Back in 2009, Eric Church was asked if he had any dream collaborations in mind, and he told the Post-Gazette, "I would love to sing or write a song with Bruce Springsteen."
Well, three years later, Mr. Church hasn't written, sung or even met the rock legend, but he did write a song about him. Actually, it's not even about him. "Springsteen" is about looking back at a teenage romance in which the Boss was the soundtrack. It's one of two No. 1 hits on "Chief," the country singer's breakout album, which topped the country and album charts when it was released in July 2011.
It's the fourth album from the North Carolina singer-songwriter who took his marketing degree from Appalachian State University to Nashville, where he became a songwriter for Sony in 2005. His experience playing in bars in college eventually scored him a record deal with Capitol Nashville for the 2006 debut "Sinners Like Me," which heralded an artist steeped in the music of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and the like. All Music Guide wrote, "If you look up the word 'authentic' in the dictionary, you just might see a picture of Eric Church."
With his second album, "Carolina," in 2009, he cracked the country Top 10 singles chart with "Love Your Love the Most" and "Hell on the Heart," while also making waves with a country-rocker called "Smoke a Little Smoke" that reinforced both his hard-partying and outlaw status.
With "Chief," which uses his grandfather's nickname, he's made the leap from gold to platinum status and to Grammy-nominated artist. It's a hard-edged country album that opens with the swamp-rocker "Creepin' " and includes such songs as "Jack Daniels," "Country Music Jesus," "I'm Getting Stoned" and "Homeboy," a provocative song about one brother pleading with another to get off the streets and return to his family.
Along the way, Mr. Church has become an artist who is accepted in multiple worlds. Along with sharing stages with Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert, he was invited to play Metallica's Orion Festival (as the only country act) and he'll take part in a tribute to the late Levon Helm next month.
On Sept. 5, news broke that he topped the list of CMA nominees with five including male vocalist and -- for "Springsteen" -- album, single, song and video of the year.
He talked to the Post-Gazette a day later, in advance of his Blood, Sweat and Beers tour coming to Consol Energy Center on Saturday.
Congratulation on your five CMA nominations. How did you react to the news?
I was beyond very surprised and on a couple different levels. I had been on vacation and lost my phone in the Gulf of Mexico, so I had no contact with the outside world. I had no clue there were even nominations being announced. I landed yesterday and when I got off the plane, my management company was there to pick me up, and they took me to their office. Everyone was waiting for me there. As I'm walking into this I thought I was in trouble or something. I didn't know what was going on. I was shocked not only to get the nominations but even to find they had taken place. It's even hard to describe for somebody like us, who for a lot of years was playing bars and clubs and even wondering if anybody was paying attention, and at times feeling like nobody was. And to go from that to being the most nominated act is really something. It's hard to put into words.
You've been positioned somewhat as an outlaw. Is this the establishment pulling you in?
I can say this honestly and truthfully: I'm thrilled that we got five nominations. If we got zero nominations, I would still do what we do. I can't make my focus awards and these things, but I have no control, so I try to control what I can control, which is making the best record we can make and making sure we put on the best live show, and whatever happens after that happens. I've never been one to put a lot of emphasis on that one way or another. It's not going to change me in any way musically.
When I look at your influences [which include Springsteen, The Band, Little Feat], it's interesting that you ended up in the country genre. In another era of rock singer-songwriters, you could have ended up more on that side of the fence.
There have been times when I thought maybe we belong more there. There was a time early on in our career where we were too rock for country and too country for rock. We were in this area where we didn't really know where we belonged. Make no mistake: I grew up on country music, and I can do you every [Kris] Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, all the way through the years, and I can even go into modern country.
When I was a kid it was impossible not to feel the influence of what Garth Brooks did. He brought country back from wherever it was at the time to the mainstream. He brought it back to the forefront, and it became a worldwide genre again. That's back in '88 to '92 or whatever. It was impossible not to feel that effect. When I went to college, I got into some more odd stuff. I listened to everything. I ended up playing in a band, four hours a night, six days a week. When you're gonna try to make money, you're going to listen to everything. I really got into The Band, Lowell George, Little Feat. I got into all the singer-songwriters, from John Prine to Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff [Walker], I could go all the way down the line. I was a little bit all over the place.
And it sounds like you're not a huge fan of current rock ...
No. There are bands that I like. I really like what The Black Keys do. And actually I played the Orion Festival, and I was really impressed with some of the acts. I liked Caged the Elephant. I liked Ghost, and I didn't even know of Ghost till I played the Orion Festival, they were impressive to me. It was one of those things. Some of that stuff is really cool. I just think rock went through a phase, where I'm not sure it really ... rocked. It got very emotional on me. And my favorite era of rock ... when I was alive ... a lot of people are going to point to the '70s, but for me being a kid, you think about AC/DC and they become somewhat the benchmark of what rock 'n' roll is. I mean, there's Metallica and some other bands, but as far as rock 'n' roll, AC/DC held it down as good as anybody. I measure sonically what other people have done to that.
What did it mean to you to get the letter from Springsteen praising the song?
