so they retreat, and start listening to other people and start trying to go back to the middle. It won’t work that way.”
“The more success I’ve had, the more I try to push the boundaries,” Church continues. “Not saying, ‘Well, “Springsteen” worked, so let’s do that again, let’s make a record of five radio singles with these four hit songwriters!’ I’ve not done that, and music would be better if more successful artists said, ‘Screw this, I have the clout, I can get stuff played, I can make the record I want and get it sold, so let’s go farther towards the Americana world or pushing the agenda.’ What happens is [country] becomes so homogenized, I can’t tell one new guy from another new guy or one new girl from another new girl.”
In the far ranging article, Eric Church also criticizes how music has strayed away from the traditional album. “We make a mistake, at least in Nashville, that it’s all about the EP, those three or four-song digital booklets,” Eric says. But is this really true of Nashville, and especially mainstream country music? Except for emerging acts, most, if not all Music Row artists still adhere to the album cycle. Miranda Lambert just released a double album, and one that many are couching as Americana-influenced. It’s independent artists who seem to have fallen in love with EP lately.
The article also has glowing words for Church from Ray Wylie Hubbard, who received a name drop on Mr. Misunderstood and recently played with Church at a show in Dallas. Rhiannon Giddens, who sings on Church’s “Kill A Word” (and also shares the same manager), has similar praise for Eric’s renegade attitude, as do other artists and industry professionals who praise Church’s independence. Church also talks about his fight against scalpers.
“It’s taking the power away from the entitled,” says Church. “It’s all about exclusivity, everywhere in this country. We’re trying to take that away, and make it about the people. Everyone is equal. You shouldn’t have to pay more for a ticket. You shouldn’t have to get the record last because of the critics or radio.”
And it’s hard to argue with any of the assertions Church makes. He has gone to bat for his fans against scalpers. He did find much of his success without the 100% support of radio, though he’s also found enough radio success to say it aided his ascent, and enough to where he can’t claim he did it all on his own. Eric Church is one of the good guys of the mainstream, or more like one of the bad guys who is willing to do good things inside a bad system.
But sometimes I just wish he would do these good deeds, and make the music he wants, and let the word trickle out organically as opposed to putting out press releases and patting himself on the back about every little thing and about how different he is. This is when I become suspicious that it’s all just part of a grand marketing scheme to re-integrate the disenfranchised country music fan back into the system so they don’t get too far afield and start buying all of their records from Bloodshot and Thirty Tigers.
Eric Church can be his own worst spokesman at times. But it’s not just about what Eric Church says, it’s also about what he does. He puts his money where his mouth is, and has been rewarded by his fans for it. But he’s still part of the Music Row system, even if he refuses to be a party to some of its most malevolent behavior, or know how to follow its rules. He’s more the Music Row enigma than he is the Music Row enemy.