Oh my God. More than anything in my career. It was one of those things where he's a guy that I revere. He's a guy where, it doesn't matter what kind of genre you listen to, there is no genre when it comes to Springsteen, and I've always respected and admired that. I've always respected how he's done his career, so to get a personal note from him on the back of a set list saying he's a fan of the song and that he hoped our paths crossed, just a really sweet note, it meant the absolute world to me and will always mean the world to me. I've got it in a safe place and I'm scared to pull it out and look at it, that's how much I revere it.
That song was track 9 on the album. Did you expect it to take off the way it did?
No. I knew it was a song that struck a chord, because it struck a chord with me. When I heard the song back the first time in the studio, I could immediately remember the first concert amphitheater [where the song is set], I could smell the grass, I was there. I knew if it could do that with me, it had a chance with everybody. I knew it was special. I just didn't know it would go on to be the hit it was. Nobody knows that. If they say that, they're lying to you. There's no way you ever know. You think it has maybe the qualities, but I've been wrong before, so for this one to strike the chord it did ... and it did immediately. We started the Blood Sweat and Beers Tour off in January, and that was the closing song. We started the tour with it at the very end, even before it went to radio.
I was talking to a long-lost relative recently and Springsteen came up. He said, "I like Springsteen, but he talks too much." I knew what that meant. It was like code. So, we're in an election year. What do you think of bringing politics into music?
I think it's the artist's prerogative. It's not something I do. I'm not a political person. Sometimes I feel like maybe that's a flaw. I feel like maybe I should not be as casual as I am, but I never have been real political. I guess I look at it sometimes, and I have a hard time telling the difference between them, with Democrats and Republicans. At least for me, it's just not something I'm terribly interested in. If an artist has an interest in that, I think it's their prerogative. That's what makes creative people creative people. They can write a song about it, talk about it, I think that's up to the artist. Is it something I would do? No, but that's just my personal thing and probably because I don't even know where I would try to fall. People keep talking about this election coming down to independent voters -- that's who I am. I'm there.
What kind of reaction are you getting to "Homeboy," because the YouTube comments are out of control?
Yeah, I was surprised by that. I was actually shocked to see how some of that was taken. As a songwriter, my job is to paint a picture, and the brush that we used to paint that picture was a littler brush. You can see the brother we're talking about, with "hip-hop hat and pants on the ground," we were painting a picture, and I'm proud actually that we didn't shy away from that. I was surprised by how racial some people went with it, because it just wasn't written that way. It was written about two brothers, and one stayed at home and one goes off. We could have used a different brush, I could have painted a different picture, but that's the one that seemed to play in society right now. When you talk about broken homes and you talk about drugs and you talk about inner city and you talk about those things that are going on, I think it's our job as songwriters, as artists, to look at what is going on socially and lay those things out there. When we did that, the furthest thing from our mind was that it would be taken the way some people took it. I still think you're dealing with a vocal minority, but I think there are people who think I had other intentions there.
I saw that you're playing a Levon Helm tribute in October. What did he mean to you?
It's kind of like Bruce. There are a few people in my life that really shaped me, musically. The Band was one of those acts. I was in college, and you're with a bunch of college kids, and nobody knows about them and it's like you have the greatest secret ever. You're listening to this band, and you say something to someone and they don't know who it is, and you're like, "You have to be kidding!" There was always something that was my go-to music, growing up ... The Band, Little Feat.
I have a little personal story as well. I got to go play the Ramble up there with him and sit down at his kitchen table and talk with him and play three hours with him, just the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and his band. Hundred people, I think is what that place holds, local people, just his barn, and we sat there and played music. To this day, it's my favorite gig we ever played. It reminded me why I got into this, which is just the music. I miss him terribly, but me missing him, I promise, will pale in comparison to the music world, because he's just one of those anchors and one of those compasses. His musical compass is better than anybody's.
You're playing the same night here as Steve Earle. I was wondering if he also had an influence on you, because in one of your songs I hear a little bit of "Copperhead Road."
Hell yeah! Absolutely. A huge influence. Still is. Talk about people who are real artists. I don't know what people do it better than him. [Expletive] yeah, I've borrowed a lot from him. Another guy like that, who was really genre-bending, was Dwight Yoakam. I think sometimes when you do your own thing, it puts you on an island at times. I know I've felt that way. I think that's what music is supposed to do, though. I think with Steve, he's a guy that will go down as one of the true innovators in music.
So, what plans do you have for the next album?
None right now. We're gonna go with another single, probably after "Creepin'." I'm just not in a hurry. I could make a record right now, but it wouldn't be the record we need to make. I'm really waiting on, creatively, just to start getting up every day and feeling that process start and having songs pop out, and wanting to pick up the guitar and wanting to create things. I'm just not there. Every now and then I dabble in it, but the fire's just not burning hot yet.
Well, you have a small child at home, so this would be the first time you've worked in that scenario.
Yeah, and people ask me that all the time: "How do you think it will change the music?" And I don't know. I don't know if it will. But I'm anxious to see. I'm as anxious as anybody else. But I'm going to let whatever's going to come out just come out.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published September 13, 2012 4:00 AM